China’s renewable energy boom offers hope on climate change

A Chinese dragon between wind turbines
Graphic: Sean Creighton/The Progress Playbook

New data releases show how China has cemented its position as the undisputed world leader in renewable energy installations and electric vehicle sales.

Why it matters: The world cannot avoid the worst impacts of climate change unless the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases — China and the US — make rapid shifts to clean energy.

The latest: China is on track to install a staggering 230 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar this year. That’s more than double the new capacity being added in the US and Europe, according to a report by Wood Mackenzie.

This estimate follows a new analysis showing that China’s carbon dioxide emissions will most likely fall in 2024 and enter a long-term structural decline thereafter, thanks to the country’s unrivalled adoption of clean energy.

As of October, China has 536GW of installed solar PV capacity and 404GW of wind, per the energy bureau.

Behind the numbers: “China announced its 2060 carbon neutral target in 2020 and since then has been quietly reorganising the entire power sector to support rapid electrification and expansion of renewables,” says Alex Whitworth, head of Asia Pacific power and renewables research at Woodmac.

“As we came out of Covid-19 lockdowns this year, it’s impressive to see how far ahead China really is.”

While the government previously incentivised renewable energy investments through a subsidy programme, that’s no longer necessary thanks to dramatic falls in the cost of solar and wind technologies.

Prices have plummeted due to intense competition between domestic solar and wind suppliers, as well as government support for research & development programmes and manufacturing.

As a result, the country withdrew preferential feed-in tariffs for renewables projects in 2022.

The state is redirecting much of that budget towards grid investments, including power lines that extend deep into inland China, where solar and wind resources are best and population densities relatively low.

At the same time, China has ramped up its focus on grid-connected energy storage. According to Woodmac’s tally, storage capacity has reached 67GW, and should get to 300GW by 2030.

The coal question: Although wind and solar are the main drivers of new capacity, China is still permitting new coal-fired power plants, raising concern that it’ll lock in new sources of emissions for decades.

But Woodmac notes that policies have been introduced to ensure new coal plants are used as a source of back-up power, rather than an always-on solution.

These “flexible plants” burn less coal and are designed to inject power into the grid only when needed.

Due to the surge in renewables, and the new role for coal, the share of the dirtiest fossil fuel in the electricity mix continues to fall. Coal’s contribution has declined 10 percentage points over the past five years, to 55%.

Further, Woodmac adds that China has introduced new policies to reduce electricity demand and move some consumption away from peak hours, when the contribution of solar is lowest. That includes higher peak pricing and a target for 50-80 GW of “virtual power plants” by 2025.

Meanwhile, 5.4 million plug-in vehicles were sold in China in the first nine months of 2023. That equates to 36% of all vehicle sales.


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