Wind in China

On June 14, the State Council held a regular work session whose focus surprised nobody - controlling air pollution and facilitating the healthy development of China's solar sector. What was significant and symbolic though, was the fact that these two issues were put together in the same work session.

The coal problem represents a major environmental headache while solar provides a potential solution. Indeed, there appears to be tacit acknowledgement by China's top leaders that ensuring continued healthy development and expansion of the solar sector is essential to reducing China's over-reliance on coal.

The air pollution issue could not be a more obvious one for the new administration. In the first half of this year, many major Chinese cities registered historically high levels of air pollution. According to a recent survey commissioned by Greenpeace, nearly 70 percent of the public in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region are dissatisfied by the air quality. In addition, 92 percent of them consider the current timeline for this region to meet national air quality standard as being too long.

As the source and health implications of China's air pollution become increasingly clear, appropriate solutions are also emerging. Fundamentally, given that coal is responsible for more than 50 percent of China's PM 2.5 levels, reducing China's over-reliance on coal is paramount.

With the plans outlined by the State Council, the country is closer than ever to capping use in key coal-addicted regions. Shandong Province, China's single biggest coal-consuming province, has already published an air pollution reduction plan, which includes a target to reduce coal consumption by 20 million tons by 2017 from 2012 levels, and targeting peak coal consumption by 2015.

Last week, similar draft plans were announced for Hebei Province - a 40-million-ton reduction by 2017 from 2012 levels - and for Beijing and Tianjin - both 10-million-ton reductions during the same period.

Looking at the other key issue at the State Council work session, policymakers focused on the domestic and internal challenges of China's solar sector. The EU-China solar dispute means the domestic industry is risking losing its largest consumers.

Back at home, China's sluggish domestic photovoltaic market suggests a sharp contrast with its strong manufacturing capacity. Less than 10 percent of domestically made solar products are consumed within the country, making this young and promising industry highly vulnerable to international trade upheavals. To address this, the government is trying to build domestic demand for the solar photovoltaic sector by unleashing the potential of small scale distributed solar projects.

Messages are spreading that the proposed distributed solar feed-in tariff (FiT) will be adjusted to a higher level. Greenpeace is almost certain that we are counting down the days to when the new FiT will be officially released. While encouraging, the State Council also needs to realize the importance of renewable energy as the solution to the problem. While major Chinese cities are frequently enveloped by hazy air, their rooftops are a readily available resource to generate PM 2.5-free solar energy.

The government needs to push this clean energy agenda as hard as it addresses coal over-reliance. If this can be achieved, then we are probably on the verge of a Chinese energy revolution, as best summed up by the German word energiewende. The word implies not only a sense of transition, but also a complete "turnaround."

For the government and the people in this country, a once-in-a-decade window of opportunity is unfolding before them. Never before has the true cost of dirty coal ever been clearer to them, and never before have the real social-economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy been more apparent.

Many key challenges remain, but from a distance, the funeral bells for coal are tolling while morning bells for renewables chime louder.

Image: Fields surround the Datang Saihanba Wind Farm in Chifeng, China. © Simon Lim / Greenpeace