Eastern Promise

China's push for a renewable energy future

Feature Story - 2004-04-07
Take a minute to consider the following. What if the world's most populous nation had the necessity-driven willpower to develop the massive uptake of renewable energy like wind and solar power to offset the catastrophic effects of climate change and to secure clean, safe, abundant energy for 1.3 billion people?

It's not a 'what if', this is the new reality in this huge rapidly developing country. China is uniquely positioned, with its size, population and leadership of the developing world, to forge the way for the massive development of its abundant renewable energy resources in provinces such as Guangdong for wind and Xinjiang for solar.

Ahead of last month's National People's Congress (NPC) the talk was of ending the 'cult of GDP' and of a 'Green GDP' which factors in the environmental costs of economic development. The energy sector is key to this. China is seeking more aggressively to curb pollution and address rapidly growing energy demands. The 2003 NPC ordered the drafting of a Renewable Energy Promotion Law by the end of 2004. All of which signals the intent of the Chinese government to draw in the massive amounts of clean energy investments and financing waiting to be tapped from strong advocates of renewable energy like the EU.

This week sees two further examples of China's intent. Earlier this week a high level EU-China Conference on Renewable Energy Policy and Financing took place in Beijing. Beijing is currently hosting Renewable Energy Asia 2004, running from 7th-9th April. This is both a landmark industry event and a great indicator of political intent as it is supported and endorsed by many central government and international agencies.

Greenpeace was invited to erect a booth and to deliver a presentation at the exhibition and we have an international team of energy experts from China, UK, Philippines and the Netherlands at the event. The fact that we have been invited shows the seriousness and deepening engagement of the Chinese government with elements of the environmental sector of civil society and that Greenpeace's relevance in China has been recognised.

The reception Greenpeace received at and around the event was overwhelming. In the words of Red, one of the breathless Greenpeacers who has just returned from the exhibition, "it was inspiring and a very clear indication of the support that Renewable Energy has as the solution to climate change, and of the role that Greenpeace can play".

Greenpeace's climate campaign efforts were warmly received and our exhibition booth was inundated with visitors from officialdom, industry, academia and the media. Several officials working on Beijing Olympics 2008 projects demanded that we call them back, and the Dean of Beijing's University of Technology told us that it was time for Greenpeace and China's academia to work together on renewable energy.

Our team in Beijing are all back in the office now taking a well earned rest, especially Robin and Donna from the UK and Yu Jie from China. Robin is recovering from the experience of being interviewed by China's state broadcaster, CCTV, as he's just had his mind blown away on hearing the viewership figures. He's also recuperating after slopping hot tea over an official at a dinner the previous night, although the only burning was on Robin's blushing red cheeks. Donna can now put her laptop away after 'blogcasting' from the exhibition. Yu Jie, who only started working with Greenpeace one week ago, was both amazed at the experience, and amazing in the work she carried out in a short timeframe to prepare for the event. To close her presentation at the exhibition, Yu Jie showed two Chinese characters - one meaning danger (equalling climate change) and the other, opportunity (equalling renewable energy). She followed this with the statement "the government of China has clearly recognised the problem of climate change and is taking steps to push for solutions, so is Greenpeace - we should work together".

This support from the top for renewable energy development in China is driven by the need to secure indigenous energy sources for the nation's huge population and growing economy. China is committed to avoiding the environmental costs of a burgeoning economy that some other nations have failed to. Contrast this with the current US Administration's view of the Kyoto Protocol. The US continues to promote its bogus 'alternative', and Russia's dithering threatens the protocol's future, while disappearing sea ice, melting glaciers, floods, famine and drought lend new urgency to the need for action on climate.

The technologies are ready, the industry is growing, but clear government commitments in the form of targets to generate financial confidence and investment, from the EU and US in particular, are critical. Conventional energy sources worldwide benefit from subsidies worth around US$350 billion annually. That's US$350 billion a year to destroy the planet and that doesn't include the human, environmental or financial costs of the damage done. Just imagine if those subsidies for dirty, dangerous energy were switched to developing clean, safe, secure, renewable energy resources in China, India, Brazil and Mexico.

China's energy consumption is huge and the challenges the central government face in providing energy to its people and industry is mind-blowing. But, if China follows the same development pattern as the west the problem will become much worse. China could lead the world.

If China does adopt large scale renewable energy production, this will boost worldwide markets, speed up technological advances and allow China to not only tip the balance of the global market, but of our planet's ecological equilibrium as well.