Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Giant in the East Paves a New Green FutureChina's Rise as the New Leader in Renewable Energy

By Eric LeePublished November 19, 2018

Forbidden City, Beijing, PRC
With America's de facto abdication from global leadership in the transition away from fossil fuels, China takes the mantle as the new leader in renewable energy production.

    As this past election season has shown, the petroleum lobby once again mustered all its political and financial forces to maintain a pro-business, climate change-denying Republican majority in the Senate. With over $400 million in reported funds having gone into financing right-wing candidates that will continue to do big oil’s bidding, the future of green energy seems bleak in America; moreover, as the current administration incapacitates the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and strips away the previous president’s legacy in fighting global warming and climate change, it goes without saying that America can no longer be the leader in the fight for renewables and a green future.

In contrast to the United States which no longer puts forth a strong enough environmental platform, China has risen up to the challenge by tripling its investment in solar over the last three years. Indeed, for every dollar that the US spends on renewables, China puts in almost triple. And with nearly half of the world’s $280 billion in investment in renewables last year coming from the People’s Republic alone, renewable energy sources have become more prevalent in China as government-funded public works and subsidies for industrial production make everything from hydroelectric (in the form of dams) to solar (in the form of photovoltaic cells) more affordable and widespread. Furthermore, in the government’s most recent five-year plan, China has made it a clear aim to transition away from coal and oil—among other nefarious energy sources. This national dedication to pragmatism and the respect China has shown for the hard reality that human activity is causing the climate to change starkly contrasts with the American body politic in Washington where legislators have literally thrown snowballs in the chambers of Congress to prove how “global warming is a hoax.”

Now, there is most definitely a case to be made for America’s continued role in the development of renewables and a green future. America (along with Germany), after all, is home to one of the most—if not, the most—vibrant private sectors in the whole world. However, we must also recognize how the federal government’s indifference toward renewables and support for oil will foster an environment that limits renewable energy’s potential. Of course, America is going to continue to see more solar power plants and wind farms go up all across its territory—especially in places like the West Coast (California, in particular) and Hawaii where renewables are extremely popular. However, without the federal government’s full support, the United States will most likely be surpassed in size (and, in some cases, even quality) by China and other actors in renewable energy. As of now, China is already experiencing huge economic gains by partnering—ironically enough—with American actors, as Apple, an American tech company, proceeds with a plan this year to launch a whopping $300 million clean energy fund to invest in Chinese solar and wind.

Admittedly, China’s form of central planning and dirigisme have its drawbacks and inefficiencies. For instance, due to the government over-subsidizing photovoltaics production in the last couple of years, both the domestic and international markets for solar cells have been oversaturated with cheap Chinese products whose abnormally low prices and high supply make the industry lose competitiveness as a whole. Furthermore, because of such cheap availability of Chinese photovoltaic cells, European and American regulators have stamped tariffs on Chinese solar products to stop imports and even the Chinese themselves have become extremely wasteful: cheap prices have disincentivized many from recycling the cells after usage.

However, despite evidence to the contrary, we do see progress in the Middle Kingdom, as shown by the improved air quality these days in the streets of metropolitan Beijing and the government’s efforts in tandem with both the public and private sectors to secure investment in renewables. Currently, China is already on track to meet the greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets set by the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2016. Finally, with its leadership in multilateral projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is even assisting other developing states by transferring technology and expertise that allow them to build and grow economically without relying too heavily on dirtier energy sources like coal and petroleum that countries in the past traditionally depended on to develop. So, while the United States will probably continue to make inroads into renewables and while we will see progress coming out of places like Silicon Valley and the Sun Belt where solar, for example, is a burgeoning industry, it is doubtful whether America can truly lead internationally in this area.

Works Cited

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