Decoding China’s Renewable Strategy: A Closer Look at Climate Pledges

In the midst of the COP28 UN climate negotiations, a notable absence caught attention as China, a global leader in renewable energy, refrained from signing the international pledge to triple renewables. While the target seems attainable, Chinese experts emphasize the formidable challenge of doubling energy efficiency, shedding light on the intricacies of China’s decision and the delicate balancing act between environmental aspirations and economic realities. Explore the key dynamics that shape China’s stance on the global climate stage in this insightful article.

Key Takeaways: 
1. China’s Strategic Silence: China, a renewable energy leader, opted not to sign the global pledge, signaling a strategic stance that prompts scrutiny and questions surrounding the decision.
2. Renewables Triumph, Efficiency Challenge: The global push to triple renewable power capacity gains traction, yet the spotlight is on China’s reluctance due to the formidable challenge of doubling energy efficiency, posing a critical hurdle.
3. Balancing Act: China faces the intricate task of aligning environmental commitments with economic realities, highlighting the delicate balance required for nations navigating the complexities of global climate pledges.

China's renewable energy landscape illustrated with windmills, showcasing challenges and strategies in the global climate action narrative.

Decoding China’s Stand: the Challenges Behind the Decision Not to Sign the Global Pledge for Tripling Renewables

Energy efficiency, defined as the size of an economy divided by its energy use, poses a unique dilemma for China. Despite commendable progress in curbing the energy required for each unit of GDP, commonly known as “energy intensity,” sustaining an annual 4% reduction until 2030 proves to be an arduous task. The crux of the matter lies in China’s economic landscape, still heavily reliant on energy-intensive sectors like heavy industry. As the world watches, the intricate dance between progress and challenge unfolds on the global stage of climate action.

 Renewables Target: Attainable Milestones

The ambitious tripling goal set by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), outlined in the World Energy Transitions Outlook 2023, has ignited a spark of optimism in the global pursuit of climate action. This pivotal report stipulates that to curtail global heating and limit the rise to 1.5°C, renewable power capacity must triple by 2030. Anchored in a baseline of 3,400 gigawatts (GW) at the close of 2022, the task at hand translates to a monumental requirement of 11,000 GW by the decade’s end.

The G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, unveiled three months after the IRENA report, solidified this target, marking a crucial consensus among nations, including China. As a G20 member, China committed not only to the tripling of renewable energy capacity but also to expediting the reduction of unabated coal power. In a recent milestone, China and the US jointly announced the Sunnylands Statement, reinforcing their dedication to climate action. The agreement explicitly declared their support for the G20 Leaders Declaration, aiming to triple global renewable energy capacity by 2030 and accelerate renewable energy deployment in their respective economies.

Notably, the tripling target doesn’t uniformly apply to all nations, recognizing the varying development speeds among them. In 2022, China emerged as a frontrunner in renewables, leading the pack alongside the US, Brazil, and India. Even with China boasting three times the renewable capacity of the US, achieving a tripling of renewables capacity presents no insurmountable hurdle.

Under scrutiny of experts, employing a 2020 baseline of 934 GW suggests that China’s aim of reaching 2,800 GW of renewables capacity by 2030 is not only plausible but anticipated. Dr. Yang Fuqiang, a senior advisor to Peking University’s Climate Change and Energy Transition Program, echoes this sentiment, foreseeing figures ranging from 2,800 to 3,000 GW.

Speaking at a COP28 side event, Wang Yi, deputy chair of the National Expert Committee on Climate Change, reassured the audience, stating, “The current tripling target is a global endeavor. If China were to embark on this journey, focusing solely on non-hydropower renewables with a 2022 baseline of 800 gigawatts, tripling to 2,400 gigawatts by 2030 is indeed a challenging task, but one that is well within our reach.” The journey towards a sustainable future unfolds, guided by attainable milestones and shared determination.

Navigating the Energy Efficiency Conundrum

The omission of China and India, titans in renewable energy production as the first and fourth-largest generators, from the recent climate pledge is an intriguing twist, potentially traced back to the amalgamation of the headline goal to triple renewables with the formidable task of doubling energy efficiency. Experts suggest that these nations, wary of overcommitting and facing international scrutiny, opted for caution in navigating the delicate balance between ambitious promises and pragmatic outcomes.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) offers a stark reality check, revealing that achieving a global doubling of energy efficiency demands an annual 4 percent reduction in energy intensity or an overall decrease of 32 percent from 2022 levels by 2030. Among G20 members, only China, Japan, France, the UK, and Indonesia have managed a consistent 4 percent decline over any consecutive five-year period, underscoring the magnitude of the challenge.

Professor Teng Fei from Tsinghua University’s Institute of Energy, Environment, and Economy paints a vivid picture, likening IRENA’s call for China to achieve this goal to “whipping a willing ox.” While China has achieved commendable 4 percent reductions in energy intensity over the past decade, sustaining this rate poses a formidable task. The nuanced shift in China’s approach to peak carbon, emphasizing energy saving and emissions reductions over “dual controls” on energy intensity and total energy consumption, reflects an evolving strategy.

However, challenges abound. The pandemic’s impact disrupted the energy landscape, with less energy-intensive sectors bearing the brunt while overall energy consumption grew by 2.9 percent, primarily fueled by a 4.3 percent increase in coal consumption. As a result, energy intensity for 2022 remained virtually unchanged from the previous year, dropping by a mere 0.1 percent.

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), highlights China’s focus on large-scale clean energy deployment while grappling with the dilemma of curbing energy demand growth. The prospect of agreeing to the global tripling goal is feasible, but the energy efficiency target poses a more formidable challenge.

Professor Sun Yongping from Huazhong University of Science and Technology emphasizes the pivotal role of improving the electrification rate in reducing China’s energy intensity. A faster restructuring of the economy, particularly in regions like the east coast, could bring the energy efficiency target within reach.

As the world awaits China’s stance on these pivotal targets, the intricate dance between challenges and solutions unfolds, shaping the narrative of global climate action.