Beijing’s Haze Makes a Climate U-Turn Unlikely After Trump

  • China is world’s biggest clean-energy market by capacity
  • President Xi Jinping has vowed crackdown on worst polluters

People wear masks on a polluted day in Beijing on Nov. 18.

Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Beijing’s air quality fell short of national standards on 179 days last year. That’s one reason why the world’s biggest coal consumer is likely to stick with its plan to clean up its energy supply -- regardless of what President-elect Donald Trump does in the U.S.

“At the current stage of China’s economic growth, the industries and the models that the nation has developed all face constraints related to the environment and resources,” said Xuan Xiaowei, a senior research fellow at a government think tank called the Development Research Center of the State Council. “Environmental pollution is so serious. Can it work without green development?”

Pollution in many Chinese cities is bad

By any account, China must curb environmental pollution to keep its public happy. About 80 percent of the 338 Chinese cities regularly monitored by the environment ministry failed to meet official standards last year, the ministry says. Resentment about worsening pollution has created cottage industries of everything from smartphone applications to low-cost monitoring devices to keep track of air quality.

Responding to a groundswell of public anger about smog levels, China’s president, Xi Jinping, threatened in 2015 to punish polluters with an "iron hand." He also promoted green energy.

“The government has placed a very high priority on measures to help curb pollution,” said Dong Liansai, a Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner.

China’s investment in renewables is huge and growing

China has been the biggest clean-energy investor since 2012, spending $384.7 billion in that period on clean sources of energy such as wind and solar power. And it’s holding onto that lead. According to data compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China invested $48.1 billion in new clean energy projects so far this year, compared with $9.6 billion in Japan and $32.6 billion in the U.S.

China accounted for $21.9 billion of the $61.1 billion in global green bond sales this year, data compiled by Bloomberg show. China, which in 2015 sold less than $1 billion of the debt whose proceeds are earmarked for environmental projects, is accelerating regulation to channel funds toward reducing pollution, Moody’s Investors Service said in a recent report.

The results of all that spending are gradually beginning to appear. Coal accounted for 64.4 percent of total energy consumption last year, down 1.7 percentage points from the previous year while the share of non-fossil fuels rose by 0.8 percentage points to 12 percent, the government said in January.

"Investing in cleaner energy will help China to gain economic benefits and improve the transition of its energy structure," said Zheng Xinye, associate dean at the School of Economics at the Renmin University of China in Beijing.

China’s companies would have lots to lose from a green U-turn

China accounts for nine of the world’s 10 biggest solar manufacturers, according to BNEF data. Almost eight out of every 10 panels worldwide are made in the country.

Since 2012, China’s solar capacity has surged more than sevenfold, while wind has almost doubled amid a push by the nation to generate 15 percent of its power from renewable energy and nuclear by 2020, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. China surpassed Germany as the country with the most installed solar capacity after record additions last year. The country’s total wind capacity was almost double that of the U.S. in 2015.

“Global warming is actually happening, no matter who the president is,” said Qian Jing, a vice president of Chinese solar-panel maker JinkoSolar Holding Co. “No matter how the U.S.’s climate policies change, China should take the lead.”

China’s push to develop renewables has lifted many companies, creating huge global players. Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co. installed the most wind power in the world in 2015, becoming the first Chinese company to take the top spot in Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s global onshore-wind rankings. Trina Solar Ltd. became the world’s largest solar panel-maker in 2014. The Changzhou, China-based company also says it’s setting records with its technology, saying in October that it reached a record 19.86 percent efficiency for a low-cost form of polysilicon module.

China’s climate negotiators undeterred by skeptics or backlash

China’s leadership in climate negotiations was on full display over the past two weeks at United Nations climate talks when ministers and government officials from almost 200 countries gathered in Marrakech, Morocco.

While Trump’s past assertion that global warming is a hoax created by China to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive left many delegates obsessing over what future role the U.S. will play, China pressed ahead with the case to take action on global warming.

Xi then told leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru on Saturday that he aimed to boost global trade and provide a level playing field for foreign companies. Days earlier, Beijing indirectly chided Trump for his views on global warming, which the president-elect has called a Chinese hoax to hurt U.S. manufacturing.

“Why not keep supporting green development?" said Sophie Lu, head of China research for London-based BNEF. "If China stays green, it maintains both moral leadership abroad and helps to support" green industries, which it dominates.

China’s domestic economy is restructuring and its investment into more coal capacity doesn’t make money any more, said BNEF’s Lu. "Instead, it needs to focus on new economy sectors, which depends on happy or productive workers living in healthy and clean cities."

— With assistance by Feifei Shen

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