China is planning an environmental makeover on the scale of the political, cultural and market revolutions it has pursued over the past six decades.
In his agreement last week with President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping committed to cap carbon emissions by 2030 and turn to renewable sources for 20 percent of the country’s energy.
His pledge would require China to produce either 67 times more nuclear energy than the country is forecast to have at the end of 2014, 30 times more solar or nine times more wind power – – almost as much non-fossil fuel energy the entire U.S. has in generating capacity. That means building roughly 1,000 nuclear reactors, 500,000 wind turbines or 50,000 solar farms. The cost will run to almost $2 trillion, holding out the potential of vast riches for nuclear, solar and wind companies that get in on the action.
“China is in the midst of a period of transition, and that calls for a revolution in energy production and consumption, which will to a large extent depend on new energy,” Liang Zhipeng, deputy director of the new energy and renewable energy department under the National Energy Administration, said at a conference in Wuxi outside of Shanghai this month. “Our environment is facing pressure and we must develop clean energy.”
By last year, China had already become the world’s largest producer of wind and solar power. Now, with an emerging middle class increasingly outspoken about living in sooty cities reminiscent of Europe’s industrial revolution, China is looking at radical changes in how its economy operates.
“China knows that their model, which has done very well up until recent times, has run its course and needs to shift, and they have been talking about this at the highest levels,” said Paul Joffe, senior foreign policy counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute.
Meeting the challenge is anything but assured. China has already run into difficulty managing its renewables. About 11 percent of wind capacity sat unused last year because of grid constraints, with the rate rising to more than 20 percent in the northern provinces of Jilin and Gansu, according to the China Renewable Energy Engineering Institute.
With its huge population, China is a country accustomed to eye-popping goals. Some have worked, such as the rapid growth and poverty reduction from the market reforms of the past two decades. Others, though, have exposed central planning run amok, such as Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s to collectivization and industrialization.
Xi sees no alternative to going big. “Letting children live in a good ecological environment is a very important part of the Chinese dream,” he said last week as he welcomed Asian leaders to a summit in Beijing. His words aren’t just lip service — pressure is building.
Protests over pollution at least three times this summer turned violent in Chinese cities. In Hangzhou, in the eastern part of the country, rioters overturned cars and set fire to police vehicles in May because of plans to build a waste incinerator near a residential neighborhood.
In the weeks leading up to last week’s APEC summit, China closed factories and limited traffic in Beijing so the air wouldn’t be offensive to visiting dignitaries. In the capital, 141 enterprises were asked to cut production from Nov. 3 to Nov. 11, according to the Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau. Xinhua News Agency said limits were placed on 3,900 plants in Hebei province and 1,953 firms in Tianjin city.
A government, previously focused on growth at all costs, has suddenly become sensitive to its environmental challenges, activists say.
Smog in Beijing and Shanghai made the authorities “realize that it has to take measures to rein in pollution, otherwise it will cause social discontent,” said Li Shuo, a climate policy researcher at Greenpeace East Asia. “Health is of immediate concern to everyone.”
The targets Xi announced alongside Obama have been hailed as a boost for negotiations at a United Nations conference beginning Dec. 1 in Lima, Peru. Envoys from more than 190 nations are seeking to craft a global pact that world leaders will sign next year in Paris.
For China to succeed, it will have to install the clean energy equivalent of Spain’s entire generating capacity each year until 2030, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance data. It has achieved that only once — last year.
“The fact is the Chinese government know they need to clean things up,” Martijn Wilder, head of the global environmental markets practice at law firm Baker & McKenzie, said by phone from Sydney. “China is a developing country. There are challenges, but those are rapidly being addressed.”
Electricity demand will rise 46 percent by 2020 and double by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. China currently depends on coal for two-thirds of its energy, more than any other Group of 20 country except South Africa.
The shift to renewables stands to benefit nuclear reactor makers including General Electric Co. and Areva SA, along with wind turbine manufacturers led by Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology Co. and Vestas Wind Systems A/S. It also provides expansion opportunities for China’s solar panel makers such as Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. and Trina Solar Ltd., the two biggest suppliers.
“China, as one of the world’s biggest energy consumers, must catch up as it lags behind other countries on energy security and energy supply diversification,” said Chen Kangping, chief executive officer of JinkoSolar Holding Co., China’s third-largest solar manufacturer.
In all, China will spend $4.6 trillion upgrading its power industry by 2040. Nuclear and renewables alone will garner $1.77 trillion in new investment, taking 79 percent of all the funding for power plants built in China, the IEA said in its World Energy Outlook on Nov. 12. Fossil fuels get the remaining share.
The nuclear industry is under tighter scrutiny after the Fukushima disaster and faces a manpower shortage. All those new reactors will require large uranium supplies and as many as 1,000 workers each, Credit Suisse Group AG said.
Much of the change will come from a different economic mix, said Joffe, of the World Resource Institute. China is already in the midst of a long-term “rebalancing” of its economy, shifting from a reliance on heavy industry to less energy- intensive service businesses, he said.