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No country for coal men: China’s Great Leap into renewables

Image credit: UN Geneva (Flickr: Creative Commons)

You may not have noticed, but last month marked a small but significant event in the history of global energy production. On 18 March, Chinese authorities closed the last major coal-fired power station on the outskirts of Beijing. The Huaneng Beijing Thermal Power Plant will now be kept as a reserve facility until it can be replaced with a gas-fired generator.

This move comes on the back of strong calls by Chinese leaders for renewed global efforts to combat climate change. Late last year, Xi Jinping emphasised China’s full commitment to ‘sustainable development and green, low-carbon and circular development’. Indeed, the Beijing plant closure was trumpeted by state media as a victory in an ongoing push for clean energy: Xinhua News Daily was quick to highlight the emissions reductions afforded by the move.

There are signs that the Chinese government is serious about backing its rhetoric with action: it is taking significant action to reduce its dependency on non-renewables. In 2017 alone, Chinese authorities cancelled 107 planned coal-fired plants. In addition, China is vastly expanding its investment in the renewables sector. One report projects that the government plans to inject $360 billion in funding, creating 13 million new jobs and ensuring half of China’s new energy is derived from clean sources.

Though this policy move appears to signal a new-found appreciation for high-minded principles of internationalism and environmental responsibility, it seems unlikely that such ideology has had much influence on China’s policy shift. Instead, this move is probably motivated almost entirely by pragmatism. China stands to gain a great deal of political and social advantage by making the switch to renewables.

The first of these advantages is domestic. The ruling Communist Party faces increasing popular dissent over its mishandling of environmental issues, and shutting polluting coal stations helps to silence its critics. This will have tangible benefits for China’s leadership: in recent years, spreading criticism of the regime—both online and in public—has been an increasing headache for China’s political masters. Popular protests continue to occur, despite government attempts to ban them. The government faced a major embarrassment with the 2015 viral spread of Under the Dome, a documentary chronicling the disastrous impact of air pollution on Chinese citizens. A broad effort against non-renewables softens this criticism and strengthens the Party’s claim to responsible national leadership.

This advantage comes with a tradeoff, however. Like so many other aspects of Chinese politics, there exists the potential for centre-versus-periphery tensions in this campaign. Outlying regional areas like Inner Mongolia, the Northeast and Xinjiang will be hit hard by a slump in demand. This could serve to exacerbate existing tensions caused by the ‘two-speed economy’ developing between the wealthy international cities of the eastern seaboard and the comparatively underdeveloped interior. The Party will need to find a way to offset the potential disruption that an increase in renewables would cause.

Another, perhaps more esoteric benefit is the increased health and wellbeing of Chinese citizenry. China faces rising health costs, and its lung cancer and other respiratory ailment rates are among the highest in the world. Long-term, a push to remove pollutants from the atmosphere will no doubt lift the burden on the Chinese healthcare system. A healthier and happier workforce could also lead to productivity increases, important for China’s slowing economic system.

Slashing coal dependency also provides China with an international reputational bonus. It enhances Beijing’s claim to responsible global citizenship, thereby offsetting the international impact of its militarisation and belligerent actions around its maritime boundary. Moving towards renewable energy production also allows China to take some of the moral high ground recently ceded by the US. Beijing can now argue that it has taken the lead in a significant way on a pressing global issue—something that a Trump-administered Washington is unable or unwilling to do. These two factors combined allow China to position itself as a global ‘good guy’—a state whose rise and development is to be welcomed rather than feared.

We should be cautiously optimistic about this Great Leap into renewable energy production. China’s energy policy shift represents an important step on the path to tackling the very real threats of climate change and massive industrial pollution. Beijing appears determined to follow through on its rhetoric despite rising energy demands and huge existing investment in coal-energy infrastructure. Though probably motivated by selfish reasons, this decision will hopefully demonstrate to other large, fast-developing countries—India, Indonesia and Brazil—that they too can take meaningful action.

Finally, it should spur developed countries into action. The US stands to lose much by allowing China to take the lead on this global policy issue, and would gain significant reputational benefit by undertaking similar major policy initiatives. For now, though, the world will be watching China, and hoping the transition is successful.

Rob Cullum is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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