By backing off the US commitment to address climate change, President Donald Trump leaves an opening for a chief economic rival, China, to expand its increasing dominance in the renewable energy industry. In reacting to Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accord, China reaffirmed its commitment to the landmark agreement and is poised to spend heavily in coming years on renewables.
Here’s a look at some of the trends and challenges that could shape China’s, and the world’s, energy future.
Beijing’s commitment to curbing pollution
China’s rush to renewables has been driven largely by local pollution from power plants and factories that frequently blankets Beijing and other major cities, endangering public health and driving some residents overseas. Economic opportunity has also played a role, with massive investments in solar and wind helping dramatically drive down the cost for renewables worldwide.
Energy still dominated by coal
Notwithstanding China’s embrace of renewables, coal still dominates the nation’s fuel mix, accounting for 62% of total energy consumption in 2016. Coal production fell over the past several years, with a slowing economy as one factor.
In January, China announced the suspension or cancellation of plans to build an additional 100 coal-fuelled power plants. Yet dozens more are still expected to be built and China’s also bankrolling plants in other countries. It’s by far the largest consumer of coal worldwide, producing 3.41b tonnes of the fuel last year, more than four times the volume in the US, the second largest coal consumer. Largely as a result, China is also the top emitter of greenhouse gasses blamed for worsening climate change.
Converting coal to gas
Coal has suffered a steep and sustained decline in the US since cheap, abundant supplies of cleaner-burning natural gas supplanted it as the main fuel for power generation. China’s gas supplies are far more limited, hurting its prospects as a replacement fuel.
One option that’s being pursued in the country’s western provinces is to convert coal into synthetic natural gas. That could help curb air pollution blamed for urban smog and, researchers say, potentially stave off tens of thousands of premature deaths annually.
But converting coal to gas would also produce more of the carbon dioxide that’s the main driver behind climate change, first in manufacturing the gas and again in burning it. Meanwhile, the renewables boom has proven too much for China’s electricity grid to fully absorb, causing some energy to go to waste.