China: Black turning green?

Photo courtesy of Jacques Bron


Coinciding with the China Development Forum in Beijing, the Insights blog is focusing on China this week 

Viewed from the hilltops of Hong Kong island, the city’s harbour can look as stunning as this. All too often, it looks more like this. Sandstorms in northern China are partly to blame for this week’s record-breaking smog. But smoke and fumes belched out by factories on the Chinese mainland haven’t helped. 

Indeed, across China, sooty skies are a daily and dangerous reminder of the price of economic progress. Four years ago, the World Bank estimated that 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities were in China. 

But a strange paradox: Just as China’s skies are turning blacker, its energy production is becoming greener. The country has set itself a target of producing 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, and that goal has unleashed massive investment in green energy, turning China into the world’s biggest market for renewables. The result, as journalist Christina Larson notes, is that “China may soon be simultaneously the greenest and the blackest place on earth.” 

China’s great green push is showing up in several areas of the economy, including the development of a high-speed rail network and huge construction of wind farms – according to some estimates, the country’s wind capacity has doubled every year for the past four years. Investors outside China have taken note: U.S. billionaire Warren Buffet has bought 10% of battery and carmaker BYD, while Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing is taking a stake in another battery maker, Jia Sheng. 

Away from such high-profile names, green power is taking root in other ways. China produces about 10 million electric bicycles and scooters every year. Bus rapid transport, or BRT, a cross between a bus and a metro system, is making inroads in dozens of Chinese cities. And, less officially, shanzhai (“homemade” or “knockoff”) electric cars are becoming a familiar site on the streets of China’s numerous smaller cities. Cheap and cheerful, the cars cost between $2000 and $3000 and can be charged from a regular household socket. 

Inevitably, China’s headlong rush into renewable means mistakes have been made. “When you go to being the No. 1 market in just five years, you can expect a few growing pains,” comments Dr Jiang Lin of the China Sustainable Energy Program in San Francisco. According to some estimates, around 30% of wind turbines are not properly connected to the grid. There have also been problems in choosing the right sites for wind farms, says Dr. Lin, and the entry of so many new operators means too little thought has been given to creating standards. 

“Chinese entrepreneurs are very energetic, but they don’t always think through every detail before acting,” says Dr. Lin. “They’re juggling so many balls in the air that one or two may get dropped.” Nevertheless, he’s confident that the race to go green will allow China to meet its targets and help it become a world leader in renewable energy technologies. “People view this as a brand new market with great potential,” he says, “and the possibility to create intellectual property that can be sold.” 

Useful links 

OECD work on China, including a report on eco-innovation

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站(中文) 

OECD Insights: Sustainable Development 

OECD work on climate change and green growth

IEA work on climate change and transport

China Sustainable Energy Program factsheet 

Photos by Jacques Bron

Brian Keeley

Leave a Reply