China burns up the clean energy race, by Sunserae Smith

Although China dominates in the race to be the leading global manufacturer of clean renewable energy, they are not necessarily doing the most for the environment. China, consistently pushing the clean energy market towards an economic future, was expected to be a leading developing country in negotiations at Rio+20. As they lap the United States and world economies in this race by training a skilled clean energy workforce and providing steep subsidies, more and more manufacturing companies are heading overseas. The US simply cannot compete. If the US does not demonstrate a greater sense of urgency to contrive alternative clean energy policies coupled with investment initiatives, it will fall further behind economically.

In 2009, China — aspiring to achieve 30 gigawatts (GW) of wind power by 2020 — became the world’s largest producer of wind turbines. In addition, they have emerged as the top competitor of solar panel manufacturing and have yet to look back. Simultaneously they are building nuclear reactors and more efficient coal power plants. In 2010, China surpassed the US as the largest manufacturing nation, a title the US claimed for more than 110 years. In response to the rapid growth of China’s renewable energy market, transnational corporations have been building factories throughout the country. For example, Vestas of Denmark has built the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturing complex in Beijing. According to the Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association, this rapid movement of clean energy has also boosted China’s economy, accounting for 1.12 million jobs by 2008, with at least 100,000 jobs added each year.

It is evident there is a clean energy race, with jobs, leadership and economies on the line. Is it bad for the rest of the world to lag behind China? If we have learned one thing from Rio+20, it is that the transformation of the world to a smarter, more prosperous, more sustainable economy is complicated and a difficult challenge for any country, industry and community. One country cannot efficiently master adaptation alone, and thus there’s no one clear winner in the race. Brian Murray, the director for economic analysis at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, described the complexities and details contributed in these projects:

“The value chain for clean energy is complex; it is not a simple issue of ‘Made in America’ or ‘Made in China.’ There are several links in the chain. Each of these links has forms of specialization that may distribute the value across countries. For example, a wind turbine now operating in the state of Pennsylvania is a complex combination of basic scientific knowledge of aerodynamics developed by a German scientist, Albert Metz, in 1919, embodied in a foundation, tower, and blades, which together consist of thousands of components produced and assembled all over the world. The turbine is installed onsite primarily by U.S. labor, and the electricity it generates is distributed through a domestically produced electric power grid to Pennsylvania factories, commercial buildings, and households.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge in this race is for the US to create a rational and coherent national energy policy.  At Rio+20, the US demonstrated an inability to accept that the jobs and industries needed to preserve its nation for tomorrow are now rooted beyond its borders. The US is behind in developing clean energy manufacturers. In 2008, the Massachusetts-headquartered Evergreen Solar used governmental aid of $58 million to open a new Massachusetts factory to build silicon wafers and cells, and to create an assemblage of solar panels. In 2009, it was announced the factory would now be moved to Wuhan, China because solar panel manufacturing there would be much cheaper.

The elephant in the room for China however, is coal. Coal is one of the largest air polluters, causing smog, soot, acid rain, global warming and toxic air emissions. Racing to meet additional energy needs from the country’s population growth, China is adding coal plants daily. This means that while China aims to have at least 8 per cent electricity generation come from renewable energy by 2020, coal will still represent two-thirds of China’s capacity in 2020, which means any positive gains for the environment will probably be little.

Rio+20 demonstrated itself to be a platform to educate businesses, politicians and civil society across the world on the status of coherent and diverse energy portfolios that have enhanced economies, not just in the US or China. However, while China may have an integrated, long-term energy strategy, the US does not. With little ambition in US portfolios, this significantly limits innovation and technology - necessary components for our economies to prosper and reach a balanced spreadsheet. Although the US claims it wants to capitalize on this growing clean renewable energy industry, China is actually doing it. Perhaps countries could benefit from keeping their enemies closer and overlapping their strengths so everyone crosses the finish line before Rio+40.

Sunserae Smith is a graduate student at Columbia University in the Environmental Science and Policy program under The Earth Institute. She is on the board of the Columbia University Coalition for Sustainable Development and attended the recent Rio Conference on Sustainable Development. Her post on China’s energy policies first appeared on the Student Reporter blog site.

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