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China’s clean energy lead should be Australia’s call to action

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On the edges Gobi desert, electricians are putting the final touches to Climate Bridge’s 10MW Jinta solar project. In Hunan province, engineers are negotiating with the difficult terrain to erect the final wind turbines of the Tiantang Mountain 50MW wind power project.

Across China, a clean energy revolution is occurring, with more wind farms, hydropower plants and biomass facilities being built than anywhere else on earth.

Back in Australia, China is often perceived as a laggard in terms of climate action. Politicians use this perception of China as an excuse for delaying domestic political action. Individuals ask ‘what is the point?’ of reducing their own carbon footprints, when ‘dirty’ China is belching out greenhouse gases without limit.

However, as demonstrated by the recent Climate Bridge report ‘Carbon Markets and Climate Policy in China: China’s pursuit of a clean energy future”, released in collaboration with the Climate Institute, these excuses are no longer valid. China is taking ambitious measures to tackle climate change.

Renewable energy champion

In renewable energy, China is already arguably the world leader. China now has the largest installed capacity of wind turbines in the world, with 30 times more operating capacity than that in Australia. As for solar, China is the world’s largest producer of solar modules, exporting some AUS$36bn worth of solar products last year alone.

In the energy efficiency realm, China’s action between 2005 and 2010 brought about 1.3bn tonnes of emission reductions according to a recent Tsinghua/Climate Policy Initiative paper. Moreover, 72.1GW of inefficient, carbon intensive coal plants were closed, a larger amount of capacity than the entire Australian grid.

The Chinese authorities are also establishing innovative market-based solutions. Most notably, China is rapidly establishing a carbon pricing mechanism. Starting next year, China will establish pilot emission trading systems in seven major cities and provinces, which collectively will be the second largest emissions trading scheme in the world by coverage, double the size of the Australian ETS. The lessons learned from these pilot schemes will inform the establishment of a nationwide scheme, which is likely to be the world’s largest.

Strong domestic support for climate action

As a leading carbon project developer in China, Climate Bridge’s engineers on the ground witness the positive steps that China is taking to build a clean energy future. We also observe the strong support our 180 emission reduction projects receive from both the public and the local government.

The government and public accept the climate science, with 94% of Chinese citizens stating in a recent poll that their government should place the highest priority on addressing climate change, compared to 73% globally. Moreover local governments realise the positive role of clean energy can have by creating jobs, generating export opportunities and helping to tackle local air pollution.

Officials in China are grabbing the green economy opportunity with both hands.  China is taking action on climate change for largely self-interested and strategic reasons. As well as creating jobs, energy security is a major concern for the Chinese government, and renewable energy reduces reliance on foreign energy imports. Avoiding dangerous climate change is also high on the priority list for Chinese officials. China is particularly vulnerable to changes in climate. It has 22% of the world’s population but only 7% of its arable land. Its water resources are already stretched. Finally, by being proactive on climate change, China improves its global reputation, and improves its negotiating position on the world stage.

Australia’s call to action

For Australia, the realisation that it is being soundly beaten by China in the global clean technology race should be a call to action. Seemingly endless political bickering and continued political uncertainty mean that Australia risks falling behind the competition in the race to acquire market share in the emerging and highly lucrative global clean energy industry. Australia’s plentiful renewable resources are such that it should be grabbing the opportunity to be a world leader in green jobs, export opportunities and low-carbon innovation. Instead China is racing ahead, whilst our politicians bicker.

Australian businesses who assume inaction from China on climate are taking a huge gamble on a high carbon status quo. The carbon pricing mechanism is a fantastic first step for Australia. However, Australia now needs the kind of decisive action that the Chinese authorities are showing, in order to demonstrate that Australia is truly committed to a low carbon future, and to ensure that Australia does not fall irreparably behind the rest of the world in the global clean energy race.

Richard Scotney and Alex Wyatt, Climate Bridge

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