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David Fickling, Columnist

Chinese Clean Tech Is Not the Enemy

Beijing installed as much wind and solar last year as the rest of the globe combined. We need that scale to decarbonize.

Bending the curve.

Source: AFP/Getty Images

From all the talk of Chinese “overcapacity” coming out of Washington, you might think that the problem of addressing climate change had already been solved.

“Chinese policies and nonmarket practices are flooding global markets with artificially cheap solar modules and panels,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday, in announcing sweeping tariff increases on Chinese clean technology that mentioned overcapacity four times. Beijing’s solar factories have more capacity than is needed “even relative to an ambitious climate agenda,” according to Brad Setser, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Biden administration trade advisor.

That underestimates just how ambitious the climate agenda needs to be.

In global terms, we may this year achieve the unimaginable and start reducing emissions from the world’s electricity grids. That’s the verdict of both Ember (a think tank lobbying to accelerate the energy transition) and Rystad, a very mainstream energy consultancy with roots in Norway’s oil industry. It’s also implicit in the latest scenarios from the International Energy Agency, considered the gold standard of forecasting in this area.

Past the Peak

Generation from coal power isn't about to regain its 2023 peak

Source: Bloomberg Opinion calculations, Energy Information Administration, BloombergNEF, Energy Institute

Note: Data is in terawatt-hours.

If you think it won’t require constant vigilance to maintain that record and stop grid pollution ticking back up again, however, you need to pay closer attention.

In most of the world the number is likely to be, at worst, stable in the immediate future.

India, Indonesia, Turkey and Vietnam may see genuine growth in coal usage, the biggest contributor to pollution from electricity — but the great sucking sound as the European Union and US switch off their fossil turbines should be enough to offset that. In coal-addicted Japan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and Taiwan, demographic decline and economic weakness will achieve what a lackluster renewables policy has failed to do in recent years, and point the needle down.

In the few places where gas generation is increasing significantly, meanwhile, it’s mostly reducing emissions by replacing either coal (in the US) or fuel oil (in the Middle East).

Past Is Prologue

Carbon emissions in developed countries and the former USSR have fallen

Source: Energy Institute

Note: Based on total CO2-equivalent emissions

The elephant in the room is China. Its sheer scale dwarfs any other nation. Its increase alone in coal power generation in 2023 was equivalent to running all the solid fuel plants in South Korea and Indonesia (respectively, coal’s fifth- and sixth-biggest users) for 12 months.

The news is likely to be better this year. The main culprit in 2023’s growth was a two-year drought which parched the hydroelectric reservoirs that typically provide close to a fifth of the country’s power, forcing soot to make up the shortfall.

As recent rains in southern China attest, that dry period is well and truly at an end. The result should be a boom in hydro which, combined with the hundreds of gigawatts of wind and solar power China connected last year, should be sufficient to squeeze a chunk out of the system equivalent to switching off all Japan’s coal generators:

Hydro to the Rescue

A "normal" year for Chinese hydro will reduce coal power by more than 300TWh, equivalent to switching off all Japan's coal plants

Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China, China National Energy Administration, Bloomberg Opinion calculations

Note: Shows change between 2023 and forecast 2024 supply and demand. Data is in terawatt-hours.

The problem comes when you look forward to 2025, and beyond. As a matter of development policy, China appears to want its electricity generation to keep increasing at a headlong pace. Last year’s growth rate was 6.7%, and the forecast for 2024 is 6%. Assume that number keeps declining by about half a percentage point a year, and you end up in 2030 with a China whose per-capita electricity consumption is somewhere between that of Japan and South Korea, and about two-thirds of the US level — roughly where Beijing would probably want to end up.

If that power isn’t going to be supplied by the country’s sprawling fleet of underutilized coal plants, it’s going to require immense quantities of renewables. China installed as much wind and solar last year as the rest of the world put together, a record that’s been rightly celebrated. But even a slowing pace of electricity demand will cause emissions to creep back toward 2023’s levels if panels and turbines aren’t connected at a yet faster pace:

Coal's Last Gasp

Even if renewables keep being built at 2023's record rates, coal generation in China could stay close to last year's peak level

Source: National Energy Administration of China, World Nuclear Association, Bloomberg Opinion calculations

Note: Shows change in generation from the previous year. Data is in terawatt-hours. Electricity demand is assumed to decline at 0.5 percentage points a year. Renewables and nuclear are assumed to run at current prevailing capacity factors. Solar and wind installations are assumed at 217GW and 61GW per year, respectively.

That will only be enough, furthermore, to keep coal just below its peak, a target that the EU, Japan, UK and US hit decades ago. If we want the dramatic reductions we need to get to net zero — not to mention the EVs, green hydrogen and green steel that will be necessary to decarbonize non-grid sectors of the economy — we’re going to need more wind and solar.

To start really bending the curve toward zero, China will likely require some 300 gigawatts of solar annually, enough on its own to consume about 40% of its annual module production.1

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That might be the one silver lining from the protectionist panic now coursing through Washington and, to a lesser extent, Brussels. Until the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in the US and the RePowerEU plan in the EU just two years ago, it seemed unlikely that the world was going to build renewables on anything like the scale that’s needed. Without China’s manufacturing machine powering the transition, that’s still a serious risk.

If western countries are truly contemplating green industrial policies that actually build things, rather than just an elaborate set of trade barriers to cut them off from a world that’s decarbonizing with Chinese technology, we may finally be making progress. We’ll need all their industrial might — plus that of China, and a whole host of countries besides — to get there.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change and energy. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.