Science in Society Archive

Greening China

The Green Shoots of China

China streaking ahead in renewable energy technologies amid explosive economic growth and steeply rising greenhouse gas emissions. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

World leader in greenhouse emissions and power use, but also in wind and solar

Greening China is a mammoth task, given the sheer size of the country, but it is happening, and at breakneck speed. China is greening faster than any other country in the world, though not quite fast enough to keep pace with the rise in energy demand fuelled by its high rate of economic growth [1]. China’s energy consumption has been rising at more than 10 percent a year for the past five years according to China’s National Development and Reform commission. The International Energy Agency predicts that China will overtake the US as the world’s largest energy consumer shortly after 2010. China’s GDP grew 8.7 percent to 33.5 trillion yuan (US$4.91 trillion) in 2009 [2]. In comparison, US’ GDP grew 0.25 percent to  $14.2 trillion [3].

China’s total installed electrical power capacity reached 700 GW by the end of 2007 and is predicted to pass 900 GW in 2010 [4], but nearly 75 percent is still from coal. China overtook the USA as the world leader in greenhouse gas emissions in 2006, when it reached 7.6 Gt CO2e , compared to USA’s 7.5; but China’s per capita emissions was still 5.8 t compared to USA’s  25 t [5].

To meet the challenge of climate change, China is committed to reducing its energy intensity (energy per unit gross domestic product) in 2020 by 40 to 45 percent compared to 2005 [6]. At the same time, it will boost non-fossil fuel and renewable energy to 15 percent of total, and increase forest cover by 40 million hectares over 2005. The country has taken great strides in renewable energies within the past decade, exceeding successive government targets. Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice-chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission was reported to have told UK newspaper The Guardian [7]: “We can be sure we will exceed the 15 percent target. We will at least reach 18 percent. Personally I think we could reach the target of having renewables provide 20 percent of total energy consumption.” Judging from past records, this may be realistic; and if so, would clearly match the EU target [8] Europe Unveils 2020 Plan for Reducing C Emissions, (SiS 37).

In 2009, China more than doubled its wind power generating capacity to 25 GW from 12 GW, surpassing the United States as the world’s leading wind power [9]. In the same year, it beat Denmark, Germany, Spain, and the United States to become the world’s largest maker of wind turbines as well as solar panels [10]. Indeed, China is also forging ahead with solar, and hydro, biomass, and work is underway on tidal and wave energy projects [11].

China already has nearly 80 percent of the world’s solar thermal power [12], i.e., more than 110 GW, mostly in domestic roof-top installations; and is the world’s largest supplier of solar water heating systems. There is significant potential for expansion in larger scale projects, such as concentrating solar power units in deserts that feed power by HVDC (high voltage direct current) links to the cities. A 1 GW demonstration plants is planned [11], and further plants adding up to 2 GWs have been announced for completion over the next 10 years [13].  Photovoltaic solar power is set to expand rapidly; and likely to reach 20 GW by 2020 [14].

Some major integrated projects are emerging. A demonstration zone is being developed in the minority nationality region of Hangjin Banner in the northwest of Eroduosi Plateau, a 11 950 MW renewable-energy park that when completed, will have  6 950 MW of wind generation, 3 900 MW of photovoltaics, 720 MW of concentrating solar power, 310MW of biomass plants and 70 MW of hydro storage [15]

Economic dominance in green

China’s surge in dominance of renewable energy technologies raises the prospect that the West may be replacing its dependence on oil from the Middle East with reliance on China for solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy equipment [10]. When a Chinese company contracted a deal in November 2009 to supply turbines for a big wind farm in Texas, there were calls in the US congress to halt federal spending on imported equipment.

President Obama expressed alarm in his State of the Union speech that the United States was falling behind other countries on energy, especially China. Like China, the US and other countries are offering incentives and stimulation packages to develop their own renewable energy industries; but many Western and Chinese executives expect China to prevail.

Multi-national corporations are building big, state-of-the-art factories in China; but China has also developed its own companies and suppliers that are now among the top companies of the world (see [16] Green Growth for Developing Nations, SiS 46).

Renewable energy industries are creating jobs rapidly in China, reaching 1.12 million in 2008, and adding 100 000 a year [10].

Renewable energy may be doing more for China’s economy than for the environment. Total power generation is on track to beat the US in 2012, but most of the added capacity will still be from coal.

China intends for wind, solar and biomass energy to represent 8 percent of its electricity generating capacity by 2020. It is less than 4 percent now in both China and the US. Coal will still represent 2/3 of China’s capacity in 2020, and nuclear and hydropower most of the rest.

China’s biggest advantage may be its domestic demand for electricity, rising 15 percent a year. To meet demand in the coming decade, China will need to add nearly nine times the electricity generating capacity of the United States.

Although costs are falling sharply, wind energy is still 20 to 40 percent more expensive than coal-fired power; and solar power still at least twice as expensive. However, interest rates for bank loans are as low as 2 percent, the result of a savings rate of 40 percent and a government policy to channel loans towards renewable energy. Low labour cost is an advantage too. Danish company Vestas pays assembly line workers only $4 100 a year in China.

Article first published 22/03/10


  1. Market overview, Markets, A-Power, accessed 4 March 2010,
  2. “China expects this year’s deficit at 2.8% of GDP”, Phani Humar, MarketWatch 5 March 2010,
  3. United States GDP growth rate, TradingEconomics Global Economics Research, 5 March 2010,
  4. Wang Z. Prospects for China’s solar thermal power technology development. Fuel
  5. Seligsohn D, Heilmayr R, Tan XM and Weischer L. China, the United States, and the Climate Change Challenge. WRI Policy Brief, World Resources Institute, October 2009,
  6. “China promises to cut greenjouse gas emissions”, Larry West, Guide to Environmental Issues, 26 November 2009,
  7. “China eyes 20% renewable energy by 2020”, China Daily, 6 October 2009,
  8. Ho MW. Europe unveils 2020 plan for reducing C emissions. Science in Society 37, 16, 2008.
  9. “China doubles wind capacity in 2009”, China Economic Review, 4 February 2010,
  10. “China leading global race to make clean energy”, Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, 30 January 2010,
  11. “Green energy for China”, Dave Elliot, 20 February 2010,
  12. “China is the world’s leader of solar water heating systems” ProcurAsia, accessed 3 March 2010,
  13. “China to build at least 2 gigawatts of solar thermal capacity”, Solar Thermal magazine, 15 January 2010,
  14. “China solar PV capacity could reach 20 000 MW by 2020”, 7 May 2009,
  15. “First Solar to build huge Chinese solar plant”, Matt Daily, 9 September 2009,
  16. Ho MW. Green growth for developing nations. Science in Society 46.

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Rory Short Comment left 24th March 2010 01:01:33
To a South African this is a very interesting article, particularly the growth of employment in 'Green' industries seeing that we here have a massive unemployment problem. If there is to be a future for humankind it has to be green. China it seems is ahead of the game when it comes to going green whereas my country when it comes to seeing the writing on the wall and acting appropriately nationally appears to be nearly blind. This blindness is induced, I would guess, by the fossil fuel lobby which seems to dominate Western thinking on energy policy, to the detriment of us all.

Todd Millions Comment left 24th March 2010 16:04:40
How much of the energy demand of the 'economic growth is nessary or of any use? I grew up in an in the bush planned instant town of X population for Y numbre of years.Capital costs were a factor but not as much as operating costs,So while everone else in north america was living in or planning(or dreaming) to move to a -'temple to the car',I -isolated,in a severe clime(15metre snow fall per year norm),lived in a small town everything could be walked too. Of this town-'not a wrack left behind' today.So explaining it to wretched suburbanoids or slum rats is -impossible. But-Peking has just being wrecked and 'rebuilt' into a 1930's vision of caropilous-pesky humans incidental.This was done some 40 years after Brazilia showed what an fundimental error this approach is. Where is Buckminister Fuller's-Trition cities in all this So rational development? Why are the solar arrays stand alone facilities in deserts instead of on roof tops(first priority)? Why aren't the appliances that can be shut off for peak hours with no imparment too efficecy of use(fridges,freezers),shutting down during peak demand periods via timers or power line signals? Why do any of these new buildings poking up around the bird nest stadium requre any cooling systems or heat ones at all(goggle-passive annual heat storage-John Hait)? What is and is too come is so much less than one would expect from the people who developed the abacus(and so much else).

todd Comment left 24th March 2010 16:04:31
Great informative post on China's brush up on energy conservation and generation. My client, Low Cost Power is becoming one of the leading energy companies in the US cutting costs on bills.