Renewable energy is the key to achieving a clean energy future and averting the worst effects of the climate crisis. According to the latest report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewable power capacity is expected to grow by 7,300 gigawatts through 2028 under countries’ current policies and will overtake coal as the leading source of electricity globally by 2025. However, this pace falls short of reaching the 11,000 GW needed by 2030 to triple renewable capacity, as agreed to last month at global climate talksThe most important challenge for the international community is rapidly scaling up financing and deployment of renewables in most emerging and developing economies, many of which are being left behind in the new energy economy.
One country that is not being left behind is China, which has emerged as the world leader in renewable energy expansion. In fact, China commissioned more renewable power last year than all other countries combined did in 2022, and it’s expected to account for around 60 percent of renewable power additions in the next five years, the IEA said. China’s renewable energy capacity grew 50 percent in 2023 to more than 500 gigawatts, the fastest rate of growth in more than 20 years. China’s renewable energy boom is driven by several factors, including:
- A strong policy support from the central government, which has set ambitious targets for renewable energy development and carbon emissions reduction. China aims to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
- A rapid decline in the cost of solar and wind power, partly due to increased manufacturing and economies of scale. The cost of solar photovoltaic cells has dropped 90 percent over the past decade, making solar power more competitive with fossil fuels.
- A growing domestic and international market for renewable energy products and services. China is the largest producer and exporter of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and electric vehicles in the world. China is also investing heavily in renewable energy projects abroad, especially in countries along the Belt and Road Initiative.
The Benefits and Challenges of China’s Renewable Energy Transition
China’s renewable energy transition has brought significant benefits for the country and the world, such as:
- Reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, which have serious impacts on human health and the environment. China’s renewable energy generation avoided 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2023, equivalent to the annual emissions of Japan.
- Enhancing energy security and diversification, which reduce the dependence on imported fossil fuels and the risks of supply disruptions. China’s renewable energy sources accounted for 29 percent of its total electricity generation in 2023, up from 21 percent in 2018.
- Creating jobs and economic opportunities, which boost the income and welfare of millions of people. China’s renewable energy sector employed 4.5 million people in 2023, more than any other country in the world.
However, China’s renewable energy transition also faces some challenges, such as:
- Integrating variable and intermittent renewable energy sources into the grid, which requires upgrading the transmission and distribution infrastructure and increasing the flexibility and reliability of the power system. China’s renewable energy curtailment rate, which measures the amount of renewable energy wasted due to grid constraints, was 5.5 percent in 2023, down from 12 percent in 2018, but still higher than the global average of 3.6 percent .
- Balancing the development of renewable energy with the existing coal-fired power plants, which still provide the majority of China’s electricity and are often favored by local governments and enterprises for their low cost and stable output. China’s coal power capacity increased by 38 gigawatts in 2023, despite the central government’s efforts to limit new coal projects.
- Addressing the social and environmental impacts of renewable energy projects, which may involve land acquisition, resettlement, biodiversity loss, and water consumption. China’s renewable energy development has been criticized for displacing local communities, damaging natural habitats, and exacerbating water scarcity in some regions .
The Implications and Recommendations for the Global Renewable Energy Transition
China’s renewable energy transition has profound implications for the global renewable energy transition, as it demonstrates both the opportunities and the challenges of scaling up clean power generation. China’s experience also offers some lessons and recommendations for other countries, such as:
- Setting clear and ambitious targets and policies for renewable energy development and carbon emissions reduction, which provide a long-term vision and a stable framework for investors and stakeholders. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) and its carbon neutrality pledge have sent a strong signal to the market and the world about its commitment to renewable energy transition.
- Leveraging the cost advantages and technological innovations of renewable energy, which make renewable energy more affordable and accessible for consumers and businesses. China’s cost reductions and technological improvements in solar and wind power have benefited not only itself but also other countries, especially those in the developing world.
- Enhancing international cooperation and dialogue on renewable energy, which facilitate the exchange of best practices, the transfer of technologies, the mobilization of resources, and the resolution of disputes. China’s participation in various multilateral platforms and initiatives, such as the International Solar Alliance, the Global Wind Energy Council, and the Belt and Road Initiative, have contributed to the global renewable energy transition.
Renewable energy is the future of energy, and China is leading the way. However, more efforts and actions are needed from all countries and stakeholders to achieve the goal of tripling renewable capacity by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2050. As the IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said, “The level of deployment reached in 2023 makes it clear that a tripling of renewables is entirely achievable. But it will require stronger political will, more international cooperation and greater innovation”.