Qinghai province, in the heart of China, is the source of Asia’s three legendary rivers – the Yangtze, the Yellow and the Mekong. They have been nurturing nature and civilisation from ancient times. This year Qinghai was the source of a modern-day environmental and social leap: the sprawling province ran entirely on renewable energy for seven straight days, part of a Chinese mission to prove that fossil fuels are not required to power the economy.
The experiment symbolises how China, known as the world’s worst polluter, has undergone a transformation to become the global leader in green energy. As Donald Trump pulls the US out of the Paris Accord, China is showing in surprising ways that, despite still horrific pollution issues, rocketing economic growth can be compatible with sustainable energy, a lesson for rich nations and poor.
At the beginning of 2017, China announced plans to invest $360 billion in renewable energy by 2020, and its official R&D expenditure on green energy last year totalled $1.9 billion – nearly double the US’s $1 billion. China is already the global leader in solar energy, in 2016 installing more than 34 gigawatts of capacity, almost half of the global added total. According to Greenpeace, China’s power generation from wind and solar in 2015 covered nearly twice its rise in total electricity demand.
Such a commitment to a green revolution does not come at the expense of prosperity. In fact environmental protection can be conducive to economic growth – fuelling innovation, creating jobs, promoting energy efficiencies and reaping less tangible economic benefits such as health and wellbeing in the workforce.
China’s government has taken measures to cool its red-hot economy but it is still expanding at a rate of more than 6.5 per cent a year – and is on track for its first acceleration since 2010. Even in the period of blistering growth between 1980 and 2010 – when China’s boom earned it a reputation as a peril to the planet – China was already shifting gears in environmental responsibility: according to the WEF, China’s economy grew 18-fold during those years, but its energy consumption rose fivefold – a 70 per cent decline in energy intensity per unit of GDP.
Now, looking into the future, research shows that China’s mission to supercharge its green energy programme will be a partner, not a hindrance, to its economic ascent. A study published in Applied Energy – a peer-reviewed academic journal – found that large-scale renewable energy development by 2050 “would not incur a significant macroeconomic cost” and in fact could potentially “stimulate the output worth of $1.18 trillion from other renewable energy related upstream industries and create 4.12 million jobs in 2050.”
One significant growth factor is that China’s green ambitions are imaginative, daring and innovative – strong economic drivers. China recently created the world’s largest floating solar farm in the province of Anhui – aptly built on the site of a flooded coal mine. It has become a pioneer in sustainable building, with Changsha-based Broad Group developing a prefab technology that allows skyscrapers to rise up within weeks – dramatically cutting waste and pollution. And China is taking a global lead in areas such as LED lighting, solar-panelled apartment blocks and Cloud technology, which generates surprising energy savings in office-building computer networks.
Amid the promise of imaginative projects such as the week-long Qinghai renewable energy experiment, there is also a cautionary tale for global leaders. Research shows that the life-giving headwaters of the Yangtze, Mekong, Yellow rivers – located in a Qinghai nature reserve that is home to rare species of eagle and snow leopard – are drying up due to climate change. China must maintain its admirable commitment to groundbreaking renewable energy technology in the decades to come. If it does, the Asian superpower may just lead the way to a more sustainable future for our planet.