While the U.S. and Europe have enacted sweeping policies to fight climate change in recent years, China has always had the potential to undermine those successes.
China is the world’s biggest polluter. It has the second-largest population on earth, with a growing economy that increasingly demands energy. If China largely fills that demand with coal and other fossil fuels, as it has for the past two decades, it could negate the rest of the world’s progress in reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
The good news is that China is not relying only on fossil fuels. The world is moving toward a clean energy future faster than experts expected, my colleagues David Gelles, Brad Plumer, Jim Tankersley and Jack Ewing reported. And that future includes China. It already produces more electricity by solar and wind power than any other country, as this chart shows:
China is also a leading manufacturer of electric cars. They now make up a larger share of the passenger vehicle market in China than in the U.S. or the E.U.:
“There is no doubt about it: China is doing more than any other country when it comes to renewable energy and electric vehicles,” David, who writes The Times’s Climate Forward newsletter, told me.
How? China has poured a lot of money into the research, development and use of clean energy, using its extensive manufacturing base to build solar panels and wind turbines and bring down prices worldwide. It has provided subsidies to buyers of electric vehicles, as the U.S. now does. And it has pursued, and surpassed, aggressive goals: China vowed to double its capacity of wind and solar power by 2030. It is on track to meet that goal five years ahead of schedule.
Still, there is some bad news. While China is the world’s biggest adopter of clean energy, it also remains the world’s biggest user of fossil fuels, particularly coal. “We have to hold these two things, which can seem contradictory, in our heads at the same time,” David said. “China is pulling the world in two directions.”
This may not be a contradiction so much as a transition. China’s investments suggest it is enthusiastic about clean energy. But it needs to power homes and factories at levels that clean energy sources alone can’t handle yet. So China continues using fossil fuels to meet its needs. As clean energy becomes cheaper and more competitive, China could replace fossil fuels and over time reduce how much it pollutes.
That is the optimistic scenario, and China’s quick embrace of clean energy suggests such a future is increasingly plausible.
Read my colleagues’ article, the first of a three-part series on how the U.S. has pivoted to clean energy.
More in the series
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