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Can China Get What It Wants?

October 29, 2010 – China is in the news lately because of its planned use of alternative energy. Something tells me their latest five year plan may have taken the past summer’s flooding, which displaced 38 million people, into account. In developing the country’s plan for 2011-1015, Beijing has committed to supplying whatever is necessary to put China in the lead in developing electric cars. (Meantime, the Obama administration has earmarked $5 billion in stimulus funds for the development of alternative vehicles, and the installation of charging stations in test markets. The United States intends to produce 40% of the world’s advanced vehicle batteries by 2015. More “power” to us!)

China’s goal is to have 5 million electric cars on the roads by 2020. That’s not very many, when you consider China’s total population; on the other hand, I don’t know how many Chinese can reasonably expect to own any kind of car by 2020. Chances are, it will be a small percentage. Bear in mind, however, that only 10% of the Chinese population is 130 million people! It will, I suspect, be a larger number by 2020. At the same time, China intends to build bullet trains, subways, and electric buses. Thus far, the Chinese government is subsidizing these efforts to the tune of $17 billion (this figure includes research and development). Provincial governments will be adding to that sum by offering cheap land and consumer subsidies.

Why, all of a sudden, have the Chinese found religion? It’s an inevitability that’s long been known, but only recently acknowledged: with nearly 20% of the world’s population, China has less than 1% of the world’s oil reserves. Its population is comprised of millions of people with rising expectations. Sixteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are located in China. Even while China has become the world’s largest market for wind power, generating nearly one-third of the total installed capacity, 75% of its electricity is still generated with coal. It is augmenting the status quo with alternatives. Coal consumption has doubled over the past nine years; oil consumption has tripled. None of this bodes well.

Despite these less-than-encouraging facts, Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, says that “’ If China keeps on its current pace, it will be the undisputed global leader in clean energy within the next two years.’” In light of the above three paragraphs, raise your hand if you find that terribly encouraging. Me neither.

Worldwatch has released a report that includes a comprehensive review of China’s progress in clean energy, and a summary of its plans through 2020. While it is heartening to know that China finally acknowledges it has a pollution problem, it has a long, long, long way to go.

Here are some of the Institute’s “Facts at a Glance,” gleaned from its report:

  • China’s wind power capacity has doubled every year for the last four years.
  • China’s installed solar water heating capacity alone accounts for 80% of global installations.
  • China’s small hydropower capacity is roughly equal to the small hydro installed capacity throughout the rest of the world combined.
  • Between 2006 and 2008, China eliminated nearly 61 million tons of obsolete iron production capacity, 44 million tons of steel production capacity, and 140 million tons of cement production capacity, thereby saving 72 million tons of coal equivalent.

According to Chinese projections, renewables should represent 16-20 percent of total energy consumption by 2020, and 40-45 percent by 2050. With peak coal having already

been reached – all that’s left is the kind that produces lots of pollution, and not much of

that – it appears they have very little choice.


China’s growth in clean energy matches ambition. (2010, October 27). Retrieved from -Energy-Matches-Ambition

on October 27, 2010.

Dumaine, B. (2010). China charges into electric cars. Fortune, 162 (7), 139-148.

Peak Oil, Peak Coal, and Beyond. (2007, June 9). Peak Moment Television. Retrieved

from on October 28, 2010.


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