From smog-choked cities to sludge-filled rivers, stories about China’s environment in recent years have painted a bleak picture. But China is not the first country to put economic development above protecting the environment. All of today’s wealthy countries, including the UK during the industrial revolution and the US after World War II, got rich doing the same.
What’s different about China is the pace of development, the scale of its impact, and the timing. Never in human history have so many people been pulled out of poverty so quickly. China’s unprecedented development, which has relied on fossil fuels to the point that the country is now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, comes at a crucial time for the world. If we don’t reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to zero by 2060, we’ll be staring down the gun at climate menaces humans have not faced in our time on the planet.
The good news is that, unlike the US, the world’s second-biggest emitter, China appears truly committed to climate action. The country has pledged to hit peak emissions by 2030, and to ensure emissions fall rapidly after that.
These commitments aren’t just posturing. China has been the world’s largest market for renewable energy for a few years now. In 2006, the country had 100 MW of solar-power capacity and 2,600 MW of wind-power capacity installed. Merely 10 years later, those figures were 77,800 MW and 159,000 MW—a 778- and 61-fold increase, respectively. For comparison, in the US—still a much a richer country than China—there was 40,000 MW of solar-power capacity and 90,000 MW of wind-power capacity in 2016.
China, though, still must grapple with the reality faced by any developing economy in the 21st century. The country’s growing demand for energy is outpacing its ability to replace dirty sources like coal with clean, renewable ones. While the construction rate of new coal-fired power plants has slowed, it hasn’t stopped altogether. Further, even if China stopped building new coal plants tomorrow, the country has come to so deeply rely on this dirtiest of fossil fuels—more than 70% of its electricity currently comes from coal, compared to about 40% in the US—that it would continue to emit significant greenhouse gases for years to come. China’s energy demand is so high right now that it simply cannot afford to stop burning coal and other fossil fuels.
These contradictions make China the perfect case study for large-scale deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS). Experts say that if there’s any country that really needs this technology, which enables power plants to burn coal or natural gas without putting carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, it’s China. Better still, they insist, thanks to a heavy-handed government and large state-owned enterprises, if there’s any country that can pull it off at mass scale, it’s China.
This past July, I spent two weeks in the country to find out whether these arguments could be backed up by the reality on the ground, and to see if CCS technology had started to take hold in any meaningful way in the country.