Airpocalypse now


With many of its cities choked by a blanket of toxic smog, China is leading the biggest investment in renewables the world has ever seen

Last week, as an impenetrable toxic fog once again blanketed Beijing, the residents of China’s capital city were warned to stay indoors.

It’s been dubbed “the Airpocalypse”. It’s a stark and shocking illustration of the environmental price being paid for China’s rapid industrialisation. And for many in the West, it reinforces a popular view that it’s futile and pointless to nibble away at our emissions in the face of China’s relentless growth.

On the face of it, there’s a compelling thrust to these arguments. China is the world’s biggest polluter. It’s responsible for around 30 per cent of the world’s emissions and has arguably had a bigger impact on the climate than any other country in history. In its defence, it’s worth noting that a fair chunk of these emissions are effectively down to outsourced production from places like the UK, so perhaps we shouldn’t get too judgemental. But you get the picture.

However, there is a sense in which China’s rapid industrial growth has enabled it to learn the lessons of industrialisation far more quickly and dramatically than the West. And whilst its emissions continue to grow, the country is, somewhat paradoxically, now doing more than anyone else on the planet to drive the development of renewable energy technology.

China has been leading the world in green energy investment for a number of years now and (thanks to a mix of wind, solar, and hydroelectrics) also has the world’s biggest installed capacity of renewable energy.

But in wake of pubic outcry over its smog  – and the first tentative signs of official recognition that the pollution is costing lives – its already ambitious plans appear to have received a shot in arm and the country is reportedly planning on investing around $470bn in renewable technology over the next five years.

Its ambitions are huge. It wants renewables to form 20 per cent of  generating capacity by 2020 and to achieve parity in the energy mix with coal. With wind energy alone, it’s aiming for 200GW of installed capacity by the end of the decade.  

It’s important not to get too carried away. China’s clean energy revolution is welcome and, for many, surprising news. But the country’s emissions are continuing to grow, and there are still huge concerns over its wider impact on the climate.

But one thing is clear. Politicians, the public, and businesses in the West indulge in endless hand-wringing and arguing over targets, subsidies and investment whilst China has quietly got on with it and is approaching dominance in a sector that the likes of the UK once regarded as an area of particular expertise and promise.

There are many misconceptions about Chinese industry: that its purely about high volume and low quality, that it lacks the advanced manufacturing expertise found in places like the UK and that it lacks the creativity to develop its own IP. Some of this may have been true in the past, but it certainly isn’t now. And as its strident renewables industry shows – Western business and governments stick to these misconceptions at their peril.