x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

India and China give US a clean energy lesson

US officials urging China and India to do more to fight climate change may be preaching to the converted.

A worker examines the circuit boards of solar traffic signal lamps in China.
A worker examines the circuit boards of solar traffic signal lamps in China.

Top US officials have been travelling to China and India to urge those countries to do more to curb carbon emissions. But they may be preaching to the converted. Last weekend, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called on the two most populous Asian nations to sign on to a "global framework" to fight climate change during her first official visit to India since taking the office. As she did on an earlier visit to China, Mrs Clinton said the US had made mistakes in its industrial advance and urged developing countries to do better.

"It is possible for India to sustain higher economic growth while cutting carbon emissions," she said at Gurgaon, near the Indian capital of New Delhi. India's official position, like China's, is that the West bears most responsibility for fighting global warming as it contributed most to the world's man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Both countries have refused to commit to cuts that could harm their economic progress.

India will not sign legally binding agreements to cut carbon emissions, even though it is committed to reducing them, Jairam Ramesh, the country's environment minister, said on Saturday. But quietly, India and China have developed plans to invest in low-carbon energy on a scale that could dwarf western initiatives. "We need to get our act together because India is growing faster than anyone can imagine," Gauri Singh, a joint secretary in India's ministry of new and renewable energy, said last week. "Renewable energy will have to supplement conventional power supply. Our priority is to achieve energy security and self-reliance." Among other things, India hopes to develop 20 gigawatts of solar electricity by 2020, and up to 200gw by 2050, under a national climate-change action plan unveiled last month. That compares with 6gw of photovoltaic solar power installed worldwide last year.

India already has an ambitious nuclear programme and is among the world's leaders in wind power. But the centrepiece of its new energy plan is a "national solar mission" that aims to turn India's development-stage solar industry into a full commercial concern, creating tens of thousands of jobs. "The sun occupies centre stage as it should, being literally the original source of all energy," said Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister. "We will pool all our scientific, technical and managerial talents with financial sources to develop solar energy as a source of abundant energy to power our economy and to transform the lives of our people."

India's government will offer generous feed-in tariffs and tax concessions, and may require Indian provinces to produce up to 3 per cent of their electricity from solar plants. China's clean energy ambitions are even grander. The country that overtook the US two years ago as the world's biggest carbon dioxide emitter plans to have 300gw of hydroelectricity, 100gw of wind power, 60gw of nuclear capacity and up to 10gw of solar power installed by 2020.

It is also experimenting with clean coal technology. The first Chinese coal-fired plant to use commercial-scale carbon capture and storage is being built near the northern city of Tianjin. Since 2005, China has had an energy law providing financial incentives for renewable energy development and setting clean energy targets for provinces. As a result, it is moving ahead with six of the world's biggest wind projects, each with a capacity of between 10gw and 20gw, financed with low-interest loans from state-owned banks.

At the same time, the US promoter T Boone Pickens has delayed a 4 megawatt Texas wind-farm project he once touted as the world's largest. China's clean energy efforts may still not be enough to cut the country's carbon output. Coal-fired plants generate about 80 per cent of China's electricity supply, accounting for about 640gw of capacity. By 2020, Beijing's plans call for the nation's power capacity to double to 1,600gw, with 35 per cent to be supplied from "low-emission" sources. That leaves more than 1,000gw to come from thermal power plants, mostly coal-fired.

That is because coal remains by far the cheapest energy source available to China, which has the world's third-largest reserves of the fuel. "No matter how much renewable or nuclear is in the mix, coal will remain the dominant power source," predicts Ashok Bhargava, a China energy expert at the Asian Development Bank in Manila. The new Chinese coal-fired capacity would still be less polluting than the country's existing plants, many of which use older, less efficient combustion technology.

While the US debates whether to build just one of a more efficient design of coal-fired plant that uses superheated steam, China has been installing them for the past two years at a rate of one a month, and retiring older plants at the same rate. As with India, China's biggest motivation for pursuing clean energy may be to create jobs for its growing population. That has prompted its government to use protectionist tactics to shield the country's fledgling clean energy sector from foreign competition, sparking complaints from European and US makers of wind turbines and solar panels.

That could complicate the US quest for jobs and energy security from its renewables sector. The world may breathe easier if clean energy takes root in China and India, but Mrs Clinton should be careful what she wishes for. tcarlisle@thenational.ae