After a decade of intensive efforts to better control air pollution and facilitate the shift from fossil fuel economy to clean energy, the city of Beijing has achieved the national air quality standard for the first time last year. The annual average level of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, has fallen to 33 micrograms per cubic meter – below the nationally set level of 35 micrograms/m3 and about half a decade ago. As a result, in 2021, Beijing residents enjoyed four more months of blue skies than in 2013.
The fact that many other parts of China have also seen such remarkable improvement in air quality over the past decade shows that China’s sustained efforts to shift its energy structure to clean energy and pursue a better quality growth have paid off.
China has developed its clean energy sector, including solar and wind power, to replace the use of coal and oil, creating millions of jobs in the green energy sector.
Beginning with the enactment of the Renewable Energy Act in 2005, which institutionalized policies to support the development of renewable energy, including a feed-in tariff that increased the tariff for renewable energy and led to the rapid growth of wind and solar industries, China has taken a series of measures to facilitate the transition to clean energy.
In particular, the 11th Five-Year Plan period (2006-2010) saw a strong push towards greater energy efficiency in industry, buildings and transport.
These efforts became more urgent a decade ago as the government sought to address severe air pollution across the country through the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan. 2013, which pledged to reduce the share of coal in the total energy mix to less than 65 percent by 2017 and significantly reduce the use of coal in provinces and regions with high levels of air pollution .
The action plan also strengthened air pollution control and improved enforcement in major polluting sectors such as power generation, heavy industry and automobiles. Energy-intensive and emission-intensive industries have been particularly targeted, with the government seeking to shut down heavily polluting businesses and forcing other businesses to improve energy efficiency and strictly enforce pollution control standards.
In rural areas, the government has supported a program to replace coal with gas and electricity for heating households and small industries. He also helped install photovoltaic solar panels to generate electricity in the villages as part of the poverty alleviation programme.
Thanks to these efforts, China’s solar energy industry – as well as wind energy – has become the largest in the world, and its energy structure has begun to evolve towards clean energy. For example, the share of coal in primary energy consumption has increased from 68.5% in 2012 to 56.0% in 2021, and coal is likely to account for less than half of total energy consumption by the middle of this decade.
On the other hand, the share of non-fossil energy – wind, solar, as well as hydroelectricity, biomass and nuclear energy – in primary energy consumption fell from 9.7% in 2012 to 16 .6% in 2021, while the share of wind and solar power in the energy mix increased from just 2.1% to 11.7% in 2021.
In fact, wind and solar power are now competitive on a cost-per-kilowatt-hour basis with coal-fired power, and energy storage is expected to grow rapidly during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-25). China’s progress in clean energy has laid a solid foundation for pursuing climate goals of peaking carbon emissions by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2060.
This transition to clean energy has also brought economic benefits by creating new industries and new jobs. China is the biggest investor in low-carbon technologies – $266 billion in 2021 – mostly in renewable energy and electric vehicles, according to Bloomberg.
The International Energy Agency’s recent report on world energy employment estimated that about 3.4 million people are employed in China’s coal mining sector and 740,000 in the coal-fired power industry, about 1.7 million work in the photovoltaic solar panel industry, some 500,000 in the wind power industry, the electrical industry, 276,000 in electric vehicle companies and 3, 6 million in sectors dedicated to improving energy efficiency.
Furthermore, in addition to greening the energy supply chain, efforts are also being made to improve the structure of energy consumption, including decarbonizing industries. The Implementation Plan for Coordinated Pollution and Carbon Reduction Effectiveness released in June this year, for example, includes targets such as increasing the share of steel produced by electric arc to 15% by 2025 and 20% by 2030 (which will reduce the use of coal in this sector), the increase in renewable energy in the production of aluminum (mainly fueled by coal at currently) to 30% by 2030, and increasing the share of new energy vehicles in total sales in provinces and regions with high air pollution levels to 50% by 2030 .
Yet more action to spur the clean energy transition is needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius – preferably below 1.5C. – and to meet China’s climate action targets for 2030 and 2060. China’s decade-long experience of transitioning to clean energy shows that it can benefit economic growth, improve livelihoods people’s livelihood and better protect the environment.
Opinions do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
The author is director of climate and energy in China, Natural Resources Defense Council.