EU must learn from China’s clean energy drive, say experts

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This article is part of our special report Wind Energy.

The EU is in danger of being left behind as China launches its latest five-year energy plan, which will shift production towards clean energies such as wind power, experts warned. 

"China is integrating its energy and climate change policies to make them work at a time when the EU seems to be fragmenting its own," said Nick Mabey, a climate advisor to the last two British governments and CEO of the E3G climate consultancy.  

"We have had a disjointed year in Europe with three different roadmaps and a plethora of policies, none of which add up to a coherent plan for energy and climate security," he told EURACTIV.

China's 'New Energy Industry Development Plan' will not be published until the end of March – and adjustments to its nuclear policies may follow the Fukushima disaster – but many of the plan's core aspects were adopted at the National People's Congress in Beijing today (14 March).

New energy mix relies on renewables

Renewable energies will be raised to 11.4% of China's total energy consumption by 2015 and 15% by 2020, while energy intensity – the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP – will be cut by 16% and carbon intensity by 17%. 

Coal consumption will also be gradually replaced by natural gas, which will increase from four to 8% of the energy mix.

"They're putting their money where their mouth is," Mabey commented. "The irony is that where China is building a super and smart grid using European technologies and monies, Europe is not."  

In 2010, China overtook the US as the global leader in installed wind power capacity by 41.8GW to 40.2GW and, despite grid connectivity problem, wind is at the heart of China's energy plans.

"It's critical," Mabey said. "In the next five years, wind power will make up the bulk of the non-hydro renewable energy shift in China."

For Steve Sawyer, secretary-general of the Global Wind Energy Council and an advisor to the Chinese government on the formulation of its renewable energy laws, maintaining the growth of Europe's wind energy sector after its initial surge was now vital.

Developing new wind energy markets in Eastern Europe was urgently needed "to maintain a critical mass for the industry so that it doesn't all move east," he told EURACTIV.

"It's already happened to an extent," he said. "You've read about layoffs from Vestas, LM and other companies [in Europe]. Their factories are just in a different place – in China, India or other parts of Asia."

But he opposed protectionist measures against China. "We're not afraid of competition," he said. "We would encourage it."

"Wind will benefit tremendously from an open and free exchange of products and fair competition across the board."

Europe leads, but China is catching up 

Despite China's recent advances, Europe is still widely viewed as the global leader in green market mechanisms, technology and policy frameworks.

But China is catching up fast, according to Nick Mabey.

"Europe has to start living with the success of its own climate diplomacy," he said. "It wanted other countries to act and this is what them acting looks like.

"There was an illusion that everybody would just want to buy European technology but, guess what? Other countries want to make renewable technologies too."

More European low carbon investment was now needed to match China's and pull the US into the climate technology race, Mabey thought.

"That's the game we're in and European leaders have to show confidence to compete with China – at our own game."

To read the interview with Nick Mabey in full, please click here

Thirty years of rampant and often poorly regulated growth have decimated China's environment. Sixteen of the world's most polluted cities are now in China, while officials say it will take 300 years to curb an advancing desertification process.

With rising oil, coal and gas prices and a global trend towards carbon pricing mechanisms, experts believe that China is positioning itself to reap political and economic rewards from the fast maturing clean technology industry.

China's antiquated coal industry is also thought to cost the country one or two percentage points of GDP growth each year in terms of premature deaths, work-related illnesses, downtime, and damage to buildings, crops and clean air.

As a country with both 'developed' and 'developing' traits, China is now the world's biggest emitter of carbon. As such it is vulnerable to political pressure in the UNFCCC process it has been supporting since Kyoto. It is also highly vulnerable to climate change itself and to resource depletion – particularly freshwater, which has encouraged its shift to wind power.  

Unlike other forms of energy production, wind power does not depend on freshwater, and so has helped rural electrification, particularly in the north and northwest of the country. This in turn has helped slow the inexorable migration of rural workers looking for jobs in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

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