A perfect storm of environmental deterioration, economic opportunism and geopolitical jockeying for position is fuelling a rapid Chinese move into renewable technologies such as wind, solar and wave power, according to Miranda Schreurs, director of the Environmental Policy Research Institute at the Freie Universität Berlin.
"China is moving in the same direction as the European Union," Schreurs told EURACTIV Czech Republic in an interview. "Europe still leads in the development and deployment of new renewable technologies but China is becoming an increasingly big player," she said.
"Of course, China does not want to simply follow Europe in this area. They want to compete, and maybe even overtake Europe," she added.
Along with soaring economic growth since 1990, climate degradation has increased massively in China. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese die early each year from pollution-related diseases, while desertification has now expanded the Gobi desert to within 50 km of Beijing.
"Every spring, there are massive sandstorms that shut the city down," Schreurs said. "There are days when the government warns people not to go outside because of all of the sand in the air. So people are feeling climate change in their daily lives. It not just off in the countryside where the peasants live but in the city centres where the elite are," she said.
Changing rainfall patterns and water shortages are exacerbating such problems.
Yet to sustain its annual 10% growth rate, China needs access to energy sources. Once energy-independent, the country now imports fossil fuels from Australia, Indonesia, the Middle East, Africa and Russia. Renewable energies – which in China include nuclear power – are seen as one ingredient in the country's 21st century energy mix.
"The conditions for wind power are excellent," Schreurs said. "There is also a lot of sun in China. They have got the whole Gobi desert. China is already the world's largest user of solar water heaters and one of the largest producers of wind turbines and photovoltaic cells."
But renewables are also part of a big foreign policy issue – climate change – that offers a platform for China to enhance its prestige, influence and access to markets on the world stage. "China wants to be a player," Schreurs said.
"China will not simply accept being pressured by the US. The problem is that this climate change game requires both the US and China to be on board. And the EU too."
Schreurs sees potential for greater China-Europe cooperation, especially over upgrading and increasing the proportion of renewables in the electricity grid. Despite Europe's relatively advanced infrastructure and long-term investments in renewables, Schreurs says that without further technological investment, the EU leadership is recognising that the continent has no future.
"With Europe's demographic trends, its ageing population and its relatively expensive labour inputs, the only way that Europe will be able to compete in the long run is to remain technologically on the cutting edge and highly energy and resource-efficient," she said. "This will require Europe to rapidly transition towards a low-carbon economy."
Schreurs had a further warning for Central and Eastern European states. "I think that if these countries do not start investing in new technologies – like China is doing – then in the long run they are going to be the losers," she said.