Rex Tillerson landed in Beijing today, for the first time in his capacity as U.S. secretary of state.
Is the oil-exec-turned-statesman visiting China to study the nation’s response to climate change? Unlikely.
But as China continues to forge ahead on climate issues while America’s new leaders recite empty calls to revive fossil fuels, there are a few lessons Tillerson should learn.
1) Coal is out.
Coal is dirty, water-guzzling and the most significant factor behind air pollution-related deaths in China — which explains why the country is making moves to cut down on the world’s largest source of CO2 emissions.
In 2016, the government’s rate of permitting for new power plants plummeted by 85%, and coal consumption fell for the third straight year, by 1.3%.
At the start of 2017, China suspended more than 100 coal-fired power projects, and for the first time in the country’s modern history, total permitted coal capacity declined.
That said, a high rate of coal overcapacity is slowing down the country’s energy transition, and many power plants remain idle. The overcapacity crisis could cost the country an estimated 1 trillion rmb by 2020, not to mention the toll it is taking on scarce water resources.
But it’s clear that China is looking to move away from coal, and for well-established reasons, a fact that makes Trump’s calls to revive America’s coal industry seem anachronistic, to say the least.
2) Renewable energy is the future.
Almost two years ago, while former Exxonmobil CEO Tillerson was trashing renewable energy in front of an audience of high-rolling investors, the global wind and solar industries were whirring into action.
In 2015, China installed one-and-a-half football fields worth of solar panels every hour, smashing the world record for annual solar installations. The same year, China’s rate of wind turbine installations surpassed one per hour.
By 2016, China was installing an estimated three football fields worth of solar panels every sixty minutes.
In an effort to reduce reliance on coal — the root cause behind China’s choking smog and sky-high levels of greenhouse gas emissions — the government announced in January that they plan to spend more than $360 billion on renewable energy through 2020, creating over 13 million jobs. Meanwhile, as China’s renewables industry grows, the cost of wind and solar energy is tumbling.
Next thing you know Trump will be tweeting frantically about how China is stealing all of the wind.
That’s not to say all renewables news coming out of China is sunny. In the first three quarters of 2016, 19% of wind energy was wasted due to curtailment, which means that the energy was produced but did not make it onto the grid. Between 2014 and 2016, enough wind energy was wasted to power Beijing for a year.
But China’s renewable energy industry is nonetheless occupying a rapidly expanding slice of the energy market –– and Tillerson should take note.
Chart from EnergyDesk
3) Big environmental change is possible.
China’s massive — but far from complete — coal power reductions have had a major impact on climate-change-causing CO2 emissions.
The world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases has managed to cut down on coal for three years running, a trend that has helped to stabilize global CO2 emissions for the first time in decades.
However, we can’t pretend the work is finished — far from it. China’s skies are infamous for their toxic smog, and China is still the world’s largest CO2 emitter.
But as China’s government increasingly prioritizes environmental issues, the nation’s potential to take on greater climate leadership is growing.
China is becoming an example of what serious climate action looks like — and the Trump administration should take heed.
Erin Newport is a communications officer at Greenpeace East Asia, Beijing