Has China Conquered CleanTech?

Global polluter or sustainability success?

You might not have thought it, but China, the industrial and economic powerhouse, is by some measurement, the world’s leader in clean technology. In a report published at the beginning of the year, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) concluded that China had become the world’s largest investor in domestic renewable energy, and the leader in global CleanTech to boot. Over the last 10 years, the country has taken a firm stance on CleanTech expansion, which is just as well given the state of many of its urban environments. How has the balance between economic success and sustainability been achieved, and what can organisations learn from China’s conversion?

Sacrificing sustainability

It wasn’t long ago that news outlets were lamenting China’s infamous cancer villages with extreme pollution levels and mass waste generation. The country’s dirty reputation resulted from prioritising expansion over sustainability with little thought for the consequences. The environment, and the lives living within it, began to suffer. Unsurprisingly, the situation worsened to the point that the damage could no longer be ignored. In 2007, algae took over China’s second largest lake, causing a two week water shortage for three million people. A World Bank report published in the same year stated that China was the world’s largest source of sulphur dioxide emissions, and concluded that pollution was causing up to 400,000 premature deaths per year. The cost of China’s economic explosion was clear.

Handling hyper economic expansion

Over the course of a decade, China has transformed its attitude to sustainability. During the Beijing Olympics, a two month congestion ban was imposed on car users within the city in an attempt to reduce emissions. Last July, China announced a waste ban that shook the global recycling industry. As of January this year, 24 categories of solid waste including plastics and paper can no longer be shipped to Chinese recycling plants. Chinese recycling companies were forced to cut staff or shut up shop completely, while other countries have had to reconsider the volume of waste they produce. In 2017, China continued to position itself to dominate worldwide clean energy markets. This included the reorganisation of state owned power generators and a call to all battery makers to double their capacity by 2020. The Belt and Road Initiative, unveiled in 2013, has continued to enrich China’s trading network and global connections.

Following what can only be described as an aggressive push for CleanTech, China is now reaping the rewards. The country now dominates the electric vehicle market, battery development and solar power. Chinese solar manufacturers produce 60 per cent of global solar cells, making China the number one exporter of environment goods and services. Securing vital new supplies of raw materials like cobalt and lithium has further secured the country’s position as a leader in battery technology.

Lessons from the East

China’s transition has created a ripple effect in worldwide organisations, who have had to adapt to rapidly changing energy markets… But companies and other governments shouldn’t simply wait for external developments to force them to change. Sustainability should be a long term commitment, and play a central role in culture and decision making. As regulations evolve, fulfilling strict requirements will be just as important for companies as it is for countries. China’s bustling CleanTech community, headed up by the likes of Goldwind, shows that businesses are integral to national progress. Recognising the importance of CleanTech is the fundamental first step towards achieving economic growth that doesn’t come with compromises. While the turnaround has undoubtedly been impressive, China is still plagued by environmental difficulties – particularly in urban areas. Fixing policy is one thing, but ensuring it never has a serious impact is preferable.

No long a pollution-riddled health disaster, China has successfully switched to become sustainability’s biggest supporter. At the same time, the Chinese are leading in almost every technological field, and the country remains an economic behemoth. Ultimately, economic expansion can happen alongside CleanTech considerations, and can even be fuelled by them. Fortunately, sustainability is lucrative as well as benevolent, and ignoring this obvious trend is simply not good for businesses. Global governments and organisations should certainly aim to follow in China’s footsteps – but, as the Eastern power was too slow to find out, prevention is better than cure.

To read more about sustainability and the rise of renewables, sign up for our newsletter here.