China: Leader or Laggard On the Path to a Secure, Low-Carbon Energy Future

Abstract There has been a great deal of talk about whether and how China will manage its need to provide enough energy to ensure continued economic growth while avoiding the local and global environmental impacts of its energy production and use. To listen to the political discourse, China is either a global leader on clean energy technologies and transformation or the largest source of emissions with serious, systemic local environmental degradation. How can it at once be a low-carbon leader and a laggard? China’s ability to be both lies in the pace of its current energy transformation, its size, and its willingness to put in place tough policies to try and alter its current energy trajectory. With the current energy mix, China’s rapid growth and the associated environmental implications will undoubtedly wreak havoc on the global climate and local environmental conditions. Chinese policymakers recognize the unsustainable nature of their development pathway and have instituted a series of policies to steer them toward a more sustainable course. These policies have attracted staggering amounts of investment and made China the most exciting market on Earth for clean energy technology ventures. The truth, however, is that this pathway will be difficult to journey and navigates a great deal of uncharted territory. If China manages to overcome these obstacles, it could help the rest of the global community overcome some shared challenges. In reality, the outlook for China’s future energy use is enormously complicated and does not lend itself to a simple categorization of “leader” or “laggard.” This report seeks to clarify key aspects of China’s efforts to pursue a secure, low-carbon pathway and the challenges the government faces.
Author A Report of the CSIS Energy and National Security Program Sarah O. Ladislaw, Jane Nakano, September 2011
1 Energy and Climate, 1.5 General “Green" concerns