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China’s Clean Tech Revolution

The ex-global polluter, China is now reforming its image as the world’s climate and clean energy leader by dominating new, emerging energy industries.

{{{Hai Lin Wang, multimedia by Nico Gous}}}

It’s Friday afternoon, and the electric vehicle (EV) charging station at Tsinghua University’s famous tech-hub, TusPark, is nearly full. Peter Wang, a resident of Beijing, pulled into an empty charging station with his small, fully electric coupe. Seeing that all the other charging spots have been taken, he anxiously asked the man beside him, “Is this port broken?”

Unfortunately for Wang, the port was indeed broken, explained the man, who was busy charging his own vehicle. Wang sighed as he realized that he would have to wait for the other ports, which can take up to six hours to charge. He wanted to use one of the larger, faster charging ports at the station, which would only take an hour at most to power his coupe, because he was in a hurry to get home. But looking at the queue for the only three fast ports at the station, he didn’t bother getting in line.

 

What Wang faces is a common problem as a middle-class Beijinger. Outside of China, it is hard to imagine a similar scenario where demand for charging stations would be so high. With so many EV owners in the country, Wang has no other choice but to wait for one of the slower ports.

 

Like most charging stations in China, this particular location is powered by the state-grid. In recent years, the central government has been heavily encouraging for the consumption of EVs.

China, a country that was known as a global polluter only a decade ago, has reformed its image to become the next global leader in climate change mitigation and adaptation. With a special focus on lowering its environmental footprint and greenhouse gas emissions, the country has invested all efforts into transitioning to the full usage of renewable energy sources – most noticeably in the production of electric vehicles.

The Paris Climate Accord in 2015 mandated for around 200 countries to limit the increase in global temperatures to under 2 degrees Celsius - with an ambitious goal of reaching under 1.5 degrees Celsius. China, as the world’s manufacturing hub and an up-and-coming economy, is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, though many countries have contributed to these emissions by outsourcing production to China.

The carbon dioxide and methane gas released by China’s energy and transportation sectors account for a majority of these emissions. In the Nineties, China had a carbon intensity of 2.18 per unit of GDP based on its energy usage per unit GDP and “fuel mix”, meaning economic growth was heavily dependent on the usage of coal and oil. Compared to India - a similar developing country - in the same time period, China far exceeded its 0.6 carbon intensity score.

As promised in the Paris Climate Accord, China is looking to lower its carbon intensity score to 0.33 by 2030, meaning it will have to drastically alter its “fuel mix” to achieve energy efficiency while maintaining economic growth.

A future of clearer skies and fresher air is no longer just a vision for China in the Paris Accord. It’s already happening on the road with the development of new energy vehicles (NEVs), a category of EVs that include plug-in hybrids and cars that run on methanol and hydrogen.

Electrical car sales (in thousands)

In 2017, China exceeded the United States in the number of NEVs sold by 68 percent, having contributed to around half of global NEV sales that year. Looking to sell over seven million NEVs by 2025, the government has invested around $1 billion USD in state subsidies and has recently announced the wish to eventually phase out the use of petrol and diesel vehicles.

There are over 200 million cars on the streets of China, but Kejun Jiang, a researcher at the National Energy Administration, thinks the eradication of the traditional gasoline-powered car is bound to happen.

“By 2025, EVs will be able to travel over 700 kilometers while consuming less electricity per kilometer,” Jiang told Chinadialogue in an interview. “Once EVs make up 50% of the cars on the road, the remainder could be replaced in as little as two years.”

With all these technological improvements in mass transportation, China has established itself as a global leader on NEVs. The old perception of Chinese companies lagging behind and replicating Western technologies is quickly eroding away in recent years. Although EVs have been around since the end of the 19th century, the modern lithium-ion battery powered NEV is a new frontier for the global auto industry. The youthfulness of the NEV industry provides China an opportunity to establish itself as a leader.

Globally, there is indeed a race to produce more efficient EV models for auto manufacturers and countries. But some companies, like Audi, are now looking to join efforts with China in producing the EVs of the future. In November of 2019, Audi announced two new energy SUVs as the result of a collaboration with the Chinese automaker FAW. This German brand has expanded its influence in China by hosting their EV conference, the Mobility Quotient, in Beijing in 2019.

Peter F. Tropschuh, vice president of sustainability at Audi, came to Beijing as part of this collaboration and was impressed by the mass electrification of the transportation system. “New technical developments are much faster here in China compared to the U.S. and Europe,” said Tropschuh.

Peter Tropschuh, VP Sustainability of Audi (Credit: Hai Lin Wang)

Peter Tropschuh, VP Sustainability of Audi (Credit: Hai Lin Wang)

Tropschuh elaborated on the similar vision shared by both Audi and China: having 25% of all newly sold cars be electric. As China is entering into an era of clean energy, Tropschuh also sees potential in collaborations between Chinese companies and foreign companies in researching for new fuel cell technology involving the German “fuel mix” for hydrogen power.

Audi’s newest NEV release in China, the Q2L e-TRON, was built in collaboration with FAW and on Chinese soil. Its battery is also sourced from a Chinese supplier, Contemporary Amperex Technology, and allows the car to travel over 250 kilometers on a single charge. Other foreign luxury automakers, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, are also looking to electrify their local Chinese models and assemble them in China.

Along with all the collaborative possibilities that Tropschuh sees in clean technology, June Qian, a professor at the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University, sees change in how Chinese corporations will perceive the concept of sustainability in the future with better technological advancements.

For many Western companies like Audi, the concept of sustainability has taken decades to evolve. Tropschuh calls Audi’s strategy as “future-proofing” both the company and human welfare.

“Sustainability to a company should not only be about making a profit,” said Tropschuh. “You should integrate the economy, ecology and social responsibility into your entire supply chain.”

Those who can act sustainably today will be the ones making impact tomorrow, according to Tropschuh. That, to him, means companies must think long-term about their products, factories and employees, even if there may be short-term costs on profit.

“Is there a Chinese version?” asked Qian. Tropschuh’s “future-proofing” concept is new to this country, she explained.

In a country where 19 percent of people still don’t know what sustainability means, according to Luxe.co, a Chinese fashion media, making Chinese companies adhere to the concept of sustainability is a challenge in itself, especially when it is viewed as a hindrance to economic development.

“In the year 2000, people didn’t think about sustainability,” said Qian. “Only very recently did corporate social responsibility (CSR) start to pick up traction.”

Pushing for the wide acceptance of sustainability is actually the Chinese government, explained Qian. The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) mandates for companies to fulfill CSR requirements while top universities like Tsinghua train CSR and sustainability professionals.

With the recent push on NEV production and innovation, Qian is optimistic about the future of Chinese sustainability. “China is an open country,” she said. “An ecosystem surrounding sustainability should be fully developed by 2025.”

China is a special case due to its one-party governance system. In other countries, like the U.S., Canada and France, pushing for more sustainability may bring societal unrest due to the rise of populism and climate change denial. Development limited by environmental concerns and technological advancement are often perceived to be the drivers of unemployment by the public. However, committed to hitting the sustainable development goals and the transition to a greener economy, China is boosting jobs in the clean energy sector.

In 2016, the City of Taiyuan in Shanxi province of China began to utilize only NEVs for its 9000 taxicabs. Previously a city that was heavily dependent on coal-mining, Taiyuan accepted the investments of BYD, a major Chinese EV manufacturer, who now contributes to 5% of the city’s GDP. In 2018, the city was listed as an EV capital on the International Council on Clean Transportation and is now exemplified as a city that transitioned from a heavy reliance on coal to clean tech in only two years of time.

Estimated direct and indirect jobs in renewable energy by country/region and technology

According to current data by Jiang, China contributes almost half of the jobs in the renewable energy sector, with most in solar photovoltaic technology development. Compared to the United States, China created almost five times as many employment opportunities.

Despite all the optimism in China-made tech, country-wide electrification is not without its challenges. Back at TusPark, Wang finally secured an available charging port after waiting for 20 minutes. He opened up the trunk of his electric coupe and whipped out a three-meter-long cable. “I’m always prepared,” he said. “I knew they wouldn’t have a charging cable.”

EVs are definitely lower in emissions as compared to cars that operated on gasoline. However, where the electricity is generated could still bring into question the effectiveness of EVs as a solution for climate change. China’s state grid still derives two-thirds of its power from coal, which would create more carbon dioxide emissions.

“The change in electrification must be parallel to where the energy is coming from,” said Tropschuh. While introducing EVs to the market, policymakers must keep in mind to reform the electric grid and to use cleaner sources of energy to generate power at the same time, according to Tropschuh.

Another problem that usually limits the successful implementation of EVs is inefficient charging infrastructure. Though just Beijing alone has as many charging stations as the United States, these charging stations are not all plugged in and working. According to China Electric Power Research Institute, charging 500,000 EVs could cause an entire city’s electricity grid to collapse.

For the time being, Wang is satisfied with his electric coupe as he stands by the charging port. Although he will have to wait a few hours, he loves that his car is quiet and has gotten used to driving it.

“It gets me where I need to go,” said Wang. “That’s all I need.”

EV charging station

Credit: Nico Gous

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