​Climate calamity averted: New renewable rivalry between the US and China

Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He tweets at @theerimtanangle

This picture taken on January 22, 2013 shows a thermal power plant discharging heavy smog into the air in Changchun, northeast China's Jilin province. (AFP Photo)

It was but a few years ago that China was known all around as one of the big three world polluters, spewing tons and tons of carbon into the air, primarily through its coal-powered electricity plants.

China, responsible for about 17% of global greenhouse gas
emissions, closely followed by the US (16%) and the EU (12%), has
become the world’s biggest carbon emitter. The Chinese use of
coal-fired power plants is mirrored by the US in its pursuit of
cheap electricity. Whereas the Chinese are forced to call upon
Australia for coal imports, the United States is home to the
largest coal reserves in the world, and in 2010 half of America’s
energy was still produced using coal power plants.

In the run up to the US presidential elections of 2008,
then-candidate Obama uttered many pledges and promises to woo
voters. He particularly promised to ensure that 10% of US
electricity would come from renewable sources by 2012 and 25% by
2025. In addition, Obama also promised to establish a low
national carbon-fuel standard. Arguably, Obama at the time felt
at ease with promulgating such a seemingly drastic rhetoric,
given George W. Bush’s well-known ties with the oil industry
which turned the renewable energy argument into a convenient ploy
to bash his Republican opposition. Sen. John McCain appeared to
talk the talk on the “effects of greenhouse-gas
but apparently in contrast to his Democrat
rival, he favored the nuclear option instead. And we should not
forget that McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin, in turn, loved
using the populist slogan “Drill, baby, drill!”,
indicating that she favored a renewed drive for domestic oil
production in the US Still, on the ground the US and China both
vied for the status of top polluter, with the latter eventually
taking the lead.

Leader everywhere

But as always, China is motivated by the long-term argument, and
on 28 February 2005 the National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) adopted
the Renewable Energy Law. Subsequently, President Hu Jintao
signed and promulgated the law, effective from 1 January 2006
(and amended in 2009), requiring “power grid operators to
purchase resources from registered renewable energy
The Law also includes a number of financial
incentives, such as a “national fund to foster renewable
energy development, and discounted lending and tax preferences
for renewable energy projects”

China’s renewable energy consumption stood at a measly 3% in
2003, and the Renewable Energy Law aims to increase the
consumption level to 10% by 2020. The Law is pretty specific in
its determination, declaring that renewable energy in this law
“refers to non-fossil energy of wind energy, solar energy,
water energy, biomass energy, geothermal energy, and ocean
energy, etc.”

Since then, the Chinese government has been regarding
“renewable energy as the preferential area for energy
development and promotes the construction and development of the
renewable energy market”

According to Xin Qiu and Honglin Li, writing in the Environmental
Law Reporter (2009), from “the end of 2005 to the end of
2007, the capacity of renewable energy facilities nationwide
increased by 3.6 million kW, or 30.6%, compared to 2005 levels.
The capacity of hydroelectricity, wind electricity, and
bioelectricity increased 26.3%, 444%, and 429%, respectively. The
actual increase of electricity generated was 82.2 billion
kilowatt hours (kWh), or 20.6%. The increase of hydroelectricity,
wind electricity, and bioelectricity was 18.9%, 268%, and 363%,

The authors conclude that in “2009, China had become the
largest investor of renewable energy in the world”
, while
still being one of the top three polluters. And the Chinese have
since annually invested around $56 billion in the renewable
energy sector (in 2013 the People’s Republic invested more in
clean energy than all of the European nations combined (EU, $55

A woman wearing a face mask walks in heavy smog in Harbin, northeast China's Heilongjiang province, on October 21, 2013. (AFP Photo)

In fact, as indicated by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the
“clean energy sector is now an annual $250 billion component
of the world economy”
. And the world’s leader in clean
energy investment is clearly China. The director of Pew’s clean
energy program Phyllis Cuttino said as much when she maintained
that “[n]o other clean energy market in the world is
operating at that scale”
, referring to the Chinese endeavors
in the field. For instance, in 2013, China increased its solar
energy output almost fourfold to 12.1 GW, or 12,100 MW. Whereas,
the Chinese drive in the field of wind energy was increased to
more than 10 GW. Pew indicated that Chinese investment in wind
was $28 billion and in solar $22.6 billion, leaving the US behind
in second place for investment in wind energy and third for solar

Concern about people?

China’s drive towards clean energy is arguably motivated by the
Communist leadership’s desire to keep its 1.3 billion population
alive and well (or pacified) for the foreseeable future. At the
same time, one should not lose track of the fact that most of
China’s electricity still primarily comes from coal as well as
hydropower. This means that the Chinese are still contributing
heavily towards adding greenhouse gases to the earth’s atmosphere
and are thus still carrying the burden of directly contributing
to ‘climate change’, endangering the future of humanity.
As a result, China’s decision to turn green and become a leader
in renewable energy has a direct impact on the world’s fate and
the future of humanity.

Christopher Flavin, a Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the
Worldwatch Institute, a globally focused environmental research
organization based in Washington, D.C, put forward that the
“future of the global climate may rest in large measure on
China’s ability to lead the world into the age of renewable
energy, much as the United States led the world into the age of
oil roughly a century ago”
. Even though Flavin’s statement
was made as long ago as 2007, it is only now that the US has
taken up this gauntlet under President Obama.

In spite of his lofty campaign promises, President Obama’s
best-laid renewable energy plans were quashed by the Republican
take-over of the House of Representatives in 2010. In December of
that year, the Republicans brought an end to the US House of
Representatives’ Select Committee on Energy Independence and
Global Warming, created by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2007.
This talking shop had been set up to debate the latest
developments in ‘climate change’ issues and new developments in
climate research, but House Republicans deemed such deliberations

The issue of ‘climate change’, the term now favored as
the previously used expression “global warming” seems
overly alarmist and arguably somewhat inaccurate as the
temperature fluctuations now occurring are not always that
straightforward in people’s perceptions. Nevertheless, the United
Nations has released a statement indicating that “13 of the
14 warmest years on record occurred this century”
, and after
all the current year is 2014. As a result, in spite of detractors
and other conspiracy-minded deniers one cannot but conclude that
‘climate change’ is real and that it is very likely
caused by human activity, leading to the arguably
pompous-sounding concept of “anthropogenic climate
. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (a total of 259 scientists from 39 countries, and better
known as IPCC) declared that “[g]lobal atmospheric
concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have
increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and
now far exceed pre-industrial values determined from ice cores
spanning many thousands of years. The global increases in carbon
dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and
land-use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are
primarily due to agriculture”

AFP Photo / Stephen Jaquiery

Last year a newly undertaken research indicated that high levels
of methane (or rather methane hydrate) are also to be found
underneath the world’s oceans (estimated to amount to 700,000
trillion cubic feet), in addition to the methane trapped in the
Siberian permafrost. Only last year, the IPCC released its latest
findings under the title Climate Change 2013, and its language is
disconcerting to say the least: “[w]arming of the climate
system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed
changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The
atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice
have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of
greenhouse gases have increased”
, and going on to say that
“[h]uman influence on the climate system is clear. This is
evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the
atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and
understanding of the climate system”
and finally adding that
“[h]uman influence has been detected in warming of the
atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle,
in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and
in changes in some climate extremes … It is extremely likely
that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed
warming since the mid-20th century”

American exceptionalism and climate change

But in the face of the overwhelming scientific evidence US
Republicans persist in their obdurate denial of common sense and
reason. For example, the US State of Florida appears to be the
most vulnerable in terms of the impact of climate change;
particularly, as regions in coastal areas that used to be high
and dry now regularly get flooded by sea water. A report released
by the National Climate Assessment last month suggests that
“[m]ore than 5,790 square miles and more than $1 trillion
worth of property and structures are at risk of inundation from a
sea level rise of two feet above current sea level – an elevation
which could be reached by 2050 under a high rate of sea level
rise of approximately 6.6 feet by 2100”
. The report even
points to specific locations as particularly endangered:
“[r]oughly half of the vulnerable property value is located
in Florida, and the most vulnerable port cities are Miami,
Greater New York, New Orleans, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Virginia
. Still, one of the state’s Republican Senators –
Marco Rubio, namely – still felt at ease to proclaim that he does
“not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic
changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying
… The fact is that these events that we’re talking about are
impacting us, because we built very expensive structures in
Florida and other parts of the country near areas that are prone
to hurricanes. We’ve had hurricanes in Florida forever. And the
question is what do we do about the fact that we have built
expensive structures, real estate and population centers near
those vulnerable areas?”

Other examples of Republican difficulties to come to terms with
certain 21st-century realities can be found in the House Science,
Space, and Technology Committee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith that
has so far held three meeting to discuss the existence of
extraterrestrial life but only one on the arguably more pressing
topic of climate change. As such, the Science Committee is manned
by some very peculiar Republican characters indeed: Rep. Paul
Broun (R-Ga.), a man known for his denunciation of such frivolous
branches of science like cosmology, biology, and geology as
propagating “lies straight from the pit of Hell”; Rep.
Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who said about the issue of global warming
that he is “really more fearful of freezing. And I don’t have
any science to prove that”
; but also Rep. Randy Neugebauer
(R-Texas), who, after a series of destructive tornadoes and
droughts in his home state, drafted a resolution for his
fellow-citizens to “join together in prayer to humbly seek
fair weather conditions”
. That President Obama has so far
not been able to develop his climate change or renewable energy
agenda thus seems hardly surprising.

The fact that the current POTUS takes the issue of American
exceptionalism seriously was vividly illustrated in his
commencement speech at the United States Military Academy at West
Point, NY on 28 May 2014. Barrack Obama sounded just like any
other predecessor of his, extolling the US’ unique role in the
world and his nation’s God-given mission to lead (even though
currently the US is but the “second largest contributor to
global warming on the planet”
, as worded by the AP), saying
that the “United States is and remains the one indispensable
nation. American military power and action have been in ample
evidence around the globe in recent years, proving that the 2009
Nobel Peace Prize winner is true to his word that action speaks
louder than mere words. The American military footprint he
inherited and maintained is conspicuously large – the total known
land area occupied by US bases and facilities across the world is
15,654 square miles, a territory “bigger than D.C.,
Massachusetts, and New Jersey combined”
, as expressed by
Ujala Sehgal and Robert Johnson.

U.S. President Barack Obama (AFP Photo / Alex Wong)

Aside from the geopolitical and other strategic issues forcing
Obama to flex the US military muscle, now that he is well and
truly into his second (and final) term as the Leader of the Free
World, he probably feels the need to establish his own legacy,
his own stamp that will mark the world in years, if not
centuries, to come. Now that his presidency is approaching its
twilight years, Obama has the opportunity to get back to his
earlier-uttered campaign promises and he has found a way to
revive an old statute, thereby forgoing the need to pass a new
law (that would have been stalled and stopped dead in its tracks
by the Republican House), that would tackle the issue of carbon
emissions and thus finally provide a partial answer the challenge
posed by the Chinese as long ago as 2005.

In this way, Obama wants to prove that the US is “the one
indispensable nation”
that will halt the ill-effects of
climate change. The news agency Reuters pronounced that the
“US power sector must cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent
by 2030 from 2005 levels, according to federal regulations
unveiled on [2 June 2014] that form the centerpiece of the Obama
administration’s climate change strategy. The Environmental
Protection Agency’s proposal is one of the most significant
environmental rules proposed by the United States, and could
transform the power sector, which [now still] relies on coal for
nearly 38 percent of electricity”
(natural gas and renewable
sources such as wind and solar have eaten up 12% of coal’s
contribution to American electricity). The EPA regulation is
called the Clean Power Plan (CPP), and constitutes the
center-piece of President Obama’s renewable energy policy that is
meant to be a guiding light to the rest of the world. But this
CPP is but an elaboration on the 1970 Clean Air Act. The
president of the Natural Resources Defense Council Frances
Beinecke stated that the “purpose of this rule is to really
close the loophole on carbon pollution, reduce emissions as we’ve
done with lead, arsenic and mercury and improve the health of the
American people and unleash a new economic opportunity”
stressing the domestic benefits of the CPP and trying to placate
the coal lobby. The coal lobby, arguably in conjunction with the
Republican opposition, has already launched its counter-attack,
leading Beinecke to write that the “nation’s worst polluters
and their allies have launched a propaganda campaign to convince
[the American public] that the Environmental Protection Agency’s
new carbon pollution standards are nothing more than a backdoor
energy tax that will kill jobs and cost you money”
, adding
that “[t]hat campaign is a lie. And what’s at stake is too
important to let the lie stand, or even start”
. In other
words, the Obama administration already has its work cut out
trying to convince US citizens that the issues of climate change
and renewable energy are worthwhile and that the CPP will not
harm anybody’s pockets (apart from those belonging to the coal
lobby, that is, even though coal would still provide 31% of the
US electricity demand after implementation of the CPP).

The real competitors

Looking at the bigger picture and taking a longer view the Obama
administration is now trying to convince global public opinion
that the US, and not China, has the “ability to lead the
world into the age of renewable energy”
. While at the moment
the US seems to be concentrating on the Ukrainian proxy-battle
with Russia in the ongoing New Cold War, President Obama’s new
focus on the Pacific-Asia region, meaning China, is well-known as
well – America’s so-called military and strategic
“pivot” to Asia.

Already in 2011, the US President concluded a new deal with
Australia as a result of which US Marines are now stationed in
the northern city of Darwin (at present, the number of US Marines
rotating through Darwin stands at a 1,000). Ostensibly, this
addition to the US military footprint was set up to “preserve
peace and security”
in the region, but the reality is that
United States regards the rise of China with suspicion and some
trepidation. And, as a US dependency of sorts, Australia is keen
to host American boots on the ground. As such, at the beginning
of this month, the Australian Senate Estimates Committee
conducted a hearing on the “likelihood of Australia being on
the front line of a war between the US and China or between Japan
and China”
. While it seems to me that talk of an actual
armed conflict between the US and China at present seems
far-fetched, President Obama has now nevertheless clearly staked
the claim that his legacy will be a global drive towards
renewable energy under American and not Chinese, guidance. Even
though currently the US is involved in a rivalry with Russia via
the Ukrainian conflict, the real competitors of the later 21st
century will undoubtedly be the US and China.

In terms of renewable energy, the US is now trying to steal the
Chinese momentum as the fore-runner that will guide the rest of
the world. And this American guidance will supposedly unite the
globe in an effort to ward off certain climate calamity. But the
sad fact is that certain scientists have already indicated that
these efforts will be too (little too) late. The renowned
ecologist and paleoclimatolgist Curt Stager has, for instance,
been arguing for some time now that “our fossil fuel
emissions will interfere with climates for much longer than most
of us, scientists included, yet realize. Even in the best-case
scenario, the world won’t fully recover for tens of thousands of
years and possibly much longer”
. The Chinese are famous for
their ability to plan long-term and the Obama legacy project
(CPP) arguably also aims at a future beyond immediate election
cycles, but whether either nation will be able to alter the
world’s emissions of greenhouse gases and undo their negative
effect on the earth’s climate seems dubious. Whether Chinese or
American, the future of humanity seems to be in dire peril . . .

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Comments (12)

76 17.06.2014 02:49

There is no way we will exist passed 2100…. its not just one or two things its a multitude of things and any one of them dire.

Yuri Ivanovich 17.06.2014 02:33

The world now knows that Obam will say ANYTHING to get his way. Doesn’t matter if its right or wrong. In the long run, as long as oil/gas/coal exist, the corporations are going to make a profit from it.

JamesMayFanboy 17.06.2014 01:48


View all comments (12)

Add comment

Edit profile



New password

Retype new password

Current password



Leave a comment