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Europe needs to maintain its intellectual and technological leadership in climate action despite China's growing renewable energy dominance.

The news reached to European and North American audiences at the end of last month; in another news item bearing news about unstoppable Chinese ascendency to global dominance in both political power and literal power (production): “China is set to double its capacity and produce 1,200 gigawatts of energy through wind and solar power by 2025, reaching its 2030 goal five years ahead of time, according to the report by Global Energy Monitor, a San Francisco-based NGO that tracks operating utility-scale wind and solar farms as well as future projects in the country. It says that as of the first quarter of the year, China’s utility-scale solar capacity has reached 228GW, more than that of the rest of the world combined.”

Chinese companies have been steadily increasing their research and development (R&D) expenditures, gradually approaching renowned Western manufacturers and brands. Although US companies still lead the pack, Chinese companies have caught up with certain prominent European brands like Volkswagen and BMW. Huawei, a leading R&D spender in China, has surpassed Volkswagen, while Alibaba has surpassed both Ford and BMW. Just five years ago, Huawei was the only Chinese company on the R&D spending list, which was dominated by numerous American and European companies.

While the changing status-quo in energy production and consumption can both feel threatening and heartening to European observers, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about a China-led green transition. Although China's increased solar and wind power capacity is promising, it is important to acknowledge that China continues to consume half of the world's annual coal supply. The expansion of solar and wind energy in China is primarily aimed at meeting the energy demands of a large, energy-consuming nation, rather than reflecting a comprehensive 'Chinese Green New Deal' similar to the one proposed in the United States and ratified in Europe. Coal accounted for 56.2% of total energy consumption in 2022, versus 25.9% from renewables which includes nuclear energy, the NBS data showed.

China's energy transition encounters persistent difficulties in recent years. Hydropower stations have been severely affected by heatwaves and droughts, leading to power shortages that disrupt factories. The outdated electricity grid and limited flexibility in energy transfer between regions further contribute to the uncertainty. In addition to the difficulties caused by the disastrous events and climate change, the majority of energy consumption occurs in the eastern part of the country. Consequently, the transportation of energy over long distances across the nation leads to inefficiencies that is dealt with burning of more coal.

Europe doesn’t have some of the advantages China has in fueling its own “Green Leap Forward”: a heavy-handed central government that incentivizes new investments in energy, a billion-strong population and market that allows for unprecedented economies of scale, and large areas of land suitable for solar farming. Yet, Europe still needs to lead China and the US in the face of a new wave of climate calamities which will still affect those who contributed the least amount of carbon emissions to humanity’s climate predicament. Europe and the US have been stringent about sharing its technologies with China in the near past. The goal of achieving the 1.5°C climate target, which may appear elusive at times, must still guide climate action throughout the 2030s.

The global crisis necessitates that Europe and its allies move beyond traditional power-bloc politics and explore new avenues of cooperation. Europe's intellectual and technological leadership in addressing climate catastrophes will become increasingly crucial in the face of rising levels of climate denialism in science and eco-fascism in politics. Collaboration with China, the world's primary polluter, will also be essential as it continues to be the largest producer of solar and wind energy for the foreseeable future.

Bağlan Deniz, Etkin EU Project Consultant

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