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November 21, 2011

Despite Renewable Energy Push, China Still Runs on Coal

China is an environmental contradiction. The rapidly developing Asian giant is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and still relies mostly on heavily polluting coal for its energy.

But the country is also trying to counter the environmental damage by aggressively investing in non-polluting sources of energy.

The planet is getting warmer. Photos from 100 years ago show Himalayan glaciers - which supply water for many of Asia's major rivers - are shrinking.

Many scientists say burning coal is part of the reason. The cheap fuel is China’s and the world’s main energy source, but its carbon emissions also warm the planet.  In Beijing, an art exhibit uses images to illustrate the linkage between coal and ice.

This 30-year-old visitor, who refused to give his name, says the exhibit raises very relevant issues.

“This is especially the case in China, the environment has been ruined in a dramatic way.  Maybe it’s economic development that brings in such negative effects.”

Twenty year old college student Zhou Mengyue calls the exhibit inspiring, but she says China must raise basic living standards before it can fully address environmental problems.

“If the government cannot ensure that people have enough food, clothing and other basics, it is very hard to talk about other issues," he said. "I think the government is concerned first about improving peoples’ livelihoods.”

The government is making some progress. The United Nations says China this year was the world’s largest investor in renewable energy projects.

Longtime China analyst Orville Schell, who is with the Asia Society, applauds Beijing’s efforts, but worries they are still not enough.

“The problem is, for all the progress that they are making, they still are increasing aggregate amount of greenhouse gas emissions," Schell said. "And I think are increasing the aggregate amount of pollution within the country, because the rapidity of their economic development is so fast. So, they are winning, at the same time, they are losing.”

Schell adds China still can play a meaningful global leadership role on climate change, but it remains unclear if the government is willing to tackle the social and economic challenges from replacing coal with cleaner alternatives.