China is building twice as many wind and solar power plants as the rest of the world combined

The Chinese are installing solar panels
Source: Flickr, Climate Group.

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s large wind and solar projects are in China, according to a new study by the Global Energy Monitor. China currently has 339 gigawatts (GW) of renewable capacity under construction, including 159 GW of wind and 180 GW of solar. That figure is almost twice as large as the rest of the world combined, far outpacing the second-place United States, which is building a total of 40 GW.

China’s rapid growth in renewable energy capacity puts the global target of tripling renewable energy by 2030 within reach, even leaving hydropower aside. Beijing is on track to meet its own 2030 target of installing 1,200 GW of wind and solar power by next month — a full six years ahead of schedule.

The report calls on Beijing to set more ambitious climate targets in its next commitments to the United Nations to encourage other countries to invest in renewable energy at a similar pace.

Expansion of renewable energy in China

China’s renewable energy boom has been fueled by solid government support, with President Xi Jinping emphasizing “new, qualitative productive forces” that include green manufacturing. China installed more solar power between March 2023 and March 2024 than in the previous three years combined.

But these numbers—as impressive as they are—must be put into perspective. China is by far the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter. In 2020, it emitted 12.3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent, or 27% of global greenhouse gas emissions. China’s emissions have been rising steadily year over year as more coal-fired power plants come online. The country saw a fourfold increase in the number of new coal-fired power plants approved between 2022 and 2023 compared with the previous five years. This reliance on coal is partly due to energy security concerns, exacerbated by geopolitical tensions and energy shortages.

Meanwhile, the United States — historically the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter — has steadily reduced its carbon dioxide emissions each year. In 2022, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions totaled about 6 billion metric tons, down 3% from 1990 levels, down from a peak of 15.2% in 1990 in 2007.

Reducing dependence on coal is key

China aims to reduce its carbon intensity by 18% and generate 25% of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030, the year carbon emissions are set to peak (technically 23 years behind the United States). Current trends suggest that between 1,600 GW and 1,800 GW of wind and solar power will be needed to achieve these goals.

Key to weaning China off its heavy reliance on coal is access to better storage technology and greater grid flexibility. The Chinese government has recognized this need by investing $11 billion in grid-connected batteries in 2023, a 364% increase from the previous year.

There are some signs of progress in this regard. China’s push for more renewable capacity has reduced coal’s share of power generation. Coal generated 53% of China’s electricity in May, down from 60% in May 2023. Non-fossil fuel sources accounted for a record 44% of electricity generation. The country aims to peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2060.

But China’s renewable energy boom faces challenges. The country’s grid still relies on coal-fired power plants to meet growing energy demand, and transmitting renewable energy from remote regions to population centers is difficult.

Despite these challenges, China’s combined wind and solar capacity is set to overtake coal-fired power plants this year, marking a major milestone in the country’s transition to renewable energy.

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