Until recently, China and India have been cast as obstacles, at the very least reluctant conscripts, in the battle against climate change. That reputation looks very much out-of-date now that both countries have greatly accelerated their investments in cost-effective renewable energy sources — and reduced their reliance on fossil fuels. It’s America — Donald Trump’s America — that now looks like the laggard.
According to research released last week at a United Nations climate meeting in Germany, China and India should easily exceed the targets they set for themselves in the 2015 Paris Agreement signed by more than 190 countries. China’s emissions of carbon dioxide appear to have peaked more than 10 years sooner than its government had said they would. And India is now expected to obtain 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2022, eight years ahead of schedule.
Every one of the Paris signatories will have to reduce emissions to ward off the worst consequences of global warming — devastating droughts, melting glaciers and unstoppable sea level rise. But the tangible progress by the world’s number one producer of greenhouse gases (China) and its number three (India) are astonishing nonetheless, and worth celebrating.
There is also a lesson here for the United States. Piece by piece, agency by agency, the Trump administration seems determined to destroy or undermine every initiative on which President Obama based his pledge in Paris to substantially reduce America’s greenhouse gases: his plan to close old, coal-fired power plants, his proposals to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas wells, his mandates for more fuel-efficient vehicles. The excuse given in every case is that these rules would cost jobs and damage the economy — the same bogus argument once used by Vice President Dick Cheney to persuade President George W. Bush to renege on his campaign promise to combat global warming.
China and India are finding that doing right by the planet need not carry a big economic cost and can actually be beneficial. By investing heavily in solar and wind, they and others like Germany have helped drive down the cost of those technologies to a point where, in many places, renewable sources can generate electricity more cheaply than dirtier sources of energy like coal. In a recent auction in India, developers of solar farms offered to sell electricity to the grid for 2.44 rupees per kilowatt-hour (or 3.79 cents). That is about 50 percent less than what solar farms bid a year earlier and about 24 percent less than the average price for energy generated by coal-fired power plants.
The shift from fossil fuels has thus been much faster and more pronounced than most experts expected. China has reduced coal use for three years in a row and recently scrapped plans to build more than 100 coal power plants. Indian officials have estimated that country might no longer need to build new coal plants beyond those that are already under construction. One other heartening fact: Electric vehicle sales in China jumped 70 percent last year, thanks in large part to generous government incentives. India is much further behind in this area, but the country’s minister of power said last month that all cars sold in the country should be electric by 2030.
China and India’s enthusiasm for cleaner energy arises in part from a wish to reduce the terrible air pollution that afflicts cities like Beijing and New Delhi; any move away from coal would make a big difference in public health. Investments in cutting-edge energy and transportation technologies would also bolster the economy as a whole.
There are, of course, formidable challenges, not least developing batteries to store the excess electricity generated by solar farms on sunny days and wind farms on windy days. And there are emissions from industry and agriculture to worry about. Still, Beijing and New Delhi — not, embarrassingly enough, Washington — are showing the way forward.