China's leadership on renewables: Tim Flannery | Asia Pacific

China's leadership on renewables: Tim Flannery

China's leadership on renewables: Tim Flannery

Updated 29 April 2013, 22:06 AEST

Until recently, China was building a new coal fired power plant every two weeks.

It's insatiable energy demand is a huge problem for global efforts to cut carbon emissions and protect the world from dangerous climate change.

But while China is burning ever more fossil fuels it is also leading the world in the use of renewable energy.

That's according to a report from Australia's Climate Commission released today.

Chief Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery says China's position has changed very quickly in the last couple of years.

Correspondent: Richard Ewart

Speaker: Tim Flannery, Chief Climate Commissioner, Australia's Climate Commission

FLANNERY: China was building a coal fire power plant every week or two. That's now stopped. What we're now seeing is a coal cap in place, so China has capped the amount of coal that they're going to be burning, pretty close to current levels and instead are expanding renewables very quickly. And if you look at just the year 2011-2012, which is the last year we've got data for, the amount of wind and solar capacity put into China equalled about a third of Australia's total electricity generation, so they really are taking a leadership position.

EWART: And in that sense, I mean how much of this can you put down to China being proactive as it were and how much do you think it's being influenced by the slowdown in the Chinese economy?

FLANNERY: Well look, if you look at the actual, I mean it's very hard to unpick those factors, but if you just look at what's happening. The Chinese have set targets for themselves in terms of emission intensity, in terms of overall electricity demand and they are exceeding those targets, not just meeting them, they're exceeding them. So whatever is happening is pushing the energy in China in one direction towards renewables and away from fossil fuels. They're also on the threshold of testing emissions trading schemes, and they'll been seven trial emissions trading schemes set up starting in the next few months and by 2016 the entire nation will have an emissions trading scheme. So they're quickly unrolling policy issues that are going to have a big impact. And even now, you'd have to say, they're world leaders in these areas.

EWART: So what impact do you think this situation in China will have on the sceptics around the world. I mean if you think back to those who refused to initially sign up to the Kyoto deal, one of the things that was often said was that countries like China are not doing enough, they're not pulling they're weight. Well plainly, based on this evidence, they can't say that now?

FLANNERY: Well, that's right. I mean the energy giants are China and the US, between them they emit about 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and both are moving very quickly. We've just discussed China, but the US it's emissions are declining dramatically. In fact, it's emissions from electricity generation this year were at levels not seen since 1996, so they're declining very quickly and the US is well on track to achieve its target of a reduction of 17 per cent below 2005 levels in greenhouse gas emissions. So you'd have to say the energy giants are moving. Those old arguments no longer hold water. In fact, if you applied them today, you'd say they'd be spurring action in the rest of the world.

EWART: Will they continue to spur action in the rest of the world in this next round of UN talks in Germany, in the city of Bonn, because China has been accused of undermining progress at those international negotiations in the fairly recent past. Are we expecting to see a change of tack this time?

FLANNERY: Well, I think it's going to be very interesting to watch. We've seen in the last six months or so, leadership of both the US under Obama and China under Xi be consolidated and we've seen now in the last two weeks a bipartisan agreement between the US and China on acting on climate change and the details of that are going to be thrashed out in July. So it will be very interesting to see if that new dynamic does play it in Bonn. Of course, it's hard to predict those sort of things, but we are now seeing both the energy giants acting together and acting very decisively.

EWART: So, we're talking here about China making positive moves on the renewable energy front. If we look closer to home, here in Australia, we have a new government report saying that a move to 100 per cent renewable energy would take 200 Billion dollars, need 5,000 square kilometres of land and double the wholesale cost of electricity. Now, this all means, do you accept those figures and if you do, that's a pretty steep price, isn't it, probably unaffordable?

FLANNERY: Well, we have to remember that those sort of costs are they play out over 30 years and you can't just do nothing with energy, even just renewing the old fossil fuel energy base would probably cost a very a large amount of money, something on that order and would use that amount of land, because you're looking at coal mines, rail infrastructure, fly ash pits, all those sort of things and of course, coal seam gas takes up a lot of land as well. So they are large figures, but over time, they're the sort of investments any developed economy needs to make in terms of its energy infrastructure. And so, for a place like Australia, we've got a clear decision. Do we continue building old style fossil fuel plants or do we move with the ever, with renewable energy, which is becoming cheaper by the year. And just to underline that point, the cost of solar, for example, the cost of production has dropped 80 per cent in four years, so projecting out 30 years for real costs, they're difficult, but I'm convinced that renewables are going to become ever more competitive.

EWART: And to come back to what is happening in China. Recently, of course, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, was over there and a number of deals were signed, not least to do with climate change, to do with sharing expertise on carbon trading and the like. And we have an Opposition which has pledged to throw out the carbon tax in Australia if they're elected in September. But, if they do that, how will that impact, do you think on Australia's relationship with China now?

FLANNERY: Well look, the Climate Commission doesn't comment on government policy or Opposition policy. We keep well clear of the politics. We just we engage in a dialogue with the Australian public about all aspects of climate change, including international action. But the one thing that we can say which we hear loud and clear from business is that bipartisan support for energy policy is tremendously important, because people are investing for decades ahead and to have policy certainty is really critical in these areas. So businesses are calling for bipartisan support and certainty in policy.

Contact the studio

Got something to say about what you're hearing on the radio right now?

Send your texts to +61 427 72 72 72

Add the hashtag #raonair to add your tweets to the conversation.

Email us your thoughts on an issue. Messages may be used on air.