Science - December 4, 2009

China wasting money on sustainable energy

Joris Tielens

China would get a better return on its investments in sustainable energy if it opted for the private sector and set up a Ministry of Energy, according to a Chinese researcher.

Wind turbines in Xinjiang
In Copenhagen, Chinese leader Hu Jintao will announce that China aims to reduce its CO 2 emissions by 40% by 2020, compared to 2005. The emissions are measured per unit of the GNP.
China currently runs on coal and oil, but has been investing seriously in sustainable energy in the form of wind turbines, solar panels and biofuels. As early as 2007, China invested nine billion euros, a figure only topped by Germany. The Chinese politburo now aims at investing 200 billion euros until 2020. 
'China will certainly be a pioneer in the field of renewable energy', concludes Jingyi Han. Han will get his PhD on 8 December from Arthur Mol, professor of environmental policy. 'But it could go a lot faster if China adapted its current policy', claims Han.
Wind turbines
This adaptation would mean handing over the installation of wind turbines and biogas systems to the private sector. Up to now they have been installed by national or local government bodies. 'Prices for energy are set by the government, not by the market. It would be better if competition was accepted, and a semi-protected market created, just as it has been in the west. The government can go on giving subsidies, and this will be necessary as long as the technology can't compete with fossil fuels.' A market of this kind would be more efficient, and produce more sustainable energy for the same amount of money.

Han also proposes investing more in research on sustainable technology. At the moment, most of the funding goes into infrastructure, for wind turbines, for example. More research would speed up the rate at which techniques become competitive.
Finally, Han also thinks that establishing a ministry of energy would help China to reach a breakthrough faster. 'Authority is important in China. As long as the issue of energy doesn't have the status of its own ministry, it will not be given much importance. Plus, the only way to deal with the current fragmentation of policy is to have one ministry.'