How a Soft Energy Path Could Put China on the Right Track to Sustainable Growth

Rocky Mountain Institute

How a Soft Energy Path Could Put China on the Right Track to Sustainable Growth

Photo credit: iStock via RMI

China is putting forward aggressive policies to reduce energy intensity while still maintaining rapid development. But transformative sustainable development in China needs to respect some unique conditions if it is to be successful.

More than 30 years ago, Amory Lovins, the co-founder, chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute, proposed a "soft energy" path for America's own growth trajectory. This alternative vision was based on recognition of the profoundly wasteful use of energy at the time, the many profitable opportunities to increase efficiency throughout the system, and the potential of a rapid deployment of "soft" renewable energy supply technologies.

Due to inconsistent federal policy, the trajectory the U.S. followed over the ensuing decades was erratic, and in some ways we ended up on the "hard path" of increasing fossil fuel-based supplies.

Today, the possibility of China succeeding on a true soft energy path is tantalizing. And while China has strong political and cultural incentives for energy intensive development, there are many barriers to the rapid transformation in energy efficiency and renewable supply required by this model. Recognizing these underlying biases and working to educate local authorities is one potential way to encourage a radically different trajectory for development in China.

The evolving picture of China's energy use is full of contrasts. From one view China is making rapid headway reducing its energy intensity. The Central government has targets for reducing energy use by 20 percent by the close of 2010, and there are huge subsidies for renewable supply technologies. Yet the sheer scale of the development path ahead of China points to dramatic increases in fossil-fuel consumption-and resulting CO2 emissions-while current efficiency measures take some time to come into effect.

Even under the most efficient scenario for energy development, detailed in a report by a major think-tank under the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission, China's total greenhouse gas emissions will double by 2050. With most global warming models indicating that the world must stop the runaway CO2 emissions train much sooner, the challenge of continuing China's development on any sustainable path seems daunting.

In comparison to America of the 1970s, China's situation on energy efficiency is far more urgent -- and yet the scale of its development needs is drastically greater. Because of rapidly increasing energy consumption for a growing middle class and through its role as factory to the world, China cannot afford (both economically and environmentally) to develop much further along the "hard path." Indeed, the world cannot afford it either.

China’s Energy Intensity (Btu per (2000) U.S. Dollars) / Source: Energy Information Administration

The good news is that China has a much greater potential for success on a soft path because its energy policy remains aggressive and consistent for increasing efficiency throughout the economy, and it leads the world in producing renewable supply technologies like PV solar.

If China were really to follow a soft energy path, there are a few unique political, economic and social circumstances that need to be acknowledged -- and appropriate solutions applied:

  1. The key role of the central government. The importance and power of central authority planning in China cannot be understated. While China is a patchwork of uneven implementation because of local interpretation and corruption, the central government has nearly total control over the creation of policy. Even in the United States, renewable energy markets first prospered and then fell apart in response to extremely inconsistent federal policy. In contrast, China's central authority has made a strong, persistent commitment to many of the underpinnings of sustainable development.  To begin implementing a soft path, China's central government should continue and intensify efforts that are already under way, including: education programs on energy efficiency for business leaders -- especially those in state-run industries, robust energy audits to help bring official recognition to energy savings, and innovative financing models for energy efficiency practices.
  2. Economic incentives are really what matter. The language of "profitable solutions" that Lovins used during the dark ages of the U.S. environmental movement is now the essential framing of this issue for China. While there is growing popular recognition of the immediate impacts of pollution and environmental degradation in China, energy efficiency will only become widely implemented when it is understood as a source of profits. Concerns about global climate change are simply not an important motivating factor at this time in China. While the central government may eventually drive these issues based on scientific consensus, they still have to be implemented by local authorities strongly motivated by saving money.
  3. Sustainable Development must be rapid and visible. When local authorities in China's provinces look to prove their value, they gravitate towards projects that are highly visible and quick fixes. For example, because many residential communities are built in a hurry to meet the huge market demand for housing, very few energy-use concerns are addressed in the original designs. Similarly, a coal power station represents bringing industrial potential and reliable power to a region, and so a cultural meaning is attached to it that outsiders might not fully appreciate. To work towards efficiency at its end use in people's homes, factories and offices, while it may preclude the need for the power plant in the first place, has much less visible appeal to offer to local officials. Meanwhile, truly systemic changes are not fast enough for the intense, popular focus on rapid development.
  4. Local education and official collaboration are urgently needed. The knowledge that energy efficiency is the first and most important step toward sustainability on a soft path still needs to be transfered to China at all levels of government. Already, significant initiatives are under way, such as the China-U.S. Energy Efficiency Alliance, and many others have the support of prominent U.S. environmental organizations, utilities, and business partnerships.

The right approaches for communicating the value of energy efficiency need to be taken; otherwise local officials will continue to put showy solar panels on their buildings rather than higher impact retrofits like replacing windows, improving insulation and upgrading HVAC systems. Even with a strong central policy and official mandates, the potential for transformational change at this crucial stage in China's development is lost without greater understanding of the potential for efficiency.

If there is any possibility of a true soft energy path for sustainable development taking hold in China, the country could confidently navigate where America has stumbled since the 1970's. In order to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals in the current, urgent timeframe, the world needs China to prove that sustained rates of development are possible under completely different conditions than were exemplified in the West. China's strength remains the policy powers of its central authority -- but we must respect China's unique cultural and political conditions to ensure those directives are implemented in a meaningful way on a local level.

Aris Yi is a research fellow and Amory Lovins' China representative at Rocky Mountain Institute. Jonah Taylor is a freelance writer who works frequently with RMI's media and communications team.

Photo credit: iStock via RMI