China is the world’s biggest polluter. Rivers around some of the country’s largest cities have become unfit for human use. Urban areas produce mountains of waste. And—most important to the rest of the world—China’s carbon emissions have increased fourfold in three decades. 

Rapid industrialization and urbanization turned the country’s skies gray. As cities expanded, landfills have filled up ahead of schedule. With the rise of e-commerce and ubiquitous food delivery, the World Bank expects China to produce twice as much municipal waste as the US by 2030, just 25 years after it became the world’s largest producer of refuse.

Cleantech

Cleantech is TechNode’s monthly in-focus newsletter looking at China’s push to clean up its environment using technology.

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Meanwhile, between 2010 and 2018, the number of pollution sources in China rose by half, according to China’s environmental ministry, increasing from 5.9 million to 9 million in less than a decade. These include polluters of air, water, and soil. Of that total, 7.4 million are industrial sources. 

Now, Beijing is taking forceful action. In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping surprised the world by announcing that China would dramatically reduce its carbon footprint in the next 40 years, effectively cutting net emissions to zero. The commitment follows years of tightening policies aimed at reducing carbon intensity. 

Xi did not give any details on immediate targets, which are expected to be included in China’s new five-year plan, set to be released March 5. If fulfilled, the pledge could drastically reduce global carbon emissions and slow global warming while creating a $16 trillion industry in the next 40 years, driving investment in green technologies. To reach its goal, China will have to overhaul its economy—and rally its tech sector. 

We’ve been asking ourselves how China’s tech sector will play a role in this transformation. That’s why we’ve decided to start this newsletter. For the next few months, we’re going to take you on a deep dive into clean technology, or cleantech, in China. We’ll be identifying promising technologies and companies, and looking into who is investing in the industry. 

We will support green technology innovation, promote clean production, develop the environmental protection industry, and promote green retrofitting of key industries and important fields.

China’s 14th Five-Year Plan guidelines, published in November 

What is cleantech?

What do we mean by cleantech? The name is applied to everything from energy production to trash sorting startups. We’ve decided to go broad and thematic, so we’ll hazard a broad definition: Cleantech encompasses technologies that reduce our negative impact on the environment by improving energy efficiency and using resources in a more sustainable way. 

Within this scope, we’ll find a lot of activity. In 2016, Chinese lawmakers announced plans to rapidly decrease pollution, calling for “significant integration” between the country’s energy and tech sectors. At the same time, authorities laid out plans to create green cities, complete with electrified transport and eco-friendly buildings. 

Underpinning these projects is a smorgasbord of new construction technologies, smart waste management systems, new energy vehicles, air treatment and carbon capture technologies, better water treatment, new forms of distributed energy production, and energy storage. 

Deployment

Several of these technologies have already been deployed around the country. In 2019, the Chinese government rolled out smart trash-sorting systems in a mass recycling push aiming to cut down on municipal waste. These devices began appearing in cities around the country amid the government’s mandatory trash-sorting campaigns. They aim to lessen the effort involved in the recycling process. 

One company that runs the automatic waste-sorting stations is Dog (Xiaohuanggou). The firm has raised more than RMB 1 billion and operates in 41 cities around China. It has 6 million registered users, according to its website (in Chinese). 

Meanwhile, Alibaba affiliate Ant Group started providing services to connect its users with online recycling platforms, allowing them to sell their recyclable waste to these companies.

Mobility has long been a significant focus, particularly as a means of reducing carbon emissions. China has subsequently become the biggest electric vehicle (EV) market in the world. Private companies and the government have rallied to set up a network of EV charging stations to match the scale of EV sales. 

The country is now home to 807,000 charging stations, though growth up to this point has been slow. Meanwhile, EV makers like Nio have experimented with battery swap systems. The aim is to reduce worries about the range of EVs by attempting to reach access parity to gas stations and electrify China’s auto sector. 

China has already invested more than any other country in cleantech, and shown that when the state backs an industry, it can get results. Apart from being the world’s biggest EV manufacturer, it is also the world’s largest producer of solar panels. Unlike its EVs, which are largely sold in the domestic market, China supplies the world with tech needed to harness the sun’s energy.

JinkoSolar is one example. The New York-listed company expected to sell 19 gigawatts of solar panel capacity in 2020, according to its third-quarter earnings call. That figure represents around half of all the solar capacity installed in China during 2020. 

China, and companies like JinkoSolar, have driven the price of solar panels so low that they are now barely considered tech. 

Huge investments

Nonetheless, China’s government and private enterprises are going to have to do a lot more if national emissions goals are to be reached by 2060. In order to hit the country’s net zero-goals, Chinese investment could reach up to $16 trillion by 2060— generating perhaps 40 million jobs, according to a report by Goldman Sachs. 

The company’s analysts expect investment to peak at $650 billion in 2040. That would represent up to 2% of China’s GDP for that year. 

Meanwhile, researchers from China’s prestigious Tsinghua University have made similar predictions, saying that the country would need to spend RMB 100 trillion ($15 trillion) over the next 30 years to reach carbon net zero by 2060. 

On Feb. 1, the country rolled out a national carbon trading system to reduce carbon intensity. Participation is currently mandatory for companies in the energy sector, and allows these firms to buy and sell emissions credits. A company enrolled in the system must either meet its emissions targets or buy credits from other firms that have been more successful at lowering their emissions. The government is expected to expand the trading system to other industries in the future. 

Caps on emissions and programs that reduce intensity such as this could prompt investment in eco-friendly technologies, further spurring investment in tech that cuts emissions. 

Numerous Chinese venture capital firms have been established to fund startups focused on clean technologies ranging from energy generation and efficiency to sustainable agriculture. One of these companies is Tsing Capital. The firm has invested in a slew of startups that have become household names in cleantech, including drone maker eHang, China Hydro, and US-based Lucid Motors.

Coal and construction

China has a long way to go to clean up its pollution. The country has spent big on solar panels but has struggled to ditch coal. It continues to rely on one of its mosted trusted, but dirty, methods of stimulating the economy. 

Construction is huge in China, accounting for around 7% of China’s GDP. In times of crisis, the country accelerates spending on infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy. In 2008, after the global financial crisis, the country pushed spending on massive road and rail developments.

Now, it’s doing the same to mitigate the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, spending hundreds of billions of yuan on some of its most ambitious projects. 

But infrastructure investment has consequences. More than a third of all pollution around the globe is generated by construction and buildings—and China is the most prolific builder in the world. In China, that share appears to be lower, with some research indicating that China’s construction industry could be responsible for only a fifth of its total carbon emissions. 

The country is actually building coal-burning power plants, partly as a means to drive its post-COVID-19 economy. In 2020 alone, China’s power industry proposed adding nearly 41 gigawatts of coal-burning capacity, according to an analysis by the Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). That figure is the equivalent to the output of all the coal-burning power stations in South Africa. The central government may attempt to rein in construction of these power sources in the upcoming five-year plan. 

Pressure to act

Meanwhile, several government agencies have failed to buy into environmental protection policies and to promote low carbon energy sources. The central government is finally reacting. In a harshly worded report last month (in Chinese), government inspectors hit out at the China National Energy Administration (NEA), the country’s energy authority, for failing to protect the environment and for building coal power plants in polluted areas. 

This is as big as it gets in China’s energy policy … the final report is brutal in calling out failure to rein in coal.

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA, who has written about China’s environmental policies, on Twitter 

The NEA is not alone. China’s forestry agency was criticized for not providing sufficient environmental protections to improve forest quality. The government inspection group has also censured officials from six cities on branches of the Yangtze River for failing to deal with pollution leaking into the Yangtze River Basin. These areas included Suining in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province and Xiaogan in the central Chinese province of Hubei. 

But as the country’s current five-year plan winds down, there appears to be a real push to move the needle on emissions. This will mean even bigger investments in clean technology. 

We’ll be back next month with a look at the biggest players in China’s cleantech industry. 

Chris Udemans

Christopher Udemans is a Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covers Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, and cybersecurity. You can contact him at chrisudemans [at] technode [dot] com.