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    China Took the Clean Energy Lead in 2012, and Will Likely Stay There

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Wind turbines in Xinjiang, via Wikipedia

    China's environmental woes—whether it be smog, toxic metal dumps, reef collapsetiger farms, and so on—are fairly well known. But China, in its race to develop the infrastructure it needs, is also a powerhouse when it comes to clean energy. And according to a new study from Pew Charitable Trusts, China was the world leader in clean energy investment in 2012. The US, meanwhile, saw its grip loosen on many of the clean energy technologies it developed.

    According to the research, total clean energy investment totaled $269 billion worldwide last year, a decline from 2011's record high of $302 billion. However, clean energy investment in the Asia and Oceania markets grew by 16 percent to $101 billion. In terms of investment—which is an indicator that a country or region has offered compelling projects, struck a good regulatory balance, and has a strong economy—that makes Asia the epicenter of the global clean energy market.

    Total worldwide capacity as of 2012, via the Pew report

    Of that, China won $65.1 billion in clean energy investment last year, which Pew said amounted to about 30 percent of the total investment in G-20 economies, which received the vast majority of clean energy investment. In that, China set a record with $31.2 billion in solar investment, and matched that with $27.2 billion in wind.

    Despite a decline in investment, the falling prices in clean energy tech led to 88 GW of new clean energy capacity to be installed worldwide, which Pew says is a new record, to boost total clean energy capacity to 648 GW worldwide. (For comparison, the US had just over 1,000 GW of net capacity in 2011.) Of that new capacity, China installed 16 GW of wind (a third of total new wind capacity) and 3.2 GW of solar. All of that led the Pew report authors to state unequivocally that the world's clean energy epicenter had shifted from the US and Europe to China, and that "the data suggest that China is the world’s leader and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future."

    So what about the US? It remained in second place in investment last year, with $35.6 billion total invested in clean energy tech, which is down a whopping 37 percent from 2011. To its credit, a record 13.6 GW of wind capacity was installed last year in the US, but the Pew analysts wrote that the boom was largely due to uncertainty about whether the wind production tax credit would expire. (The tax credit has since been renewed, which will hopefully help sustain the boom.) The US also installed a record 3.2 GW of solar capacity last year.

    Solar is attracting the most investment in total dollars, partially because wind now costs less to roll out. Via the Pew clean energy report

    The Pew researchers thus labeled the US clean energy sector as "underperforming," largely for a trio of reasons. First, it's due to China's boom and manufacturing prowess. Second, the US regulatory environment for clean energy is horrifically unstable (as is the regulatory environment as a whole) as politicians battle over budget rhetoric. Finally, the US has failed to capitalize on its innovation prowess and develop a big manufacturing economy. The Pew researchers wrote about it in rather brusque terms:

    With the United States leading the world in various measures of energy innovation but lagging far behind in such categories as deployment and manufacturing, it’s evident that the nation is underperforming—inventing but failing to realize the economic, security, or environmental benefits of clean energy innovations through production and utilization. Installation of 3.2 GW of solar was a record, but it is still less than half the amount that has been installed annually in leading European markets in recent years. 

    Of course, China's dominance in clean energy doesn't mean it's the world's environmental leader—not by a long shot, actually. It's also important to remember that China has four times as many people as the US does, so the fact that it received twice as much clean energy investment in 2012 is still half the United States' per capita growth.

    Still, cash doesn't lie: China is the world's clean energy hotspot right now, and it's already approved another 27.9 GW of wind capacity. Because of Beijing's push for more clean energy, and because China has the demand, a friendly regulatory environment (which, considering China's environmental and labor track record, isn't necessarily a great thing), and manufacturing capacity, it's likely to stay on top.