Western industrialism has achieved miracles, promoting unprecedented levels of prosperity and raising millions around the world out of poverty. But as China, India and other industrializing giants grow, they confront an inconvenient truth: they cannot rely on the Western industrial development model of fossil-fuelled energy systems because these methods cause extreme spoliation of the environment and raise energy and resource security, as well as global warming concerns.
For the past 20 years, Professor Emeritus John Mathews was a Professor of Strategy at Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Macquarie University, in Sydney (Australia). For the past several years Professor Mathews has focused on the greening of industry with an emphasis on the role of China. He has published two books on the topic: “Greening of Capitalism: How Asia is Driving the Next Great Transformation” in 2015, and “Global Green Shift” in 2017.
We had the chance to meet Prof. Mathews in the SUNRISE Consortium meeting in Bologna on May 16, 2019. At the invitation of SUNRISE Consortium member Nicola Armaroli, the Australian speaker gave the lecture ‘Global Green Shift: China as a driver’ held at the Library of the Bologna Research Area of the Italian National Research Council.
In your book “Global Green Shift“, you highlight the point that the EU’s approach to promote renewable energy sources based on reducing carbon pollution is not working. Why?
The approach around trying to reduce carbon emissions completely dominates the discussion of the energy and resources in Western countries. That really harms their efforts to build a business case for renewables and for a circular economy, as people think renewables are simply a means to reduce carbon emissions. In the meantime, China is working on building energy and resource security through the green shift. In China there’s a much more open approach than in the West to the role renewables play, because they have a very pragmatic sense of the need for solving their resource and energy security problems.
China is one of the most polluting countries in the world. Still, it is nowadays the world’s leading country in electricity production from renewable energy sources. What’s the secret behind this paradox?
China is a hypermodern society that uses a lot of fossil fuels, such as coal, gas, etc., but the country understood long ago that it had to face up its air pollution problem. China’s renewable energy sector is growing faster than its fossil fuels and nuclear power capacity. It’s striking to see how in 2017, renewable energy comprised 36.6% of China’s total installed electric power capacity, and 26.4% of total power generation. These are impressive numbers as China’s electricity production from renewable energy already doubles the generation of the second-ranking country, the United States.
The approach around trying to reduce carbon emissions really harms the efforts of Western countries to build a business case for renewables and for a circular economy, as people think renewables are simply a means to reduce carbon emissions.
Why should we all look at China as the new model in renewable energies of the 21st century?
We all know how terrible the air pollution has been in big cities like Beijing or Shanghai, and how this issue has improved dramatically due to the rapid shift in the energy system in the Asian country. It’s a model that could be utilized in other parts of the world. For instance, China is leading some research programs to solve the problem of finding chemical raw materials through recovering them from the electrical and electronic waste produced in the cities. Places like Suzhou industrial district are producing printed circuit boards for electronic goods, by sourcing from their own recycled printed circuit boards. This is called urban mining and it’s the future for resource security.
While there has been a willingness from the EU to cooperate with China, there’s still the suspicion of putting tax on Chinese renewable energy devices. Do you foresee EU-China collaboration in renewable energy sources in the coming future?
The key thing to understand about the prospects for collaboration EU-China is that the Asian country has moved forward catching up in technology. China is developing its own capacities for innovation and it’s moving to renewable power by investing in wind turbines, perovskite solar cells, batteries for electric vehicles, etc. Meanwhile, Germany, which would be the equivalent example of China in Europe, is already leading the green shift in the EU with its Energiewende plan. All of these quite sit on the frontier between research and innovation projects like SUNRISE in Europe and other equivalent programs in China.
By the end of this century the role that fossil fuels play will be confined to providing chemicals raw materials.
What would be the alternative narrative to stimulate a real green shift in the Western countries?
This great green transition is global and is already happening. The reason why is that it gives to the countries resource security when they shift to the circular economy, driven by the learning curve with its cost reduction. It’s not just a case of good policy, it’s actually a good business sense to make this transition, because the costs have been falling and will continue to fall due to the declining costs of all the renewable manufactured devices. China really seems to have understood that manufacturing processes will underpin the green transition now and in the future. The renewables option is a good bet for them, because it gives them energy security and reduces their costs.
Will the day come when fossil fuels will no longer be needed?
The day is coming. By 2050 we will be well along the road to the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources and a circular economy, and by the end of this century the role that fossil fuels play will be confined to providing chemicals raw materials. Wind turbines, solar cells, batteries are devices that will reduce the energy costs, and this is what will make them complete substitutes for the traditional fossil fuels.