Beijing – When French President Emmanuel Macron last month urged a joint session of the United States Congress to “make our planet great again,” his message was intended for political leaders far beyond the walls of the U.S. Capitol Building.
As the United States retreats from playing a global leadership role on climate change and the United Kingdom remains consumed by Brexit, both China and the European Union are leveraging renewable energy and clean technologies to create and lead a new international order.
If history is a guide, 21st-century power will be based on which regions and countries control the largest amount of energy. Coal is what powered the British Empire. Oil was the bedrock of the American Century. Renewable energy will decide who leads and shapes this century.
The race to lead on renewable energy presents a win-win-win strategy for the EU and China: They are able to build reputations as good global citizens and protectors of the planet, while developing strong, sustainable economies based on selling renewable goods and clean technologies to rest of the world. They are also able to expand their global influence by deepening relations with developing countries through the sharing of green technology and know-how. They understand that leading the transition to a cleaner future offers the best way to wield more soft power, enabling them to influence other nations and achieve the outcomes they want without resorting to the traditional tools of military aggression or economic sanctions.
With the Paris Agreement set to be formally approved by the end of the year at COP 24 in Poland, the coming months will be pivotal in determining how successful the EU and China are at creating this new ecosystem.
Last year, the two regions made the largest investments in renewable energy: $127 billion USD and $41 billion USD, respectively. However, that is only a drop in the bucket of the trillions of dollars that will be needed over the coming decades to meet the infrastructure needs that are essential to a successful transition to a low-carbon economy.
To meet those demands, the EU has taken an ambitious step in the right direction, one that could provide a sustainable finance model the world. This week, it approved a pioneering plan for massively boosting green investment while achieving its target of slashing greenhouse emissions by 40 percent by the year 2030.
Beyond capital, the EU must do more to both incentivize cleantech innovation in the private sector — and to scale up and mainstream the most promising and disruptive technologies.
Fortunately, Europe does not have to look far for proven ideas. France is home to a new generation of green entrepreneurs like Plastic Odyssey, which is creating ships that will be solely powered by plastics, and its ranks are growing thanks to the country’s new tech visa that makes it easier for fast-growing companies to hire foreign talent and for startups to set up shop.
Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, which will soon be unveiling a highway that charges the batteries of cars as they drive on it, have established themselves as the top three countries in the world supporting clean technology innovation and green entrepreneurship. And Germany has gotten so efficient at its use of renewable energy that on a few sunny and windy days last December, power prices briefly went negative, meaning factory owners were actually paid to take power.
Meanwhile, China now holds more than half of the world’s solar energy capacity and it is at the forefront of innovation for high-voltage grids, smart grids, and distribution grids. Moreover, China’s clean energy leadership has enabled the country to expand its clout around the globe. In countries throughout Africa, Chinese smart grid providers, renewable energy manufacturers, and financing institutions are now providing technology and financial support through a partnership with the African Union Assembly.
This shifting global landscape is opening up opportunities for other nations to expand their soft power and enhance their nation brand through cleantech innovation. Look no further than the Emirates, which has the one of the highest energy consumptions per capita in the world. To meet is pledge to produce roughly half of its power supply from clean energy sources by 2050, it is building a massive solar park on the edge of the Arabian Desert.
Geopolitical watchers should also keep an eye on India and Russia, two countries with great potential to become renewable energy and cleantech leaders. Russia, however, must do more to fully leverage its large hydropower and bioenergy sources, while India must match its investments in green technologies with funding to develop the skilled workforce necessary to transition to a cleaner economy.
Economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, has dubbed the 21st-century as “the Age of Sustainable Development,” in which the overarching aim of all countries, and especially the major world powers, is to work together to protect the environment. The EU and China are best positioned to lead the world into this new age. Other countries and regions would do well to follow their examples.