China leads world in green energy investment

Cooling tower outside Beijing emitting smoke Coal remains the prime energy source in China, accounting for 70% of the energy mix

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Global investment in renewable energy jumped 32% in 2010 to a record $211bn (£130bn; 149bn euros), according to the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2011 report.

Published jointly by the UN Environment Programme and the Frankfurt School of Finance, it shows that China has become the largest investor in renewable energy projects.

But the country still faces grave cases of pollution despite progress in cutting down on the number of new coal-burning power stations during the last five years.

According to Zhang Lijun, vice-minister of environmental protection, coal consumption increased by a billion tons between 2006 and 2010.

"And it is likely to see another one-billion-ton rise in the coming five years," he adds.

Security concerns

Yet the Chinese government is spending tens of billions of dollars every year on so-called clean-tech projects - commonly referred to as green energy.

"There is a very clear trend in Asia that people are becoming more and more interested in clean energy and clean-energy investing," says Vivek Tandon of Aloe Private Equity.

Start Quote

If you create a new industry by bolstering the clean energy sector, you can also create jobs”

End Quote Vivek Tandon Aloe Private Equity

"One major reason is the need for energy security, particularly in China, which has an enormous demand for energy," he says.

At current levels of production, China has coal reserves which should last 40 years, although most reserves are located in the north and north-west - and that poses logistical problems for supplying electricity to the heavily populated coastal areas.

Demand for coal is currently outpacing production - a situation made worse by the government's increasing closure of antiquated and unsafe coal mines.

The public's perception of the deteriorating ecology and environment around them has been instrumental in the growth of renewable energy.

Furthermore, it is also seen as a forum for job creation.

"If you create a new industry by bolstering the clean energy sector, you can also create jobs," says Mr Tandon.

Man shovelling coal China is already the biggest producer of coal and home demand continues to grow
Volatile market

Apart from the Chinese government investing in green technology, money is also coming from outside the country.

Some investors are getting a bit nervous about where the global economy is going and whether or not recovery can be sustained.

There is the danger therefore, that investment into green technology in Asia might not remain at current levels if the recovery is derailed

Johanna Klein, who invests in private equity funds on behalf of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), says clean energy is probably past the point of being the "flavour of the month" in terms of being the latest fad where investors want to put their money.

"The trend is fairly robust and fairly long-term at this point," she says.

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China is building a coal plant a week, but is dedicated to having the clean energy sector take off”

End Quote Johanna Klein Asia Development Bank

She does not believe that clean energy is going to be any more volatile or any more affected by the oscillations of the markets than any other assets, but neither does she think that it will be protected from those phenomena.

The governments of some Asian countries also provide subsidies and backing for some of the green technologies.

"Governments have their own programmes to offer incentives to people to invest in clean energy," says Ms Klein.

"China is probably the most obvious example. They have an enormous programme of giving subsidies at all different levels from the federal to the local, to help the nascent clean energy industry really take off."

Forging ahead

India is also trying to develop its clean energy industries but in China there is a very deliberate policy of offering direct support to the industry to help it evolve and mature.

"I feel as if Asia took a long time to get on the bandwagon of supporting clean energy and clean tech, but I feel it has now taken a quantum leap ahead of countries like the US where we are still see a lot of dithering around when trying to decide on policies with regard to the whole industry," Ms Klein maintains.

"What Asia can probably deliver to the world is not just a vision, but an ability to execute," she says.

"China is building a coal plant a week, but is dedicated to having the clean energy sector take off. That is amazingly visionary and inspirational."

The US and Europe, which used to be at the forefront of renewable energy innovation, are going to start looking to countries like China as having forged a path to a greener future.

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