JHU Professor Jonas Nahm Discusses China’s Clean Energy Transition

24 September, 2020

China is responsible for a greater share of the carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere than any other country. The International Energy Agency estimated that China emitted 9.5 metric gigatons of the greenhouse gas in 2018, accounting for more than a quarter of the global total of 33.5 gigatons. However, China has also undertaken ambitious clean energy initiatives with the potential to make a major impact in the global movement to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels.

To address the urgent dangers of climate change, policymakers, industry leaders, advocates, and scientists around the world must account for China’s influence on the future of energy production. In a video presented by MIT Technology Review, Jonas Nahm — assistant professor in Energy, Resources, and Environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies — offered insights into the complexities of this ongoing transformation.

Nahm researches how state policies and actions affect the transition to clean energy, examining efforts at building a renewable power future through the lens of his interest in globalized industries. In his September 2018 talk at the annual EmTech conference, he discussed the innovations that could make the world’s most populous nation an effective leader in addressing climate change, the challenges that have slowed progress, and the possibilities for international cooperation.

Jonas Nahm On Clean Energy in China

China plays a unique role on the world stage when it comes to both fueling and combating climate change. The nation’s industries are responsible for high levels of pollution, but China is also the leading producer of solar and wind energy and was a vocal party in the 2016 Paris Agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Drawing from his background in studying political science, Nahm contemplated how a state under one-party rule can vocally commit to green energy efforts while simultaneously ramping up coal consumption. He argued that, despite President Xi Jinping’s stature as paramount leader, China has not followed through on achieving his climate goals due to internal conflicts among competing interests.

“China is not monolithic,” Nahm explained. “There are many groups within the Chinese government that are fighting for different things. The key to understanding why we get these contradictory outcomes is because China is many states really, many governments, and they are not all aligned in terms of how they think about these issues and what they fight for.”

According to Nahm, the administrative structure that guides Chinese energy policy at a national level is extremely fragmented, and Xi’s efforts to achieve unification have been slow. Meanwhile, provincial governments are incentivized to pursue short-term economic growth by using locally produced power, regardless of the consequences for the environment and public health, rather than consider the long-term implications of their actions.

Nahm concluded by pushing back against reductive portrayals of China’s energy policies from U.S. media and politicians. He emphasized the possibilities for innovative thinkers and leaders in the sustainable energy sector to engage with China in scaling up renewable power solutions.

“Let’s not have false expectations about what’s going to happen there, but let’s be very realistic and specific about the kinds of collaborations that are possible,” he said. “Look under the hood, understand how the Chinese system works and realize we have very complementary skills in a lot of these areas.”

About the MA in Sustainable Energy (online) Program at Johns Hopkins SAIS

Created by Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies faculty with input from industry experts and employers, the sustainable energy master’s program is tailored for the demands of this rapidly evolving sector. We face international challenges in the transition to renewable energy, and, as a top-11 global university, Johns Hopkins is uniquely positioned to help graduates develop the skills they need to thrive.

The MA in Sustainable Energy curriculum is designed to build expertise in finance, economics, and policy. Our faculty of highly experienced researchers and practitioners help prepare graduates to excel in professional environments including government agencies, utility companies, energy trade organizations, global energy governance organizations, and more. Students in the Johns Hopkins SAIS benefit from industry connections, a highly engaged network of 230,000+ alumni, and high-touch career services.

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