Professor Gaye Christofferson on China’s Energy

Gaye Christofferson - China’s Energy (Photo Courtesy of Gaye Christofferson)
Gaye Christofferson – China’s Energy (Photo Courtesy of Gaye Christofferson)


NANJING—Gaye Christoffersen holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Hawaii, and wrote a dissertation about the politics of Chinese oil. She is a leading scholar in Asian energy security, and a Resident Professor of International Politics at the Hopkins–Nanjing Center in Nanjing, China.

Amongst numerous publications pertaining to security issues including energy, her most recent publication is the chapter titled “US-China Relations in Asia-Pacific Energy Regime Complexes:  Cooperative, Complementary and Competitive,” in Conflict and Cooperation in Sino-US Relations: Change and Continuity, Causes and Cures, Jean-Marc Blanchard and Simon Xu-Hui Shen, eds. (Routledge, 2015).

Today the SAIS Observer sat down with Professor Christoffersen to discuss energy security and the future of renewable energy.

I am sure there are individuals who are unaware of the role energy security plays within modern day society, so I was wondering if you could just very briefly touch on that.

Very simply put, it is a reliable and stable supply of energy at a reasonable cost.

Why is energy security important in the world we live in today?

Industrialized countries require a lot of energy for their factories and transport sectors. In addition, there are also residential and commercial uses. However, there are many different forms of energy for each of these uses. For example, the transport sector is reliant upon oil. Coal and natural gas play a role in power generation.

What are the biggest challenges that China is facing in regards to energy security and renewable energy?

The biggest challenge for renewable energy in China, which is decades old, has been the policy differences between the oil and coal industries on one side and energy reformers on the other side, who are often found in the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Energy Research Institute (ERI) under the NDRC. The “oil faction” has had significant influence upon issues such as resisting higher emissions standards for gasoline. With regards to the coal industry, referred to as “King Coal” because of its power, it has been hard to limit the number of coal mines. Coal combustion is a primary contributor to China’s pollution. However, the NDRC has tried to promote alternative energy, reduce coal emissions, and increase utilization of natural gas, a cleaner fuel. Yet, there is a consistent struggle between the oil and coal factions and the energy reformers such as the NDRC. The anti-corruption campaign has targeted the oil and coal industries which may end up limiting their power.

In China in the coming years, what do you see emerging as a leading form of renewable energy?

Wind power is China’s success story, as it generates increasing amounts of their total energy. In 2012, wind power constituted 5% of China’s installed electricity capacity. In addition, China has been very successful at producing solar panels, but has had difficulties connecting both solar and wind to the grid. Chinese production of solar panels has been export-oriented, leading to trade disputes with the U.S. and the EU. However, in recent years China has been increasingly installing solar domestically. For example, if you travel to Shanghai, you are able to see households along the way which have solar panels on their roofs. This is commonly seen in major cities.

Do you believe there is a possibility that one day the country may have an infrastructure which is solely reliant upon alternative energy, and not using coal or oil?

I don’t believe that would be possible, as the oil and coal industries are very large, and have significant influence. Additionally, the transport sector would continue to require some form of oil or natural gas.

Where do you see renewable energy going as an industry in terms of replacing oil?

According to peak oil theory, oil is a finite resource — which is absolutely true — and says that the world is going to run out of oil reserves, and there will be a huge crisis once this happens. However, a counter argument is that as oil becomes more expensive, consumers become more efficient, and use less of it by seeking alternatives.

How does renewable energy and energy security affect Sino-U.S. relations?

Energy issues have been a focal point in Sino-U.S. relations for 35 years, and I believe that it will continue to remain this way. It started many years ago when China needed offshore drilling technology from the U.S. This continues to the present time. During APEC 2014, President Obama and President Xi Jinping reached a historic agreement on climate change. Under the agreement, China’s carbon emissions would peak by 2030. China also agreed to obtain 20% of its energy from zero-carbon emission sources by 2030. Clean energy has been and will continue to be a main focus of successful Sino-U.S. energy cooperation.

In the future, will China be able to clean up its pollution problem?

When China decides to do so, they will be able to. During APEC they created “APEC Blue” where factories were turned off, reduced the number of automobiles on the road, and the sky was blue. Beijingers are still talking about how much they yearn for APEC Blue. Thus, if they want something, they will be able to do it. However, it will mean financial loss for someone in terms of turning off coal-fired factories and creating higher quality gasoline which is something addressed in the documentary “Under the Dome.” It revealed that the oil companies were not producing gasoline to a sufficiently high standard required by the NDRC and Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP).

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