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China Becomes Renewable Energy Leader, Chokes On Smog

The smog clouds wrapped around Chinese cities like Beijing are so thick that jets can't land at airports because their pilots can't see the runways. Schools are closed. Platoons of adults walk the city streets wearing masks and breathing apparatus, like scenes from an apocalyptic movie.

But if it's any consolation, China is now the world leader in renewable energy properties, a new report says.

The report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) was released just as the Chinese government issued the country's first-ever "national red alert," its highest possible smog warning.

The Cleveland, Ohio, based institute said China invested more than $32 billion in foreign renewable energy properties and resources in 2016 alone. That's in addition to an estimated $102 billion invested in domestic renewable energy in 2015, The Guardian reports.

China's poured more than twice as much money into domestic renewable energy as the U.S., and about five times as much as the U.K., according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, an energy research group.

Over the past year, The Guardian reported, China bought renewable energy properties in Australia, Germany, Brazil, China, Indonesia and Egypt, among other countries.

For example, the Chinese spent $1.1 billion to buy solar and wind farms in Australia. The country is also investing heavily in lithium-ion batteries, the technology that powers everything from mobile phones to Tesla electric cars. The Chinese government spent $2.5 billion for a 25 percent stake in a Chile-based company that mines and processes lithium, the report said.

China also owns five of the six biggest solar-module manufacturing firms in the world, the world's largest electricity utility, and the leading wind-turbine manufacturer.

The push for more investment in renewable energy has also been a positive for the Chinese economy, IEEFA's report said, with China holding 3.5 million of the 8.1 million global jobs in the sector. By comparison, the U.S. only has 769,000 jobs associated with renewable energy.

IEEFA Director Tim Buckley praised the Chinese for investing in renewable energy, and said the U.S. is on the opposite path with President-elect Donald Trump "talking up coal and gas."

“At the moment China is leaving everyone behind and has a real first-mover and scale advantage," Buckley told The Guardian, "which will be exacerbated if countries such as the US, UK and Australia continue to apply the brakes to clean energy."

There's still time for countries like the U.S. and U.K. to play catch-up, Buckley said, but that will require serious investment on the part of both countries.

“China understands that renewables present a huge business opportunity,” Buckley wrote in the report. “Building on the staggering scale of its domestic growth in low-emissions energy, China is accelerating its commercial expansion overseas. As the U.S. owned the advent of the gas age, so China is shaping up to be unrivaled in clean power leadership today. In years to come, the U.S. may look back in regret.”

In the meantime, China remains choked by the pollution that's spurred much of the country's investment in clean energy. A Jan. 6 story in The New York Times described amateur ballroom dancers who have decided to stick to their routines despite the smog -- through the haze, the dancers look "like ghosts floating in a dim netherworld."

While many Chinese people told the newspaper they're especially concerned for the elderly and the very young, who are most at risk for adverse reactions to smog, others are taking the situation in stride with a bit of humor.

“There’s nothing scary,” a commenter on a Chinese news site wrote. “Breathing fresh smog every day, I feel fortunate to be living in this magical country.”

Sources: The Guardian, IEEFA, The New York Times / Photo credit: Ceinturion/Wikimedia Commons

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