China and India Do More Than You Think to Fight Global Warming

Carl Pope
5 min readJun 30, 2023

“This article earlier published in Bloomberg

With world leaders having just met in Paris to discuss the environmental catastrophe facing the planet, coming on the heels of the northeastern US being choked on soot from Canada’s worst-ever forest fires, Americans are gradually realizing that climate change is today’s problem — not tomorrows. Yet many continue to think that the worst offenders are developing economies, especially China and India. This mindset, while never accurate, ignores how those very countries are taking the leadership mantle in the transition to green energy.

Part of the problem is US domestic politics. A deep and lingering partisan divide over climate was borne in a cynical $13 million advertising campaign launched by fossil-fuel interests in 1997 to prevent US ratification of the proposed Kyoto climate treaty. They made the case that the US was doing more than its fair share of sustaining global burdens, including foreign aid and peacekeeping, and that the same was happening in efforts to mitigate climate change.

The campaign succeeded. In July 1997, the US Senate overwhelmingly (95–0) approved the so-called Byrd-Hagel resolution opposing ratification of any binding climate treaty that did not impose equivalent obligations on developing nations. President Bill Clinton’s administration never put the Kyoto agreement up for a vote. Public opinion on climate has never shaken that mentality: Majorities of Americans favor renewable and clean energy in place of coal and oil but retain a deep suspicion that the US is again doing the heavy lifting.

While the world has lost precious time because of US hesitation, there has been progress around the globe on combatting climate change. Clean energy technologies — including wind and solar power, battery storage and electric vehicles — are now competitive and in many cases cheaper than coal, oil or gas. That progress has been led not only by Europe, but by China, India and other emerging markets such as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. The world’s cheapest electricity today is generated by the sun in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.

The Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t care what flag is flying over the spot on the planet emitting a given molecule of CO2 or methane. Rather, we must weigh whether a given emissions source is using the least climate-damaging energy to meet the needs of its stakeholders. The atmosphere generously provided us with the ability to emit limited volumes of greenhouse gases, but we are now running out, and each have only a small share remaining.

And here, so far, China and India continue to use them much less wastefully than the US, European Union, Russia or Saudi Arabia.

Per capita, the average inhabitant of China is responsible for only half as much in greenhouse emissions as a US resident. The average Indian uses only one-seventh as much CO2, methane and other harmful gases. And on the most important predictor of our climate future — the speed with which clean energy is being deployed to replace fossil fuels — China and India are emerging as leaders.

China now generates 650 terawatt-hours of wind electricity, almost twice as much as America. It provides a third of the world’s solar power, 330 terawatt-hours, more than twice as much as the US. Chinese authorities are building far more renewable energy than anyone else. They expect renewables to power a third of their grid by 2025.

Globally, China is also the major provider of solar capacity to other countries, producing 75% of the world’s photovoltaic capacity. It produces 57% of the world’s electric vehicles. China has not only developed the largest domestic EV market, but it has also become the major EV exporter, outpacing the historically dominant automakers in Japan, Germany, and the US.

It is true that China is building coal-fired power plants at a record pace — more the rest of the world combined. This in in part because local governments like the construction dollars they bring in. However, analysts suspect that many will never find major use, and they are being swamped by renewable power. And in spite of all those coal plants, China already gets more of its power from renewables than the US — 50% vs. 40%.

China is flooding its power market with clean energy. In 2022 it invested $546 billion in accelerating its transition to renewables, three times the EU’s $180 billion and, relative to the size of its economy, four times the US investment commitment. In the first four months of 2023, China increased its installed solar capacity by an astonishing 36%, and last month announced it is on track to install as much new solar in one year as the entire US solar infrastructure.

Let’s understand the magnitude of this Chinese rate of progress. It expects to inaugurate 200 gigawatts of renewable power versus 50 gigawatts of coal this year.

According to the International Energy Agency: “Renewable electricity is growing at a faster rate in India than any other major economy, with new capacity additions on track to double by 2026.”

And India’s innovative “round the clock” approach to wind and solar auctions has led the developing world for bringing down the cost of renewable power. New clean electricity in India is two or three times as cheap as in most of its South and Southeast Asian neighbors, or the US.

So, can Americans relax now that we know India and China are deeply invested in the energy revolution? Hardly. By any reasonable standard, the US needs to worry about falling behind China and India in this new world of energy.

The Joe Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, with $370 billion set aside for renewables, can fairly be said to put the US back in the clean-energy game. But, dating back to the splintered politics set up by the Byrd-Hagel tragedy two and a half decades ago, we still have a long way to go.



Carl Pope

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, former executive director & chairman Sierra Club and Senior Climate Advisor to Michael Bloomberg