The Eco Expo Asia 2017 conference in Hong Kong offered a window into an industrial giant’s efforts to cut pollution and continue growth, writes Ian Brooks.

The Eco Expo Asia 2017 conference could have come as a directive from China’s 19th Communist Party Congress. The speakers and exhibitors were all on point regarding the new sustainable green economic directives from the congress earlier in the month.

Held in Hong Kong in late October and organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, the conference and exhibition covered topics such as mainland China’s latest green policies, reduction of air and water pollution, waste reduction, recycling, offshore wind farms and solar as the future of Chinese energy.

Speakers such as Ren Xianguang, the deputy director-general of China’s chief environmental agency, spoke of the government’s commitment to the environment and its ambitions to become a leader in green technology through increased spending on renewables and its efforts to cut carbon emissions, focus on recycling and improve air and water quality, all in partnership with a strong economy. He noted that the Communist Party is committed to sustainable development and that green industries have grown 25% year on year.

Wake-up call

China has slowly realised that the rapid growth it has experienced over the past 40 years cannot continue at the expense of the environment. It holds the trophy as the world’s largest polluter and air and water quality in the industrial cities of the north have reached disastrous levels. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1 million people died from air pollution in 2012.

At its heart, the Chinese communist system seems to work well for the masses and the economic growth has trickled down the line, avoiding some of wealth disparity that has plagued some western nations. In 1978 there were more than 250 million people living in poverty in China, compared with 29 million in 2010. President Xi Jinping was quoted at the 19th Congress as saying that happiness was more than just material goods and much of his speech was focused on the quality of life for the nation’s 1.4 billion inhabitants.

There has been a growing level of dissent throughout China as double-digit growth and government corruption has led to pollution, food scandals, industrial failure and decreases in health and well-being.

The Communist Party has read the mood well and is adapting its rhetoric and policies accordingly. During his speech at the 19th Congress, Bloomberg Intelligence stated that Xi Jinping used the word “environment” and similar terms over 89 times, and the “economy” only 70 times. These changes were necessary for the survival of the party.

Not so fast

China has embraced the transition to renewable energy and clean technology as a direct action to reduce its air and water pollution and to clean up its cities. Its position on the world stage, whilst part of its agenda to become an international player, has been formed by the need to solve its own problems created by its fast, unsustainable growth. China’s action since the signing of the Paris Agreement has filled the void left by US President Donald Trump’s lack of leadership on the topic.

Fixing the environment has not just received the nod from the Chinese government, it has become central policy and is now big business. The Business and Sustainable Commission has reported that businesses stand to gain a total of US$2.3 trillion from solving China’s various environmental issues.

Ren Xianguang suggested that the state will play a key role in implementing the party’s strategy. “Industrial development will be guided along the appropriate path to ensure improvements to the environment,” he said at the conference. His main strategies are to reduce waste, increase the shared economy, increase reliance on renewable energy, improve recycling, incentivise green, renewable energy (including issuing green bonds) and squash corruption in the government.

Wang Kaiyu, the deputy director general of technology and standards at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said at the conference that there have been big improvements in environmental protection and law enforcement but there is still a long way to go. “China has declared war on pollution and anyone breaking the stricter environmental laws will be appropriately dealt with,” she said.

People profit planet

Trying to solve China’s pollution problems has led to massive investment in renewable energy and clean technology. The country is now a leader in the emerging green industries, both in production and technological development.

In 2016 the global capacity for solar was 75GW, of which China represented 25.3%. The largest solar farm in the world, the Longyangxia Dam Solar Park in the western province of Qinghai, covers 27-square-kilometres and is just one of many being developed in the remote areas of China.

The world’s largest floating solar plant was commissioned in May this year in the province of Qinghai and is producing over 40MW. In an act of irony the farm was built on a flooded coal mine.

China aims to produce 110GW of solar power and 250GW of wind power by 2020. It expects to increase the amount of energy coming from non-fossil fuels to 20% of the total by 2030.

The Eco Expo Asia 2017 exhibition included a large display of electric vehicles including consumer cars, a 16-tonne truck and various hybrid buses and commercial vehicles. Sales in China in 2016 of electric vehicles exceeded 350,000, with more than 93% produced locally.

Despite the fluctuations in oil prices, which in the US directly affect the sales of electric vehicles, the Chinese government has backed the production of the new vehicles and demand has remained high. This has been a prime example of central control, where if the market doesn’t correspond with the party’s long-term plan the government is able to step in and correct course. With an estimated 5 million charging stations expected to come on line by 2020, new-energy vehicles is one of the key industries for the next decade.

If the Communist Party could be regarded as the board of directors of a corporate giant, its triple bottom line is this: People Profit Planet.