China’s solar power generation likewise continued to climb. The country installed 54.9 GW of solar power in 2021, bringing the total solar capacity to over 305 GW, about 30% of the global total of installed solar power.

How much renewable energy does China use?

So far, renewables still make up a minor share of the energy mix in all countries.

Of the 40,170 TWh of energy China consumed in 2020, 15% came from renewable energy, including nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar and others. In the US, 17% of the 23,927 TWh of energy consumed came from renewables.

And China’s red-letter year for renewable production coincides with a record year of coal use. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the country produced 4.07 billion metric tons of coal in 2021, a 4.7% increase from the year before. Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, emitting about a third more CO2 than gas per unit of energy.

The Olympics’ sustainability problem is one of scale

A paper published at Nature, the science journal, in April 2021 analyzed the sustainability of Summer and Winter Olympic games going back to 1992. It found that the games have become increasingly less sustainable since the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. As each subsequent Olympic event became bigger—more sports, more events, more and larger venues—to fulfill the host country’s ambitions to dazzle, they wiped out the gains eked out by greener technology.

The Tokyo organizing committee says the 2020 Summer Olympics, which took place last year, achieved carbon neutrality, but there has not been an independent assessment of the event’s footprint, which can diverge from a self-assessment.

Using renewable energy to power the Olympics is a step forward, but the cleanest energy is the watts-hours that aren’t burned at all. Nature’s sustainability analysis recommends scaling down the games, holding games in the same city using the same venues every four years, or holding fewer games by extending the number of years between each event, would go a long way in improving the sustainability the Olympics. The ongoing pandemic may mean that one of the largest contributions toward keeping the Beijing Olympics’ environmental footprint low might be the tightly sealed border, part of China’s anti-covid rules, keeping international spectators from flying to the games.

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