02/21/2014 12:07 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2014

Conventional Wisdom, Coal and China

The Denver Broncos will win the Super Bowl. There's no way Barack Obama can defeat Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination. People will never read digital books.

Conventional wisdom can seem so enticing. With everyone saying the same thing, it's hard to imagine an alternative. An echo chamber starts and conjecture becomes fact. But conventional wisdom is often wrong.

Let's add another to the list: China is the biggest obstacle to effectively tackling climate change. Even if China wanted to get serious about reducing emissions, its growing population and energy demand make it impossible to kick its coal habit in the foreseeable future.

That's the conventional wisdom, and it's wrong.

A new report debunks this myth and shows that China could completely kick its coal habit in about 25 years, while supplying 80 percent of its electricity needs with renewable sources like wind and solar. The analysis, commissioned by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and conducted by the Energy Transition Research Institute (Entri), shows that China could hit these goals using existing technology. And here's the kicker: Choosing this renewable energy path will cost less than staying stuck on coal. Needless-to-say, this would be a game-changer for the renewable energy revolution and make one of the world's largest sources of carbon pollution disappear for good.

In some ways, this conventional wisdom was always shaky. China has made as strong a play for renewable energy as almost any country. It is already home to the most installed renewable electricity generation capacity in the world. For four years running, China has invested more in renewable energy than any other country.

Even so, until recently, China has been hedging its bets by investing strongly in both renewables and coal. But things are starting to change, thanks to the Chinese people saying "enough is enough" to coal pollution that is choking cities, closing schools and grounding commercial flights. In response to the outcry, the Chinese government enacted the Air Pollution Control Action Plan in September 2013. But the plan largely would move the problem to remote, ecologically sensitive regions and roll the dice on expensive new coal technology.

There's a better way: Relying on the cheapest type of power plant in the world; the one you never build. Entri's analysis shows that if China were to use all its energy efficiency opportunities, it would slash its electricity needs by almost half by 2050. By sharply reducing demand for power, China can rely heavily on renewable energy for the rest. The initial capital costs of renewables are a bit more than coal, but those costs are more than made up for by fact that most renewables don't have fuel costs -- the wind and sun are free!

Even though this future is cheaper, safer and cleaner, it won't happen without a strong push from the Chinese government. It has options. Pricing carbon pollution would be the most efficient, and already is being tested by the government in Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Setting a near-term cap on coal use would help incentivize energy efficiency and renewables. Creating the world's best energy efficiency standards would both help to move China toward this renewable future, and have ripple effects throughout the global marketplace.

Very soon, China will have the opportunity take these kinds of bold steps on the world stage. Over the next year, all eyes will be on both the United States and China to see what new commitments each will put on the table to secure a strong international agreement to deal with climate change in Paris in 2015. If the world's two largest economies (and largest polluters) lead the way, other countries will follow and a path to a safer and cleaner future will open up.

Analysis like Entri's should give the Chinese government confidence to choose the "win-win-win" solution of a cheaper energy future that is better for the health of the Chinese people and maintains China's leadership position for the next great technology revolution. As for the conventional wisdom crowd who argue new U.S. climate action won't matter because China will never be able to do the same, I've got one word for them: Beta-max.