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Evergrande problems signal basic shift in China's economic model

Achieving its lofty green goals could save planet

Chinese electric vehicle maker Nio is valued at almost twice the level of Ferrari, the industry’s totemic profit generator.   © Reuters

The Evergrande crisis in China has thrown up a crop of headlines focusing on the property company's huge debts and irresponsible management. But fewer have sought to highlight the story behind the story: that Evergrande's difficulties signal a basic shift in China's economic model.

It is clear that the economic engines, such as property, that have fueled Chinese growth for at least two decades are sputtering. What is less clear is what kind of locomotives for growth can be found to take up the slack.

One, though, is obvious. Green technologies are being seen as a positive force to help save the planet and as the impetus to usher in a whole new era of Chinese growth and economic transformation.

The connection with Evergrande is direct. By suppressing the property market, China's authorities are hoping to free up trillions of dollars in future capital that can be put to better use financing solar farms, fields of wind power turbines, electric vehicles and new forms of clean energy.

This point was made with complete clarity by Zhang Xiaohui, dean of Tsinghua University's School of Finance, last month. She estimated that China's net-zero emissions strategy would require an investment of up to $46.6 trillion until 2060, the year by which Beijing has pledged it will reach carbon neutrality.

This investment, if achieved, will mean $1.2 trillion in investment each year from now until 2060, much of it earmarked for green infrastructure. For perspective, that is equivalent to investing Indonesia's entire current GDP each year for the next 39 years.

"China should follow its own pace when pushing for the carbon peak and carbon neutrality goals (and) strive to balance the economic development and carbon emission reduction," said Zhang, who is a former assistant governor of the People's Bank of China, the central bank.

So how will all this money be raised and into what sectors is it likely to be invested? The answer to the first question is crucial. If China tries to fund its upcoming green splurge by relying on local governments (as it did during the property boom), then it will perpetuate the structural weaknesses and institutional corruption that bedevil China today.

A better way for Beijing to finance its "great green leap" would be through the bond market, allowing a huge increase in the number of "green bonds" that are issued. These could be issued by companies, not local governments, which would repay bondholders out of project-specific revenues.

Now that solar and wind power are among the most cost-effective forms of power generation in China, the viability of green infrastructure has become a reality. It should be possible for pension funds to finance some of China's huge pension shortfall by investing in green infrastructure bonds.

Chinese corporations in several different sectors are answering the green siren. Sinopec, the world's largest oil refining conglomerate, said in August that it plans to invest $4.5bn to build out hydrogen stations at its 30,000 petrol stations. By 2025, it aims to have 7,000 solar charging stations in place, it added.

Chinese wind turbines are getting closer to the global cutting edge. A second Chinese company, CSSC Haizhang, launched a 10MW wind turbine last month, following the lead of Dongfang Electric. Vestas and GE still produce larger wind turbines, but the Chinese industry is catching up.

The potential for China's electric vehicle market is so well-known that some deeply indebted startups are fetching sky-high valuations. China's Nio, for instance, is valued at almost twice the level of Ferrari, the industry's totemic profit generator.

It is hard to know at this stage if China's transition from property-driven growth to a model that is more reliant on green technologies can be smoothly accomplished. But the scale of the ambition is already clear.

If Beijing does achieve even some of its lofty green goals, it will amaze the world. It could also help save the planet.

James Kynge is editor of #techAsia, a newsletter on technology in Asia that combines the best reporting from Nikkei and the Financial Times. He is also the FT's Global China editor, writing about China's growing footprint in the world, and won the Wincott Foundation award for the U.K.'s Financial Journalist of the Year in 2016. His prizewinning book, "China Shakes the World," has been translated into 19 languages.

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