Plus: solar-powered parking lots, Israel's alt-meat scene, and more |

The Knock-On Climate Impacts of China's Zero-COVID Policy
By Justin Worland
Senior Correspondent

​​China’s policy of working to prevent every single COVID case, known as zero-COVID, has been controversial from the beginning. Observers raised questions about the possible economic impacts as well as the potential encroachment on civil liberties that might result from the surveillance necessary to enforce such a program. This week the situation boiled over as protesters in at least eight Chinese cities took to the streets in frustration with the restrictive program, a rare uprising against the Communist Party regime.

China’s zero-COVID policy—and the subsequent outrage—have a wide range of implications, from testing the durability of the Chinese regime to harming global economic growth. As a climate journalist, it’s been particularly interesting to watch the debate about how the approach will shape global energy use and the push to cut emissions. There’s no clear-cut consensus about exactly what zero-COVID means for climate, but it’s also clear that a continued dedication to such a stringent approach in the world’s largest emitter and second-largest economy will shape the future of climate action.

The most obvious place to start is with manufacturing. Pre-COVID, China manufactured nearly 30% of the world’s products, according to data from the United Nations Statistics Division. And the percentage is far higher for clean technology. For example, China today makes more than 80% of the world’s solar panels, and COVID lockdowns have stifled the country’s ability to meet demand for that, and other clean energy technologies. Looked at from a long-term perspective, the disruption could alter the country’s Five-Year Plan for economic growth and low-carbon development, which in turn feeds into its longer-term decarbonization goals.

Photovoltaics On Factory Roofs
Zhang Jingang/VCG—Getty Images
A technician inspects a photovoltaic system on the roofs of a factory on May 4, 2022 in Qingdao, Shandong Province of China.

Beyond manufacturing, the societal impacts of China’s zero-COVID policy has shaped global oil markets whenever an outbreak and subsequent lockdowns have occurred. Oil prices dipped on news of COVID lockdowns in June, August, and October of this year. Just this week, the price of Brent crude, the global benchmark for fossil fuels, dipped to its lowest number in months following news of significant protests across the country. That list isn’t exhaustive, but it gives a taste.

What does this mean for climate? In the short term, higher oil prices discourage burning of the fossil fuel, in theory marginally reducing consumption. But, of course, what matters when it comes to energy and energy investment is the long term. Rapid variations in oil prices make it difficult to plan a smooth transition away from fossil fuels, and show clearly the value of having locally sourced renewable energy delivered via a long-term contracted price—which would be unaffected by lockdowns.

It’s worth noting, of course, that China’s zero-COVID policy isn’t single handedly, or even primarily, responsible for the significant fluctuation in oil prices this year. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the aftermath has been the primary cause of destabilized markets this year. But the zero-COVID policy—and the lockdowns and protests that followed—are a reminder of the connection between climate policy and seemingly unrelated policy areas, not just in China but around the world.

A New Data Point
In a Paved Paradise, Consider Solar-Powered Parking Lots

The U.S.’ massive stock of parking lots—covering up to 5% of urban land—are a blight for environmentalists. But in France, a law approved by the senate in November stands to turn parking lots into a weapon for the energy transition. It says that by 2028, the owners of parking lots with more than 80 spaces must install solar panels across 50% of their surface area. That could help the country overcome the land scarcity issues that are slowing the expansion of clean energy globally.

What if the U.S. did the same thing with its abundant parking lots? For an upcoming story, I looked through a bunch of estimates for the amount of land covered by parking in the U.S. The most robust was a 2010 study published in Environmental Research Letters. In a conservative scenario, the researchers estimated the U.S. had 300 million parking spaces in outdoor parking lots—but there could be as many as 569 million spaces. Under the terms of the French law, that amount of parking would have a maximum solar potential of 422 GW or 800 GW, respectively.

There are significant limits to this—a lot of the land I’m including would likely qualify for exemptions in France. And for many parking lot owners, it wouldn’t be cost-effective to install solar. But with U.S. officials hoping to go from 75 GW of solar nationwide today to 1,000 GW by 2035, parking lots may soon get a lot more attention. — Ciara Nugent

What Else To Know
Can Green Jobs Change Minds?

In Bloomberg, Brian Eckhouse looks at the factories for clean-energy products popping up in conservative states and asks whether they may change the minds of locals about renewable energy climate policy.

Read More »
EV Ripple Effects

The rapid growth of electric vehicles in China has boosted nickel mining in nearby Indonesia, driving an increase in air and water pollution, Antonia Timmerman reports in a visual-rich feature for Rest of the World.

Read More »
Changing Meat Culture

My colleague Aryn Baker reports on how Israel became a key player in the future of so-called “cultured meat,” or meat grown in a lab.

Read More »
Air Pollution’s Devastating Toll

New research shows how air pollution continues to contribute to nearly 40% of stillbirths in low- and middle-income countries, my colleague Jeffrey Kluger reports.

Read More »
How Bad is Qatar’s Outdoor Air Conditioning?

My colleague Amy Gunia looks at the outdoor air conditioning Qatar has employed to cool stadiums during the World Cup—with results that surprised me.

Read More »

This edition was written by Justin Worland, with the data point by Ciara Nugent and Elijah Wolfson, and edited by Kyla Mandel and Elijah Wolfson. We welcome any feedback at

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