The University of Newcastle, Australia

Transitioning to a more sustainable future

Associate Professor Hao Tan’s work is helping to understand the transition from traditional to sustainable energy in China, the world’s largest energy user.

Image of Hao Tan

China’s energy and resources industry is changing, and the shift has global implications.

As we move into the world of renewable energy, Associate Professor Hao Tan is reviewing China’s past and present energy and resource systems from management perspectives to determine how the transition towards more sustainable energy options is determined by dynamics in business and policies.

“Energy transition is a complex phenomenon, especially in China, which is currently the largest energy user in the world. How they transition to more sustainable energy options is of economic, geo-political and environmental significance—not only for China, but also for the rest of the world, including Australia.

“China’s energy transition will shape the world’s trajectories towards a more sustainable future.”

The shift to clean energy

Moving from fossil fuels to renewables is likely to have consequences for international trade, business and policies, with some nations and sectors in better positions to accommodate the shift than others. However, as Hao explains, research to date has focused predominately on the experiences in developed countries, with less known about how the energy transition is happening in developing countries.

“Many emergent issues in the process may not be fully accounted for by existing theories. This is because these theories are largely based on the experiences of developed countries.

“We need to critically examine how the transition is driven and manifested at the company, industry, national and international levels. Those dynamics are interrelated.”

While the goal is to move successfully into a more sustainable future, much of Hao’s research is focused on understanding the process from a management research perspective. This allows Hao to pinpoint where challenges may exist in the business domain where companies need to adapt to the future.

“My research is concerned with important business and policy issues in both “sunrise” industries such as renewable energy and electric vehicles, and the older “sunset” industries such as steel.”

Hao explains that his research questions are often driven by real-world challenges. His current Australian Research Council Discovery Project, for which he is one of chief investigators in collaboration with colleagues from UNSW and Macquarie University, aims to dig deeper into what is driving the shift to a low-carbon economy, and explore the enablers and obstacles in this process.

“We’ll develop new longitudinal case studies, which will follow and assess the creation of new clean energy industries in two of Australia’s top Asian trading partners. The results will help to inform policy debates and development and are also likely to benefit Australian exporters seeking new market openings.”

Informing global conversations

A key element to Hao’s work is the ability to spark global discussions about the future of energy. His goal is to get people talking and provide evidence-based knowledge to inform communities about the transition taking place.

“My research is aimed to helping not only to advance scholarly and policy debate, but also inform the public about important issues in the transition. For example, our research on China’s renewable energy-related policies has helped to improve the public’s understanding of China’s motivations for developing new policies and their effectiveness, which helps other countries and business communities predict China’s future energy strategies.”

To get the public talking, Hao has contributed to many popular media outlets such as the Guardian, BBC and Voice of America. His opinion pieces for the UK Financial Times’ Chinese website—discussing energy and environmental issues in China—have together attracted more than one million pages views in the year of 2015 alone.

“This indicates a strong public interest in the work. These opinion articles are a chance to provide the public with insightful research information based on an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon and its contexts.”

Hao has also written many scholarly publications for prestigious journals such as Nature, Foreign Affairs, Journal of World Business and Energy Policy. Two of his major commentary articles, published in Nature, provide novel accounts on the rise of renewable energy industries and new business models, such as China’s emerging circular economy.

“Nature has the highest impact factor among journals in the world. Publications in this journal help to shape the global research agenda.”

Alongside his work in research and media commentary, Hao is also an award-winning educator with a desire to see international collaboration and conversations strengthen teaching and learning outcomes for undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University of Newcastle.

In 2017, Hao received funding for three years from the New Colombo Plan to support an international study experience project for our undergraduate students. The project enables students to gain first-hand experience on the energy and resource transitions in China and its impacts on the Australian economy by visiting a number of enterprises in the Chinese energy and resource sectors, many of which play significant roles in the value chain of energy and resource products across Australia and China. Hao has also been a visiting professor at prominent universities worldwide, including the National Tsinghua University in Taiwan, Tsinghua University in Beijing, the Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom and the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory of UC in the United States.