Time to Engage China on Sustainability

EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman interviews Jennifer Turner of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum on why now is the time for us to engage with China on sustainability…

Check out the text transcript of the interview below:

EarthTalk: Why is the Woodrow Wilson Center such an appropriate venue for the China Environment Forum?

JT: The Woodrow Wilson Center focuses on foreign policy issues writ large, trying to become a true foreign for government, NGO business researchers to talk about various issues. Now the China Environment Forum, we’ve been around for 16 years. We’re basically a teenager this year, ready to do big things. We were created early on really to focus on U.S.-China clean energy and environmental relations and climate and energy. Climate and energy were some of the major topics from the get-go. And we’ve really become an information clearinghouse to help the U.S. and globally—NGOs, business, governments—to find ways to engage with China on environmental issues. We’ve done a lot of exchanges that focus on water issues, also clean energy, and most recently we’ve done a lot of, not only exchanges, but also on-the-ground research on energy -water confrontations in China, particularly about coal’s water footprint. We’ve discovered through our research that about 20% of the water that’s consumed in China goes to the coal sector. And so that’s something that really helps raise the cost of coal in China.

A catch-and-carry karma of pollution

EarthTalk: In what ways? Because China’s in the news constantly, pollution is everywhere, and climate change. But in what ways are Chinese environmental issues spilling over to become international issues and why should the world care?

JT: That’s a big question and I could talk a lot. But let me just kind of look back. When I first started working on this project 14 years ago, people looked at me like “China environment”? They were like, no, our issue with China is security. And big concerns about safety, the military expansion in China, and the environment was seen as a very low-level issue. I had lived in China before, starting in the late 1980s, and I saw back then in many ways the pollution potential because of their dependence on coal. And so over the years China’s air pollution has become front page news around the world. Initially it was because Chinese pollution was polluting Korea and Japan, but now it’s very clear that their air pollution problems, a lot is from coal but also cars and also construction. You know, the cities in northern China in particular have become just smog cities. But this pollution doesn’t just stay in China. Obviously we hear over the years that the West Coast of the United States, that their abilities to meet the clean air act are being hindered because of coal pollution from China. But I like to think of it in terms of also, it’s kind of a catch-and-carry karma of pollution. Because a lot of our companies over the past 40 years have moved to China. And we buy stuff that’s produced in China at cheaper cost. But it is not that cheap. You know, we buy them cheap, but because China, they’ve opted to become the world’s factory, they haven’t been strong in enforcing their environmental regulations. So we export the industries and the pollution comes back to us.

EarthTalk: So we’re basically suffering from pollution to buy cheap products that we consume.

JT: I mean, that’s one of the reasons. But China’s economy is almost 70% dependent on coal as their energy. I mean every country needs energy. And like the United States, we also keep energy costs low. It wasn’t until a few years ago that our dependence on coal dropped below 50% because of shale gas. But China, their pressure to grow the economy is very great. It’s a one party state, and the party and the government’s legitimacy rests on economic development so they have to keep the economy moving. So they have coal. Coal is readily available. But I think what we’ve seen in the past few years in China is that the cost of coal is not that cheap. You look at the air pollution problem. Something like 1.2 million people every year die early because of respiratory illnesses. Cancer rates, according to Chinese statistics have gone up 80% over the past 30-40 years. A lot of that is from air pollution issues, but then also water pollution is a huge challenge facing them as well.

EarthTalk: Okay, let me ask you about the carbon and climate emission costs, because this is a cost not just in China, but the whole world bears that. So what kind of international measures are being taken or could be taken to deal with this?

JT: Starting back in the 1980s a lot of US environmental NGOs started engaging in China on energy issues, particularly focused on energy efficiency, renewable energy. Because a lot of these groups saw early on that this was an important issue. But even back in the Clinton-Gore administration, Al Gore struck up an agreement with China to have dialogue on energy and environmental issues. I mean they said energy and environment, but climate was the big motivator of this. And it was the first time where you had the U.S. and Chinese governments having multi-agency meetings, high-level approval, to really push forward our cooperation. I mean the US government has about 40, 50 protocols signed with China on energy and environmental issues. So basically the international community has been engaged with China for 30 years, 30-40 years on energy and essentially climate issues, and the Chinese government has been very open to this inviting government, bilateral and multilateral and also international NGOs working there. Notably on the climate issue the Energy Foundation, which is headquartered in San Francisco, set up an office in China about 18 years ago and have been giving lots of grants to Chinese government researchers and working with U.S. groups that have been promoting clean energy in China. And in many ways, here’s the kind of irony in China. Did you know that China is the number one investor in clean energy technologies?

A revolution in green energy but coal is still king

EarthTalk: I knew they did it for export to other countries also.

JT: Well it’s true. I mean China produces most of the world’s PV panels, but they also, because of the energy foundation and other foundations, have been trying to help promote this kind of policy development in China. You know, China, they invest heavily in wind and solar, working on energy efficiency policy. So the contradiction in China that’s kind of hard for nonChina-policy people to understand is, China has a revolution in green energy going on, while at the same time they’re incredibly dependent on coal. And the reason that this contradiction keeps going on is that China’s energy consumption doubled between 2000 and 2007 and it’s in the process of doubling again, because remember we talked about China is the world’s factory. But at the same time, China’s cities are expanding at an incredibly rapid rate. I mean, this is the world’s fastest urbanization. In the next 10 years, another 350 million people are going to be moving to cities. And to build these cities you need cement, you need steel, you need power. And so you have this kind of one-two punch of energy demand in China, the world’s factory and growing their cities. So they really do have huge amounts of clean energy in China, but at the same time the size of the energy bubble is so big that coal still is king.

EarthTalk: So this is kind of a crisis and an opportunity.

JT: Definitely. And I like that you use the word “opportunity” because China has become a kind of laboratory for experimentation on some of the world’s clean energy opportunities, such as carbon-capture use and sequestration. We’ve struggled in the United States, we’ve set up various projects for carbon capture and little experiments on sequestration, but in China they can do things on a scale and at a speed that we can only imagine in this country. And that’s been helpful, too, to bring down the costs.

E: Let’s return briefly to smog and pollution, because it’s been crossing the boundary to Korea, Japan, and the United States. Again is this more a crisis exacerbater, whether it’s causing tensions between countries, or are there opportunities for more cooperation?

JT: About 15 years ago Korea and Japan were really reaching out—like there’s a trilateral environmental meeting. And there’s a lot of dialogue going on where the Koreans and Japanese want to help China with pollution and reforestation, because some of the stuff that blows over to Korea is also sand, the desertification problem. But also sand can carry those pollutants with them. And so the Japanese and Koreans have been very open to working with the Chinese about environmental issues. But then when we layer on, particularly between Japan and China, there’s a lot of tension around disputes over the islands as you know and that’s made it increasingly difficult. And I think that Japan’s engagement with China on clean energy and environmental issues has diminished considerably over the last few years because of these political obstacles. And so it’s unfortunate because I feel that not just Japan and China and Korea and China, but countries that work together on these mutually beneficial issues of clean energy and environmental protection, it’s something that can really help build good will. And that’s something that some countries find sorely lacking in their engagement with China.

A kind of global mafia on energy and environment

EarthTalk: But unfortunately, environmental needs don’t seem to be trumping other political considerations right now.

JT: But then, let’s turn back to the United States. The U.S. and China, we have these tensions, we’re like siblings that argue, these tensions always come up of various political and military security issues. But what’s striking to me is that, even though it’s not always high level, environmental energy cooperation has been very steady and growing between the U.S. and China. Often it’s the NGO foundation and research world that’s the steadiest, but this means that there’s this strong network. I mean the China Environment Forum, we see ourselves at the hub of this network, this kind of global mafia on energy and environment, we work to bring people together, kind of being a matchmaker, but putting information out there about opportunities.

EarthTalk: What about water issues? Can there be more cooperation between the U.S. and China in these.

JT: There are possibilities. The U.S. in some ways is a leader on water-energy confrontation and so this is but one area where the US and China, in addressing this together, can make more progress.

EarthTalk: Yes, I know on water issues you also have the Himalayan glacier melting and tensions with India. So, again, do you see the dual nature, maybe there’s opportunities for cooperation but there’s also danger of conflict.

The dam rush

JT: Yes, it’s the China-India water issue, it’s become for the Indians in particular a very sensitive issue. I mean China, being the upstream water user they are ultimately in the position of power. That said, the Chinese central government has been starting to hold conversations with India, saying that it would let the Indians know if they do start indeed building dams and diverting the water. But keep in mind though—it may be beyond the scope of where you wanted to go—but in India, the rivers that are coming out of the Himalayas, the Indian government is also, just like China, building lots of hydropower. They are also trying to tap this hydropower. In China we refer to it as kind of the dam rush. I mean, China has the world’s fastest expansion of hydropower. But India looks to China as the model, and they are doing the same thing. We also see in Southeast Asia that they are building dams to tap hydropower in the Mekong and Salween river basins, so it’s an Asian-wide phenomenon. The challenge is though, you know China is upstream and they can change the course of the rivers.

EarthTalk: So they change the course in different ways, both as a leader and physically.

JT: But then keep in mind that even in Southeast Asia China is being invited by the Southeast Asion contries to actually come in, like Laos says “come on in and build these dams for us.” Again it’s the same, everyone’s trying to tap the hydro boom.

EarthTalk: And environmentalists don’t even know, because on the one hand it’s carbon free, on the other hand it has all kinds of environmental side effects.

JT: Well, not necessarily. It may be low carbon, but there’s also methane emissions coming from it. And in southwest China because the water levels are going down, there’ve been a number of droughts over the past three years in China where they are building these dams. And we’ve discovered through our Chokepoint China research that, where the Chinese are building dams, because they know that the water levels may be low, they also build a coal fired power plant next to it. Because you have to keep the electricity moving. And a lot of that power, just to get that whole, remember that karmic circle I talked about earlier, the electricity that’s produced in the hydropower, a lot of that is transferred to the east coast of China. And something like 25% of the electricity that’s produced in China is used to make products for export. So again it’s very important to realize that China, their electricity, their coal, and their carbon is a part of the big global supply chain.

Bad for sound bites

EarthTalk: All right, so it gets more complicated.

JT: It is complicated. I’m bad for sound bites, what can I say.

EarthTalk: Well this whole, it’s not a sound bite interview, but we’ll do our best to get sound bites out of it. Any final thoughts about how the Woodrow Wilson Institute and the China Environment Forum can help to mitigate and facilitate the situation and bring parties together?

JT: That’s really, what we do at the China Environment Forum is act as a safe, nonpartisan forum. Not just here in DC. We do dialogues in China. We’ll also soon, just to give you an example of the kind of stuff we do, we’re going to be bringing together Oakland and Shenzhen cities to have discussions and look at how both cities are dealing with water energy pollution confrontations. They’re both port cities, very energy intensive. And so, that’s just one example of the kinds of things. I find that there’s a lot of enthusiasm both in the US and China to work together. And sometimes when you’re here in Washington you’re at the top level.

EarthTalk: Well, especially the lower level.

JT: I think especially state to state, but it also comes this way too. A lot of Chinese clean energy companies, they would love to invest in the United States. They have capital, we have needs. But sometimes that’s made difficult, high level politics make it difficult. Chinese companies don’t always feel that comfortable investing here, they maybe don’t quite know how. But I’ve really seen overall that there’s a lot of potential for mutual benefit in working together. And again, we just keep slogging away, put on meetings, create publications, get information out there.