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Recap: Pieces of China (S2, E4), Barbara Finamore on the “Beijing Declaration”—and China’s Greener Future, 10.29.20
Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.
Season 2, Episode 4 examined China’s history of environmental policy and its shifting commitment to sustainability over the last several decades. Barbara Finamore (BF) took participants back to 1991 when she boldly snuck past Chinese security guards to watch a historic climate conference. The confab’s Beijing Ministerial Declaration on Environment and Development renounced any binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions in the developing world.
Finamore, who went on to found the Natural Resources Defense Council’s China Program, has had a front row seat for China’s high-speed growth, leading to cataclysmic pollution—and also its dramatic turnaround on climate, leading to impressive environmental policies. China is still the world’s biggest polluter. But China has emerged as a global leader on climate policy: President Xi Jinping recently announced that China aims to become “carbon neutral” before 2060—a radical proposal that marks the world’s single largest climate commitment to date.
Selected Quotes from Barbara Finamore:
BF: [Before the sustainable development conference in 1991,] China saw environmental protections and sustainable development as a barrier to its own economic development. This conference China developed a joint negotiation strategy with 41 developing countries that would relieve them of any binding obligations in these treaties.
What happened between 1991 and the Paris Agreement of 2015?
In the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, China was blamed for countries not being able to reach a binding treaty. After China joined the WTO in 2001, it quadrupled its economy and quintupled its exports. And it was all powered by coal.
But China realized during this time that this wasn’t sustainable. Coal is the source of its devastating pollution. It came to a head in 2013 during the “air-pocalypse” in Beijing… where it was like every man, woman, and child were smoking 1.5 cigarettes every hour just being outside. …So, it participated in the Paris agreement- there were no binding commitments here- but they committed. This was the breakthrough, and it was the link between air pollution and C02 emissions.
Moving towards renewable energy was good for [China] economically…politically…and environmentally, and it is the largest market opportunity of the 21st century!
Lately, emissions are creeping back up. Local governments continue to believe growing GDP is the key for their success. So they are still improving and building coal fired power plants— even though solar and wind are cheaper than coal. There are also very powerful SOEs that don’t want the shift in this economy. That was what we have been seeing over the years…until the last few months.
And then what happened?
President Xi announced last month that China will [go carbon neutral by 2050]. It’s a huge deal. It sends a powerful message to every domestic official, SOE, and [others]. China has a track record of under-promising and over-delivering on its climate commitments. Since this announcement has been made, Japan and South Korea have also announced their commitments to carbon neutrality by 2050.
This of course is going to be a huge challenge: China uses half of the world’s steel…is the largest importer of crude oil, the world’s largest auto market. This will require huge changes in China’s land use management, and in its cities.
But thanks to China, it is cheaper to build new solar and wind plants anywhere in the world than coal. Solar is the cheapest electricity in history and this is because of China’s high domestic demand, which is bringing down the costs for everyone. Same with wind, it has brought the cost down by 90%. In heavy industry, it is hard to reduce coal use, but China is looking to the same playbook to develop new technologies like hydrogen.
You wrote a book called ‘Will China Save the Planet?‘. Will it?
China’s carbon neutral target is the most important step it can take, but that alone cannot save us from climate catastrophe. Hopefully we will see other countries follow China’s lead, and the US will change its climate direction and we will work together to solve this climate emergency.
Full Video of Pieces of China with Barbara Finamore
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