Ecology has evolved rapidly in China as of late. The Middle Kingdom has gone from a notoriously polluted place to, seemingly suddenly, an environmentalist forerunner thanks to its huge green energy investments and a strengthened position in the Paris Climate Accord after America notoriously bowed out last year. Specifically to make sense of those rapid shifts, and the increasingly positive green energy and ecological news coming out of China, Noah Lerner founded the podcast Environment China.
The Princeton-in-Asia Fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Beijing Office will record a live episode of that podcast at the Bookworm on Mar 15 as part of this year’s International Literary Festival, convening a panel with Sophie Lu, the director of China Research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance; Dr. Chai Qimin, Chinese delegate to the UN Climate Negotiations; and Dr. Xu Shengnian from GEI, touted as China’s first environmental NGO to work abroad.
Ahead of the event, Lerner tells us more about his thoughts on China’s ecological prospects.
What can we expect at your Bookworm talk? What environmental issues do you want to dig into?
It should be a really interesting conversation. China is in the midst of a historic moment, where its environmental policies and industry are changing so fast that it can be hard to keep up, and easy to lose sight of what the important stories are. That’s why I’m excited to untangle all of this with these three leaders of China’s environmental field.
As the Bookworm literary festival draws quite a diverse crowd, there are certain general topics that I’m sure folks will want to hear about and that I want to make sure we cover.
First, the latest from China’s energy transition: How should we reconcile the slight rebound in China’s coal consumption in 2017 with the record-smashing levels of solar deployment? And what conclusions should we draw from the end of China’s 2013-2017 “Air Action Plan,” the central policy in its war on air pollution – blue skies returned to Beijing this winter, but there have also been growing pains related to northern China’s switch from coal heating to gas heating.
And, second, the latest from the international climate stage: Following President Trump’s cowardly withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, China has repeatedly expressed its commitment to the Agreement; meanwhile, there has been increased attention over the environmental challenges and opportunities of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. What leverage do Chinese banks, companies, and NGOs have to help to solidify China’s climate actions beyond its own borders?
How did your podcast come about?
We built our podcast initiative, Environment China, to fill the gap that we saw in access and understanding to the both bottom-up and policy work being done to address China’s environmental and climate challenges. We see a huge interest in China’s environment, both domestically and abroad, but for those outside of the field, the issues can either feel impenetrable, or hopeless, or distant. By sitting down and talking with the folks “in the trenches” – sharing the stories from the entrepreneurs, journalists, campaigners, scientists, and policy experts, who are working tirelessly to push forward smart environmental action in China, we hope we can inspire others to pay more attention to environmental issues and perhaps even take action.
I founded Environment China, in late 2016, along with several other members of the Beijing Energy Network. Today, we’ve grown to a team of almost 20 people. We’ve published over 30 episodes, including five episodes in Mandarin.
Why the focus on the “positive” angle?
From the beginning, we decided to frame our show around the positive “solutions” coming from China’s environmental field. We always take care not to “greenwash” or downplay the magnitude of China’s environmental challenges, but I think it comes back to our mission – we want to showcase the stories of people who are trying to make a difference, and those stories almost always point to a way forward.
Take, for example, Dr. Peng Kui, from GEI, who we interviewed last August. Based out of the Chinese-NGO, Global Environmental Institute, Dr. Peng Kui started one of China’s first “citizen science” initiatives, training local herders in Qinghai in the Sanjiangyuan region to collect important data about how one of China’s most ecologically fragile regions is responding to climate change. Given the remoteness of the region, it is impossible to have scientists stationed there all year round, so Dr. Peng Kui’s program has empowered the local people to take ownership over the climate research, while also pairing the research training with a sustainable business development program to ensure the overall program’s longevity.
Other favorite guests include Yao Songqiao, an Antarctic explorer who founded WildBound, a nature-inspired environmental school, Jade Gray, the founder of Beijing’s Gung Ho! Pizza brand, which is pioneering sustainable restaurant practices in China, and Calvin Quek from Greenpeace, who has been working to push China’s banks towards greener investments.
Overall, what do you think have been China’s biggest points of environmental progress as of late, and on the flipside what major flaws remain that need to be addressed?
It has been amazing to watch how quickly things are moving in China. China’s renewable energy has been developing faster than anyone ever imagined was possible – in 2017, in one year alone, China installed 54 gigawatts of solar power capacity, surpassing the total combined solar capacity of United States added up across all years. Meanwhile, thanks to the explosion of sharebikes, bicycles have once again returned to China’s streets.
However, living in Beijing, it is still easy to see that China has a long road ahead of it before air pollution (and water pollution and soil pollution) become a thing of the past. It’s clear that reducing coal and oil consumption is the only path to securing a healthy environment and climate for China. The challenge will be to see how fast China can transition towards clean energy and away from the heavy polluting industry. I’m hopeful that China can serve as an example to the world of strong climate and environmental action.
You studied Mandarin at Yunnan Normal University. I’ve heard it’s a beautiful place; what kind of impact did your time there have on you as an environmental advocate? Did all of its greenery and natural wonder inspire you to fight the good ecological fight all the more?
Growing up outside of Boston, I was lucky to have access to canoeing along rivers and lakes in Maine and good mountain hiking in New Hampshire. At a very young age, I found myself most at peace sitting on pine needles on a forest floor or clawing for rocks at the edge of a lake – and I think those experiences installed a love of nature in me.
Before moving to work in Beijing, I lived in several places in China – first studying Chinese in Kunming, then Yangshuo, then Guangzhou. China has its own incredible array of beautiful natural landscapes that are worth visiting and protecting. But looking back, I do think that my experiences traveling through China’s largest cities served as a wake-up call – it is easy to see the urgency of environmental issues when the air around you feels unsafe.
But my environmental advocacy really took shape while studying at university in the United States, while working to push my college, Amherst College, to divest its endowment from investments in the coal industry. That experience, I think, led me to where I am now, at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing.
Noah Lerner’s Bookworm talk will be held on Mar 15 at 1pm. Entry is RMB 60. For more information, check the Bookworm Literary Festival’s schedule here.
Photo courtesy of The Bookworm
This post first appeared on our sister site, the Beijinger