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"It is Doable": Greater China Director Changhua Wu on BBC's HardTalk

Date
28 April 2008
"It is Doable": Greater China Director Changhua Wu on BBC's HardTalk

Greater China Director Changhua Wu was featured on BBC's HardTalk this month. Changhua fielded a hard-hitting and incisive line of questioning from host Stephen Sackur. Her responses painted a stunning picture of a country undergoing rapid transition: politically, economically, and environmentally. Yes, China's emissions are worrying, she concurs. An enormous amount must be done. But she contends, the country is making great strides already. Walking Sackler through some of China's promising commitments, progressive initiatives and fast-spreading innovations, Changhua reveals a China that, in many ways, could be well on its way toward a low-carbon future.

 

Excerpts from the interview

 

SS: You run a Beijing think tank which is devoted to sustainable development trying to control climate change. Does your heart sink when you look at the reality of what is happening in China?

CW: Not really. I do know how challenging it is. But [when you] look at what is going on already, on the ground, here in China: in terms of the political will; the policy and laws regulations; the leadership and emerging leadership from China's business community - as well the increasing awareness among public consumers about climate change issues and environmental issues. I am hopeful.

China is already the number two polluter in the world today, on track to being number one, to overtake the United States.SS: That's an incredible optimistic spin on a reality which is very depressing. China is already the number two polluter in the world today, on track to being number one, to overtake the United States. That is the reality and it is frightening.

CW: It is. And it's unavoidable, if you look at the reality and the numbers. China is at the stage of rapid industrialisation as well as urbanisation...We have a huge population base: 1.3 billion people already here. People are looking for a better lifestyle, a better life quality... [but] people are taking action. Not only here in this country - if you look at the national level and local level - but also internationally. I think there has been increasing awareness and also political will emerging at the international level - particularly dealing with climate change issues...

SS: International will but also international concern... they see the reality out of this window. They see that Beijing is one of the world's top twenty polluted cities, and perhaps fourteen or fifteen of the others in the top twenty, according to the World Bank, are also inside China. And they believe that is a clear sign that China has got its environmental policies wrong.

CW: If you look back historically like sixty or even one hundred years ago: look at the UK, look at North America. What did you see then? You probably would see an even worse situation in many, many cities - in London, in Pittsburgh, places like that... Today it's a totally different situation. We have better awareness, we have knowledge, we have the will and the policies, as well as [that] awareness. We have the tools and solutions now. Yes we have to acknowledge the problems, the challenges that we are dealing with at this moment, in China in particular. We are hopeful because there are solutions. And people are willing to take solutions, to take action, to deal with the problem.

Of course you would wish that things would be taken care of faster than you would expect: then that would take more effort, commitment from the international community as well as from here.

SS:... Is authoritarian rule the best way to deliver on climate change?

CW: Well again this is making an interpretation. This is not a simple process. The good thing, positively, is that the government decided to make a commitment.

SS: How do you solve the problems presented by this basic fact: China get two thirds of its energy right now from coal, which is the dirtiest form of energy production. How do you overcome that basic fact?

"Today it's a totally different situation...We have the tools and the solutions now."CW: It is a fact unfortunately... [But when] you look at the action, the investments, the policies, the financing, the technologies, everything here around clean coal technology. It's happening here already. China actually has now the first supercritical technology units for power generation, which probably has the highest energy-efficiency level -

SS: These are just experiments aren't they? I know your think tank helps to finance these experiments and is very actively involved in pushing new ideas and innovation. But they are still at the testing stage. It's no good testing things and telling me that that makes a difference when many, many dirty coal fired power stations in the old form are still being built.

CW: I wouldn't really think that way... You need a lot of technologies; you need to experiment. China is moving very, very fast towards alternative energies, including renewable energy. If you look at wind and solar, China has been doing a dramatic and very impressive job already. You have really the leading Chinese companies supplying the European and North American markets with solar PV. And we have lots of wind power units actually installed here on the ground, operating already...With all these things combined together, it is hopeful that the situation will definitely get better.

"This system in many, many ways works better. As long as there is a top management commitment - the political will - things happen here."CW: ...Here in China, I wouldn't say it's totally authoritarian at this moment, compared to a couple of decades ago. It is very different now. China is in a stage of transition...But with the current system in place, at this moment: in many, many ways particularly coming down to climate change issues, this system in many, many ways works better. As long as there is a top management commitment - the political will - things happen here.

SS: If that's true, why does the Economist magazine report that the very ambitious energy intensity reduction targets, that have been put in place by the government here, are being missed?...It comes back to this point of the nature of the government. How can the failure be so bad if the government and the leadership have decided it must be so?

SS: Well that's the message you give me: that there's got to be all this co-operation, there's got to be awareness raising, there's got to be new incentives, there's got to be innovation. All sorts of positive messages... [all] more carrot than stick. Let's talk stick for a second. For a start do you believe that China as part of a post-Kyoto global agreement should sign up to binding cuts in emissions?

CW: That's a tough question -

SS: That's why I am asking. Do you believe they should?

CW: Down the road, somehow -

 

"Countries across the world are facing this issue of whether to and how to establish a really meaningful post-Kyoto agreement now. China has to decide NOW."SS: It's not a question of down the road. It's about now. Because countries across the world are facing this issue of whether to and how to establish a really meaningful post-Kyoto agreement now. China has to decide NOW.

CW: I think my answer will be really around [the] kind of target. China is setting a lot of targets already, meaning energy efficiency targets, renewable energy, as well as [for] forest carbon sinks...[and] shutting down all the polluters, everything like that. If you think that's good enough, then China is there already....

SS: I am talking about the sorts of binding commitments from China...that would say: "By a certain time you have to reduce your emissions to this level; you have to stop some of the growth that you have planned, because it is not sustainable."

CW: ... China will definitely make its commitment, as the Bali process showed. The government have decided to take on certain actions, commitments, and it is included in the Bali road map already. Meaning they are going to set specific targets, measurable reports, that will be verifiable. But in terms of what that means: what kind of targets they will be? Will they be the same as the Annex 1 countries at this moment, that say by 2010, by 2020, we are going to cut emissions by 50 or 20 percent compared to 1990 level?

SS: Do you know what they are saying? In the European Union and in Britain they are saying we will commit to cut by 60% by 2050. Is that realistic in China?

CW: No. Honestly, no. We don't even have an understanding of what the base line is at this moment. I just don't feel it is realistic.

SS: Given that China by then will be the world's number one polluter, by some way, what you' re telling me is worrying, is it not?

SS: The final thought. It seem to me what the Chinese government says it can do is something unprecedented, truly historic. They say that they can develop China, grow in the most remarkable way and somehow break with the cycle we have seen, in all industrial societies, which links growth in per capita income to growth in consumption of energy. The Chinese say for the first time ever they can be an economy, a society, that breaks that umbilical cord. Do you believe that?

CW: I do, actually...It is possible. With the technology level at this moment; with the financing resources; the investments and interest from the financing sector in new technology... And the political will is there. I think it is doable. And China is trying very, very hard to be the showcase and to demonstrate that it is doable.

SS: You are a remarkable optimist.

CW: I am. Otherwise I wouldn't be in my position, honestly...

Thanks to the BBC for the permission to post this transcript from the interview on this website

"In terms of putting a cap there - saying that by 2020 the Chinese will commit [reductions] compared to 2005 as the baseline year... it's a tricky question in a way: Is it a 'should'? Or [is it] whether it's doable..."It is worrying. There's no doubt about it. China is the [world's] biggest country and by then very possibly China will be the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Actions have to be taken. But in terms of putting a cap there - saying that by 2020 the Chinese will commit [reductions] compared to 2005 as the baseline year... it's a tricky question in a way: Is it a 'should'? Or [is it a question of] whether it's doable...All the countries really 'should'. Definitely everybody has to cut their emissions... That's where we just started the process at this moment. I don't have a definite answer at this moment.

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