Beijing is almost exactly as far north as Philadelphia, where Thanksgiving week saw temperatures plunge to the mid-teens, a sure sign of the arrival of real winter. In Beijing that same week alerts were being published for a smog emergency and for at least three days, construction sites and heavy industry shut down, drivers of diesel engine vehicles had to stop for emissions checks and sidewalk barbecue restaurants had to take their grills indoors. Winter in Beijing and in close to 30 cities in Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong and Henan provinces, where the smog alert was Code Orange – one step up from Beijing’s Code Yellow, and one step away from the maximum danger Red Alert. Smog, particulate matter suspended in the air, blanketed north, central and eastern China.
And real winter there will last for months.
But this smog attack was nothing compared to one six years ago, starting right after President Xi Jinping took office. The winter of 2012-13 was the second in a row in which dangerously toxic air pollution at record-setting levels saturated Beijing and surrounding areas.
Xi did two remarkable things: One, he admitted what was going on, allowing journalists to cover the grey cloud as a major national story, and two, he started to integrate a stepped-up national policy of cutting back on coal and other fossil fuels with the global movement to mitigate climate change.
Since 2013, China has made a series of promises to cut back on coal, move towards wind and solar power, and make Chinese air and water cleaner. Recent reports say the results after five years have been impressive.
But climate change is a global problem. Even as it cleans up its domestic energy consumption, China’s busy exporting coal for brand-new dirty-old-technology coal-fired power plants it is building in Pakistan and two dozen other countries as part of its Belt and Road economic expansion program.
So, is President Xi’s Make China Clean Again based on the same perverse game theory as President Trump’s Make America Great Again program; that Country A’s wins are some or every other country’s loss?
Or, as our guest today, Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council ask in the title of her new book, “Will China Save the Planet?”
Barbara Finamore founded NRDC’s China program, focusing on climate, clean energy, environmental protection, and urban solutions in China. She also leads NRDC’s Green Ports project in China, which aims to reduce air pollution caused by shipping and port-related activity. Before joining NRDC, Finamore worked for the United Nations Development Program, the Center for International Environmental Law, and the U.S. Departments of Justice and the Interior. She has also served as president and chair of the Professional Association for China’s Environment. In addition, she is the cofounder and president of the China-U.S. Energy Efficiency Alliance. In 2017, she was named a member of Foreign Policy’s The U.S.-China 50, a group of 50 individuals who are powering the world’s most complex and consequential relationship. She holds a JD from Harvard Law School and is based in the Boston area.