Ep1: Burning Up
The Climate Challenge
January 25, 2022 – We're awfully good at burning things up in the name of progress -- coal, oil, gas, Amazon rain forests. We're not as good at factoring in the real cost of those choices, on our health, and on the health of the planet.
In this first episode of the COAL+ICE podcast, top climate journalists talk about what these choices look like where they live -- in China, South Africa and Brazil -- and what's being done, and needs to be done, to bend the curve on climate change.
Joining host Mary Kay Magistad are:
Ma Tianjie, program director in Beijing of China Dialogue, a non-profit online platform that focuses on the environment and climate change, especially as related to China. He was previously with Greenpeace, as program director for Mainland China.
Tunicia Phillips, an award-winning environment, climate and business reporter with South Africa's Mail & Guardian investigative weekly.
Jon Watts is global environment editor for The Guardian newspaper in the UK. He is a former correspondent for The Guardian in China, Brazil and Japan, and author of the book "When a BIllion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind or Destroy It," about the environmental impact of China's rapid development. Jon is now spending a year in Brazil's Amazon, writing another book.
Click below to see the full episode transcript:
COAL+ICE Podcast, Ep1: Burning Up - The Climate Challenge
January 25, 2022
[00:00:00] Mary Kay Magistad: Welcome to the COAL+ICE Podcast, an Asia Society podcast that brings you global conversations on how the climate crisis is changing the world and what we can do about it. I'm Mary Kay Magistad. The name of this podcast comes from a photo exhibition the Center's director, Orville Schell, first helped put together a decade ago in Beijing with Magnum photographers Susan Meiselas and Dutch exhibition designer Jeroen de Vries. It was originally of Chinese coal miners and melting Himalayan glaciers, a meditation on the causes and effects of climate change. Over the past decade, Susan and Jeroen have expanded the scope of COAL+ICE to include photos and videos from around the world. The exhibition has traveled to, among other places, Paris during the climate summit and to San Francisco. And this spring, it's coming to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC from March 15th to April 22nd. It'll be a festival of arts and ideas around the most urgently important issue of our time. This podcast engages with those ideas too, to help you think in new ways about climate change. And to kick us off are three seasoned climate journalists on three continents, Ma Tianjie is program director in Beijing of ChinaDialogue, a non-profit online platform that focuses on the environment and climate change, especially as related to China. He was previously with Greenpeace as program director for mainland China. Tianjie, welcome.
Ma Tianjie: Thank you, Mary Kay.
Mary Kay Magistad: Tunicia Phillips is an award-winning environment, climate, and business reporter with South Africa's prestigious investigative weekly, The Mail and Guardian. Tunicia, great to have you here.
[00:01:50] Tunicia Phillips: Hi Mary. Hi everyone. It's great to be here.
[00:01:53] Mary Kay Magistad: And Jon Watts is the global environment editor for The Guardian newspaper in the UK. He's a former correspondent for The Guardian in China, Brazil, and Japan, and author of the book When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind or Destroy It. It's about the environmental impact of China's rapid development. Jon is now spending a year in Brazil's Amazon writing another book, and full disclosure, Jon's an old friend from when we were both correspondents in China. Jon, welcome.
[00:02:23] Jonathan Watts: Hi, Mary Kay. Great to be here.
[00:02:25] Mary Kay Magistad: Great to have you. So, Jon, let me start with you. You've covered climate change around the world. How do you view the moment we’re now in?
[00:02:34] Jonathan Watts: Uh, dreadful in one word, we are in serious trouble. Um, we know the problem very well. Scientists are agreed. More than 99.9% of climate scientists concur that, uh, human emissions are causing this problem of a warming planet. And the general population and are starting to see it in, in their lives. It's not a faraway distant thing anymore that might happen theoretically. We are many of us seeing it in our own countries, either by record high temperatures or terrible flooding, as we saw in China last year, or droughts, heat waves, or devastating forest fires. It's a really terrible moment and things are going to get worse. The question is how much worse, because we're now at the unstoppable stage. So, the question is how do we limit the damage, ideally as quickly as possible, so that it's hoped in the future, uh, we become intelligent enough to organize a way to actually start drawing down carbon dioxide instead of releasing more and then reversing the problem that we have. Uh, but this will take decades and decades. So, the priority right now is to cut emissions as quickly as possible to get to any chance of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, which is now the safest possible landing area that the planet can reach. We have to cut emissions essentially by half by 2030. And we're way off that. Emissions are still actually increasing. So, we're going in the wrong direction. There are a lot of good people doing good things, and there are glimmers of hope here and there, there's more awareness, but you know, we're beyond the time of debating the science. We're beyond the time of awareness; we are in the period of action. We need action.
[00:04:36] Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah. Tunicia, southern Africa is expected to heat up more and more quickly than almost any other place on earth. Um, Cape Town, as, just as one example has already experienced serious drought. How does it feel there now in terms of the urgency of the crisis and from your perspective, what needs to happen most urgently in the world and who needs to do it to increase the chances of Southern Africa remaining livable?
[00:05:00] Tunicia Phillips: You know, our environment minister, um, Barbara Creecy is, you know, often repeated that southern Africa and the continent has a whole, um, there are regions that have already warmed above one degree. And so while the world is in this race against time to limit to 1.5 degree or higher warming, Africa is already experiencing these impacts. And the drought has really affected large parts of South Africa. And there's this ongoing drought in certain parts that have already been going on for years and years. And right now they are, just like these urgent efforts to try and get these communities, farmers, cities, to adapt to water scarcity, because that's already become such a norm. Um, it is now sort of the development banks on the African continent in the developed world that is still pushing to finance fossil fuels and not really committing to an exact timeline on when they will stop financing new coal development or new gas or new oil. And I think the shift that is needed now is for developing countries to stop equating development and growth with great fossil fuel expansion. You know, consistent comparison between the global south and the Western world, who industrialized over the last 200 years on fossil fuels and are now superpowers, and are expecting over-indebted countries whose sovereign credit ratings are always on the line as a result of their debt, who now also need to adapt and build resilience to climate change. And to also, you know, go through these massive energy transitions like in South Africa, where moving away from coal means moving from an 80% use of coal-fired power to less than 60% by the year 2030, which is gonna need a monumental shift in the structure of the economy, which does come with a tremendous amount of risk.
[00:06:57] Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah. So Tianjie, China's had an extraordinary four decades of economic growth and coal has fueled a lot of that growth even as the government has moved somewhat unevenly over the past couple of decades to reduce the role that coal plays in China's energy mix. So, the Chinese government has just recently pledged to stop building new coal fired power plants outside of China, as just one example and it's also committed to reducing coal in the mix and reducing emissions overall going forward. And there are specific targets. Throughout this time, there's been an interesting evolution in how China's leaders see climate change and how they respond to it. I remember when I was based in China 10, 15 years ago, um, let's say around 2009, when the Copenhagen summit happened, there was still a number of officials saying, look, you know, you and the West had your 150 years of dirty development and you grew prosperous. Now it's our turn. Now it's China's turn. There's been a pretty significant shift in outlook and approach. What happened and why?
[00:08:00] Ma Tianjie: Yeah, I think there's a watershed moment around 2013, right? So China's climate story actually, the, in the past two decades basically has two parts. One is the build up everything, build up infrastructure, include everything kind of scenario before 2013. And after 2013, there is really a kind of awakening, both pushed by this Airpocalypse situation in major cities, particularly Beijing and—
[00:08:26] Mary Kay Magistad: Explain what that is. I mean, we experienced it, but what's the Airpocalypse?
[00:08:32] Ma Tianjie: Sure. I think, people even in the West, probably still remember that, especially during winter times, smog in Beijing really hit like terrible levels that really cloud the city. Right. People nicknamed it Airpocalypse. And that, that moment really, I think, became this kind of environmental awakening, especially among the Chinese middle class, that the kind of economic model that China has been pursuing right before that time was really not sustainable. And I think there was also this realization at the very top of the Chinese leadership, that it was a moment to reconsider how China wants to develop and grow its economy. There was really an alignment of thinking both on the environmental side and on the economic side that you need to actually restructure the economy to less dependent on this kind of massive infrastructure and investment-driven growth model to a more innovation and sort of consumption-driven model. If you look at that awakening moment, you can see clearly now from China's emissions trajectory, there was even a period between 2013 and 2016 that people were thinking that China's coal consumption and carbon emissions have probably peaked, but since 2017 there was a slow rebound and we're still seeing some kind of a rebound situation.
We are seeing currently a situation where the top leadership is probably ahead of the public opinion in terms of its determination to reduce emissions and change the growth model and put in quite strong climate policies and, and, and emission reduction policies. At some point that provoked a kind of pushback from the society for being like too radical in the de-carbonization drive.
[00:10:14] Mary Kay Magistad: That’s a really interesting observation, that public opinion isn't necessarily keeping up with, you know, where government policy is going. You put together, uh, an interesting year-end review looking at China's climate goals at the end of 2021. And one of the things you mentioned in it was that, you know, at least one commenter in Chinese media had said, Hey, you know, back in the Tang dynasty, you know, it was a golden age for China and the weather was warmer and we had more water. So, climate change is good for China. Is that a commonly held belief within the public? And I know there was, you know, the government actually had to kind of push back and say, ah, no, we, we do need to be worried about climate change.
[00:10:54] Ma Tianjie: It depends. I mean, if you look at the virality of that kind of post, it reflects that there is a pretty big segment in the Chinese society that still doesn't understand or appreciate the fact of climate change is going to be quite devastating, right? For China, particularly above average sea level rise compared to other parts of the world, uh, it has seen pretty severe glacier, uh, retreat in the western part of a country that disrupts the water cycles that actually sort of feeds the agriculture in a key part of the country and extreme weather events, particularly this year in Henan province was really devastating. Right? We're seeing people just drawn in the middle of the city in the subway because of this unprecedented heavy rain. And this is all sort of being recognized by policymakers and scientists in China, but because the policymaking process has been quite top-down from the very beginning, there was never this conversation about climate change right in the Chinese society. So, I think there is actually even like comic denialism in the Chinese society about what is climate change and how it’s going to impact people's lives and the economy.
[00:12:00] So in the long run, it's going to be posing a challenge for the seemingly progressive policies from the top, because when you have done with all the factories, when you have controlled all the emission trends from industries, where the government has a pretty good grasp of, then you will need to make really big cuts in transportation, in everyday consumption that touches people's everyday lives. And at that point, if there is no consensus or there's very weak buy-in of how, for example, electricity bills will be more expensive in order to better support the development of renewables, then you will have view or challenge of actually implementing a lot of those emissions-cutting policies in China, even if the leadership is committed to doing that.
[00:12:45] Mary Kay Magistad: That is a set of challenges that I think is a little counterintuitive from outside of China. The perception is the government's not acting fast enough. And within China, the government is working with a fairly complex situation and trying to kind of balance being able to have enough energy for the, um, level of economic growth and demand that’s there. And then also it must be said state-owned enterprises that are in the energy sector, the government wants them to succeed. And so, you know, transitioning quickly has an impact on them. And in the past that’s sometimes led to a slower transition or even a backpedaling for a little while. But within China, just so the listeners have a slightly better understanding of what's happened with coal in China—Where was it at 20 years ago or 10 years ago, in terms of the percentage of coal in China's energy mix, and where is it now?
[00:13:39] Ma Tianjie: So in terms of total energy consumption, coal is I think today at around 57% in total. Um, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, it was above 70%, right. So try and in the past one decade or so, China has managed to reduce the share of coal in the energy mix by I think 12, 13%. Given how large the Chinese energy market is, I think that amount is pretty huge. And if you look at, in terms of installed capacity, this year we are seeing that coal actually for the first time in history is like below 50% of China's installed electricity generation capacity. It’s pretty significant downward movement for coal share in the, in the energy mix.
[00:14:21] Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah. So downward movement of coal share, but overall energy use is going up as China's economy grows. So then, you know, total emissions continue to rise for the moment.
[00:14:32] Ma Tianjie: That's true. Even though because of the economy is also slowing down. So the general trend of energy consumption growth is also slowing, right. So it helps with peaking and in general.
[00:14:44] Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah. So Tunicia, while we're talking about coal, coming back to you because at the most recent climate summit in Glasgow, South Africa struck a really interesting deal to help wean itself off of coal. Um, with the US, Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union giving a total of eight and a half billion dollars in grants and low-interest loans over the next five years to help that happen. Coal right now is something like 80% of South Africa's energy mix. Foreign Policy magazine called this deal the most impressive thing to come out of the COP26 climate summit. Explain a little bit more about, you know, the deal, how it came to be, and why this is important for South Africa.
[00:15:22] Tunicia Phillips: This announcement came out at COP and it was widely celebrated, but I think it has been met with skepticism. Um, South Africa's government has been, and even President Cyril Ramaphosa, has been very vocal in Parliament while fielding questions from opposition parties. You know, that South Africa and Africa as whole was done, dilly-dallying close quote with the Western world and that, um, this concessional finance should have really good interest and that they want a significant portion of it to actually be grant funding and in a way that these Western powers and developed countries really owed it. So I think this task team that has been set up now that will be sort of negotiating these deals, this finance deal and fleshing out the nitty gritties, cause the devil will certainly be in the detail. And I think that South Africans are skeptical and waiting to see whether this would actually increase South Africans’ sovereign debt burden, or if it will actually make a significant difference in helping, um, South Africa transition away from coal. And since it's called, you know, uh, a just energy transition package, so to speak, this finance will actually reach the communities and the people will be most affected that it will go to creating new jobs and renewable energy as government says it's planning to do.
[00:16:48] Mary Kay Magistad: So over to you, Jon you're, you're joining us from the Amazon in Brazil, and we're talking fairly early in your day so we don't get interrupted by construction noises. Uh, there's been a lot of construction in the Amazon lately, a lot of clearing of forests, a lot of intentionally set forest fires contributing to climate change and a lot of trees that aren't there anymore absorbing carbon dioxide. So what's going on, what's behind that. And how do you find Brazilians you talk to feel about this?
[00:17:17] Jonathan Watts: There is an awful lot of land clearance going on. It's not mostly for construction, although that is one factor. It's much more for agriculture, for soy plantations, and for cattle ranches. Uh, because Brazil is first or second, it depends on the year in soy exports, mainly to China. And in addition, mining is having a huge impact on the Amazon and infrastructure projects. The reasons why, well, there's two main reasons.
One is the short-term impact of the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. And the second one is the long-term trend of Brazil's history and development.
[00:18:00] Let’s focus first on Jair Bolsonaro who is an extremely right-wing president who has basically made it his priority while in power to reduce the protections on the Amazon rainforest and other important biomes, like the Cerrado and the Pantanal, and open up these areas for economic exploitation. So logging, agriculture, mining, the usual. This has been calamitous, it's taken Brazil backwards. We saw just after COP26, and it's no surprise that the figures were held back until COP was over cause usually they're released earlier. The government revealed that deforestation of the Amazon had increased by 22% over the previous 12 months and reached its highest level since 2005. So calamitous, not just going in the wrong direction but rushing in the wrong direction. And this is very deliberate. It's almost that Bolsonaro is heading a kind of a clique of land developers and they're capitalizing on his time and power to do everything they can to grab land, which grows in value enormously when, when you cut down the trees and convert it into something else. This is very bad news and all the main regulatory bodies, such as IBAMA, which is the forest protection agency, have been completely culled, so they don't have the manpower, they don't have the equipment, they don't have the authority to do what they normally do in trying to protect the forest. At the same time, Congress is pushing forward with a number of new bills that will further open the Amazon and make a lot of illegal land clearance legal. What Jair Bolsonaro is saying to the public, essentially saying environmental groups are all part of a big international conspiracy.
[00:20:00] So forget them that Brazil needs this economic development. So it's almost your patriotic duty to go out and clear land, that indigenous people actually, they just want to be like us. So we should be going into their lands and opening mines because that's really what they want. And that is in fact not what most of them want, according to their leading representatives. So on all these levels, Brazil at the moment is arguably the world's biggest climate villain. I mean, the Amazon rainforest has always been a friend in climate terms. It's absorbed more carbon than it releases. But there's been a number of studies over recent years that have shown there are so many forest fires that parts of the Amazon are becoming a source of carbon emissions instead of a sink. It's becoming part of the problem instead of part of the solution. The good news is of course, that Brazil is a democracy and that there is an election next year.
[00:21:00] And according to the polls, Jair Bolsonaro will probably lose. Of course a lot can happen in a year, but he could be out and we might well see a leader who kind of starts to reverse some of the things that he did. So you could say Jair Bolsonaro is a temporary problem. The real concern is that actually the long-term trends in any case are, are grim. Jair Bolsonaro’s government has accelerated a problem that's been going on for many decades. Some governments have slowed it down a lot, but none have stopped deforestation. It's basically, unfortunately, the model of growth in Brazil. Much of its history has been to go into the, what they would call the wilderness, although it never was exactly a wilderness, it was in fact habit inhabited by indigenous people, to cut it down and to convert that into farm fields and sell the produce overseas or convert it into mines and sell the ore overseas.
[00:22:00] That is the model of Brazil's development and has been for a very long time. And it isn't easy to shift away from that. It did start to move that way and try to make the kind of transition that Ma Tianjie was talking about that China's trying to make, where you're more driven by innovation and consumer demand, and you have a different kind of economy. But as a result of China's huge demand, the efforts for Brazil to kind of industrialize a little bit more and rely less on agriculture, changed direction. So Brazil’s kind of trapped. The best hope to get out would be a financing deal that gives them an alternative. The system for carbon trading could be key because if carbon trading is effective and the carbon price reaches a point where it becomes profitable for farmers to keep forest, instead of converting it to sell soy, the equation changes.
[00:23:00] And then suddenly everyone's making money from having forests rather than losing money from having forest. A new way of thinking is needed to protect the forest and a new kind of economics more than anything else, I think. And also international cooperation, especially by China.
[00:23:19] Mary Kay Magistad: So that's a lot to think about from all of you, uh, in terms of some of the challenges that the world faces related to climate change. One of the great things about having a conversation like this with experienced journalists, especially journalists who are all focused on the same, very important thing is that I'm sure you have really interesting questions for each other. So this is your turn to take the wheel and ask each other, some questions. Tianjie, why don't you kick us off?
[00:23:45] Ma Tianjie: Oh, sure. I do have a question for Tunicia because from where I stand, I can see that there is a big conversation about just transition in South Africa. So, does China have a role actually in South Africa’s just transition as sort of an investor and also aid provider and what kind of difference it can make compared to Western donors in, in this situation.
[00:24:06] Tunicia Phillips: Yeah, I think that China's announcement that it would stop international financing of new coal developments in other countries already played a role because it was followed by, um, an announcement that, um, one of the special economic zones in Limpopo, which was envisaged to have a new coal development that the finance had pulled out and that was a Chinese financier. China has already played a significant role in South Africa's development in industries, very active in the motor industry and with changes to petroleum regulations. You know, South Africa has some of the dirtiest fuel in our cars in the world, and that has changed recently via legislation. So the motor industry is really going to have to adapt. To these new fuel regulations in terms of the
[00:25:00] kind of engines and cause and transport that we using. And I think that we'll be able to see China playing a good role there in assisting South Africa's transport sector and energy sector transition. We're seeing, uh, you know, South Africa putting a lot of effort into developing its green hydrogen economy and fortunately the research and innovation has started 10 years ago. So, they had just at the opportune moment to get this new industry off the ground. And while there's plans to use gas as a base load, while this green hydrogen economy kicks off, because it's so new, they anticipate that it will take about 10 years. But I think that, um, China also, they, in terms of technology transfer and skill transfer can play a role in helping South Africa accelerate that, so that policymakers won't use, um, a tremendous amount of gas expansion as an excuse for greener forms of energy taking a long time to basically come online.
[00:26:00] Mary Kay Magistad: Jon, do you have a question for Tunicia before I asked Tunicia to ask a question?
[00:26:06] Jonathan Watts: Yeah, I suppose going back to the COP again, and the, this announcement on coal that did seem very positive and it seemed like, uh, the wealthier nations of the world were saying to South Africa, okay we want to make you a role model for other nations, we're going to provide finance. We're going to see if it works, we’re going to see if we can change the direction on coal more rapidly than we might otherwise have done. Um, do you feel that within South Africa, it seemed that way and if so, whether that's a positive thing or whether people feel that, you know, what, why us, why pick on us to do this?
[00:26:46] Tunicia Phillips: I think that overall Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration is seeing this as a very good step forward in these countries honoring their financial commitments. And I also think that government is making its efforts and civil society groups are making the effort to sensitize the wider public to South Africa's role on the African continent as a carbon emitter. You know, we take up half of Africa's emissions. We've industrialized on coal and fossil fuels. And so we do have a bigger responsibility and it only makes sense that we become that poster child for the continent to show other countries that in case you were planning to industrialize any further, there are other opportunities. There are alternatives and they are ways to grow green.
[00:27:36] Jonathan Watts: If I could ask you a different question Tunicia, to what extent in South Africa is biodiversity part of the climate conversation? Obviously South Africa is a megadiverse country like Brazil. And there's that question that, how much should you be protecting that and how to intertwine that with your climate goals?
[00:27:58] Tunicia Phillips: I do see that there is a dual mentioning of nature-based solutions and an added focus on biodiversity protection and protected areas. What we're also seeing is that—I was recently at a game reserve, a national park actually, and one of the managers there was explaining how much opportunities and offers they are getting from, um, international companies and local companies to offset their emissions by expanding protection of the spekboom, which is a very precious plant, a mega-sequester of carbon in South Africa. And while that species is under threat for a number of reasons, I think what we're going to see now is all of these spaces with good qualities and potential to form a basis of a place where you implement climate action and also sort of benefit local communities where they take part in those projects. I think we'll see expansions of protected areas as part of the carbon market trading system. But I think also while you see that an expansion of protected areas, you also see the private sector and sections of government where they actually still want to develop fossil fuels or do exploration projects in protected areas. South Africa's environment now is characterized by litigation, you know, environmental groups, civil society groups, and human rights watchdogs, uh, consistently turning to the courts to challenge new coal development, to challenge any fossil fuel development that might be harmful to protected areas.
[00:29:35] Mary Kay Magistad: So Tunicia, your turn to ask a question.
[00:29:38] Tunicia Phillips: Yes. Um, Jon, when we report so far away from the Amazon rainforest, I know a lot of local newsrooms, the new style is always to localize even, you know, international stories. And sometimes I get the sense that also, if you write about the rainforest, what happens if the Amazon continues to reduce in its size, what the impacts will be like? How do we explain to our audiences why it's so significant that we should be keeping an eye on Brazil?
[00:30:10] Jonathan Watts: Your question is really important because developers of the Amazon have historically always made the claim that there is nobody there. Governments like during the dictatorship period in Brazil, which lasted from the mid sixties to the late eighties, there was this big push by the generals to get people to go into the Amazon. And they always used to argue that it's a land without people, for people without land. And this was always nonsense because indigenous people have lived there for thousands of years and lived there very skillfully in the way that they manage the Amazon. The Amazon, it was seen as a wilderness, but this was in many cases a terrible misconception because indigenous people have planted, it's estimated up to 40% of the Amazon. So in many ways it's an anthropogenic forest and it shows how humanity can live in conjunction with nature very well. 40% of the Amazon it's estimated is medicinal plants and plants that humans need for food. So it's not just wild out there. Humans can be a very positive force in the Amazon. And I think that is important to note, uh, but if you have the right skills in the background that evolve and develop over time. So yes, it's really important to localize, personalize things, to stress positive stories, as well as showing the often destructive influence of outsiders who move in with a different agenda. They're colonialist just like the British were 100, 200 years ago, and still are to some degree that type of colonialist you get, even within China and frontiersman, pioneers. The United States is a nation of pioneers. And that mentality of going there to take out as many resources as you can, take them back, that's in many ways, the problem. And how do you show these two sides at the local level the side that lives with the forest, the side that wants to just exploit the forest? Well, obviously visit and talk to people is the best way to do that. And you know, it's very expensive and time consuming, but there are funds that help to do that including the Rainforest Journalism Fund, which would welcome more coverage from other countries. I might also, at this point mentioned, although we have tried to avoid the construction time of day, we could not avoid a dog barking time of day. So, in the background, you may hear one of my three dogs yapping away at what it thinks is some perceived threat.
[00:32:53] Mary Kay Magistad: Not a problem. Okay Tunicia, do you have a question for Tianjie?
[00:32:59] Tunicia Phillips: I do. Um, I mentioned earlier that we saw a very quick turn of events in South Africa after China announced that it would not be financing new coal development over-broad. And what I'd like to know is what does this look like in domestic policy in China? Was it sort of, um, the announcement came and there was an immediate moratorium on all existing or planned new coal developments around the world where China was involved or is it something that we'll see, um, develop gradually? Yeah, so I'm, I'm just very eager to know, um, what's happening there from a domestic policy perspective.
[00:33:39] Ma Tianjie: That's a very great question. Actually, inside China, that announcement came as a big surprise, even to a lot of the senior policymakers that we have access to. This actually has become sort of a norm in the past year about Chinese climate policy. The top leadership has, as I said before, moved ahead of not only public opinion, but also policymaking right beneath them. There seem to be some real conviction in doing something on climate change to show Chinese leadership on the global stage. So, the coexit announcement by President Xi at the UN, even within the government structure, people need to get clarity as to, okay so what does this mean? Does it mean that we need to pull from all the projects or does it only apply to projects that hasn't signed a contract or does it apply to like project that has signed a contract, but hasn't reached a financial closure? Like what, what stage do make the cut? None of that is clear at this moment. And I think they probably are going to create some guidelines for the banks and state-owned companies, how to move forward with certain projects and create criteria before actually applying that policy, right? So it's a good thing that, for example, at Berlin Bobo industrial area, the projects are already pulled off. But, uh, for example, in Bosnia, where there are a bunch of new construction of coal fire problem going on, it seems that both the construction company and the, Bosnian government is intend to keep them forward. Since the contracts are signed, construction probably have been going on or planning has been going on for a while. Probably some of those projects are going to go ahead, right? So, there are a lot of ambiguities in that announcement and it takes some sort of clarification to gauge like how large an impact and difference it will make in the months and years to come.
[00:35:36] Mary Kay Magistad: So Jon and Tianjie, you haven't asked questions of each other yet. So why don't I let you each do that? And then I have one last question to wrap up. Uh, Jon, you want to go first?
[00:35:46] Jonathan Watts: to my question for Ma Tianjie, who I remember talking to many years ago about plastics and other forms of pollution in China when I was there way back in the day. But my question this time is quite a different one. And it is that China is the most important player at the moment. Historically it does not have the most responsibility, but right now it is the biggest emitter. And it's also the biggest driver of change to natural areas or areas of large biodiversity. So, my question is this: whether there's any possibility that China might make an announcement similar to the one it did on overseas financing of coal, where it really puts by diversity considerations very high on the agenda when it comes to funding projects or doing business in other countries. And to some degree, I know that kind of exists already, but as you were telling us today, a lot of the action in China is driven from the top down. And I wonder if a, there is Chinese concerned at the top level about what's happening in the Amazon and any willingness to do something about that, as China is the biggest importer of soy from here and a large importer of beef too, and secondly, what is the potential for the public to be better informed, the Chinese public, to be better informed about what's happening in the Amazon? What could be done to encourage more Chinese journalists to come here and report on what's happening in the Amazon, why it's so dangerous if it becomes a source of carbon, rather than a sink.
[00:37:26] Ma Tianjie: Thanks, Jon. Yeah, that's a very important question. And I actually meant to respond to your earlier comment, um, because this is an area actually where the disconnect between top level policymaking and consumer sort of attitude and, and public opinion manifests itself, like perfectly, right? So, again, from the top, we are seeing the biodiversity is taking a pretty high place in the Chinese political agenda, particularly when China's hosting the UN’s biodiversity talks in Kunming, right? From the very top. China seems to be intent, right, to take a leadership on biodiversity as it does in the climate area. It has signed up to, for example, the zero deforestation pledge at COP26, showing the intention okay, we want to be part of the global effort to take care of the common goods, right? The public goods. This is currently a buzzword in, in Chinese policy making and yeah, signing on to those pledges, which means that for example, stay on companies like COFCO, they will be sort of probably playing some role in greening its supply chains. It's a big Chinese food trader and as a pretty big footprint in the Amazon. So, I think having those big players on board definitely helps, but because the public still feels like climate change is quite distant and the Amazon is also even more distant to them, there's really a lack of appreciation of the role that the Amazon forest plays in climate change and how that actually in turn would impact China. In the past few years, the issue of meat consumption, for example, has been so politicized in the Chinese internet, that it has almost become a taboo for any like Chinese player to even talk about how to sort of direct Chinese consumer behavior in order to conserve a place like Amazon, right? People who are advocating for this were being attacked as Western imperialist, who wants to dictate what Chinese people should eat. Why are Chinese people asked to eat less meat where for example, American people or Australians are eating way more meat than us. The general public doesn't see a connection between why conserving such a distant piece of land and forest actually has anything to do with well-beings in China, because the understanding of the global climate change is still so lacking in this society. And that's where the kind of concern, even when you have a pretty enlightened leadership in addressing climate change and pushing in all those like policies, if your public isn't on board or if your public doesn't have buy-in, at some point, it will hurt your agenda. And currently I think the gap in China is still pretty big.
[00:40:04] Jonathan Watts: Can I just very quickly follow up on that? And you know, I know that, of course the media environment in China is very different. Um, but even with a lot of state-controlled media or even in this environment, what would be the best way to facilitate or encourage more Chinese journalists to visit the Amazon and report on the problems that are there and how they affect Chinese people?
[00:40:31] Ma Tianjie: I think there should be genuine south-south collaboration in this area, right? So, one thing that is clear is that if this comes from any like Western initiative or influence, it definitely will backfire because in China's political and internet environment, this will be seen as Westerners trying to suffocate like Chinese development. If the invitation comes from a Brazilian side, the kind of moral force of that would be much stronger.
[00:41:00] Mary Kay Magistad: And, Tianjie. Do you want to wrap up this round with a question for Jon?
[00:41:04] Ma Tianjie: Yeah, I do have a question for Jon, which is actually related to this fantastic interview you've done with Wang Yi, the senior lawmaker from China. I think you met him at COP26, and I think that interview played quite well inside China because it was quite candid and it seems that he did open up a lot of those topics and the whole theme of his interview, I think it was that China is doing a lot, doing this whole systemic changes inside the Chinese society to meet its climate goals, but nobody outside China seems to be understand the kind of fundamental changes China is trying to make. Do you think China is actually telling a compelling climate story to the world at this stage?
[00:41:47] Jonathan Watts: A good question. I, I remember I had been asking the Chinese authorities for weeks, maybe even months in advance if I could interview a senior member of the delegation. And I didn't get a reply and they didn't get a reply. So when I got to COP, uh, almost every day, I went to the Chinese delegation and asked for an interview and I, I wrote another letter and I said, look, really candidly, what I'm worried about is that we're going to have a Copenhagen-type situation. Uh, in 2009, there was another huge climate meeting in Copenhagen and I think the Chinese view really didn't get out. And, uh, appalling media management is one of the reasons for that and distrust that has emerged over decades. And because of this distrust, I think there is a tendency often on this part of Chinese officials to think it's better not to talk than to say the wrong thing or to say something that might be misunderstood or to say something that might be attacked within China. So, it was kind of brave in the end for Wang Yi to respond positively. And he sat down with me and we had a very good conversation. I felt we really kind of broke some barriers in what we were saying. And I think there's a lot of area where China can be criticized and should be criticized. I think it's healthy, but at the same time, I think it is important to show what China is doing and the incredible political difficulties and logistical difficulties of turning such an enormous ship around. And, you know, I wish China would do more, but I think it does need to be said that China is doing a lot. That's not a contradiction.
[00:43:35] Mary Kay Magistad: I've got one last question for you all, a lightning round question. So, we've talked a lot about kind of what keeps you up at night related to the challenges we all face with climate change, but also that you're facing in the particular areas where you live and that you focus on. What gives you hope? Tunicia, why don't we start with you?
[00:43:57] Tunicia Phillips: It sounds like an easy question, but it's not really. What gives me hope is seeing the tremendous amount of movement we're seeing in climate change space, whether it's local narratives evolving, whether it's the political environment and atmosphere sort of changing towards, um, one that really recognizes this as a great threat and one that is happening presently and not in the far-off future. And I think even just seeing how the youth movement has really come to the party on all of our continents and how Greta Thunberg and the activists on the African continent like Vanessa Nakate in Uganda are really inspiring a generation of young people who are so conscious of the threats of climate change. And for me, what keeps me going is just hoping that that's going to manifest into future adults who really make better decisions for the planet.
[00:45:07] Mary Kay Magistad: Tianjie, how about you?
[00:45:07] Ma Tianjie: So, what keeps me hopeful is that at least in China, we do have, or appear to have the political will to take action on climate change, which is already a rare thing I think in today's world. But for us, I think it's important to get clarity with the political world and get clarity from policymaking. And then also getting the society around that overall goal, right? Uh, we need the public and the society to be on board with those ambitious targets and goals to actually move towards achieving them.
Mary Kay Magistad: And Jon?
[00:45:41] Jonathan Watts: Uh, for me, it's two things. Uh, it's all of the brilliant, inspiring people that I meet in climate science, climate activism. Even some politicians, dare I say it, uh, who are trying to make a change, make people aware. The fact that they face this monster head on rather than try to pretend it isn't happening or can do everything the way we did before. I feel incredible hope in those people and people like that. Um, and then the other one is maybe not what you would expect to hear from a Guardian journalist, but I'm a little bit encouraged by what's happening in finance. The fact that more big finance houses are saying, we must do things, that you get major Wall Street commentators saying, you know, oil and gas that's done. We got to get away from that. You know, that would be unthinkable 10 years ago. I take hope in particular at the carbon price since COP26. The price of carbon's gone above $70. Again, that would be a dream 10 years ago, so that can encourage positive change. You know, I'm living in the Amazon. My fear is that I'm in this wonderful place and I'm going to watch it degrade before my eyes over the next 10 years. But I get hope from the fact that we are actors. We're not just passive observers, we can do something. And I think this is a fight, the fight of our age and a fight worth taking part in.
[00:47:15] Mary Kay Magistad: Jon Watts, Ma Tianjie, Tunicia Phillips. Thanks for a great conversation and a really important conversation.
[00:47:22] Jonathan Watts: Thank you very much. Great to be with you all.
Tunicia Phillips: Thank you. Great to meet you.
Ma Tianjie: Great talking to you.
[00:47:27] Mary Kay Magistad: And thank you for listening to the COAL+ICE Podcast, a production of Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, where I'm associate director and this podcast’s editor and producer. Taili Ni is our assistant producer. Orville Schell directs the Center on US-China Relations.
The COAL+ICE photo exhibitions co-curators are Susan Meiselas and Jeroen de Vries. Its producers are Leah Thompson and Jillian Schultz. You can check out photos, videos, and more about the exhibition at coalandice.org. And if you're in Washington, DC, between March 15th and April 22nd, come and experience it for yourself at the Kennedy Center.
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