Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • When is seeing not believing?

  • A couple years ago, my friend sent me this photo from Ürümqi,

  • which is the capital of Xinjiang province in northwest China.

  • On this particular day, she couldn't believe her eyes.

  • Checking the quality of the air outside using this app on her iPad,

  • the numbers were telling her the air quality was good,

  • one on a scale of 500.

  • But when she looked outside, she saw something much different.

  • Yes, those are buildings in the background.

  • (Laughter)

  • But the data were simply not telling the truth

  • of what people were seeing and breathing,

  • and it's because they were failing to measure PM2.5,

  • or fine particulate pollution.

  • When PM2.5 levels went off the charts in 2012,

  • or "crazy bad," as the US Embassy once described it in a tweet,

  • Chinese denizens took to social media

  • and they started to question why it was that they were seeing this disconnect

  • between official air quality statistics

  • and what they were seeing and breathing for themselves.

  • Now, this questioning has led

  • to an environmental awakening of sorts in China,

  • forcing China's government to tackle its pollution problems.

  • Now China has the opportunity to become a global environmental leader.

  • But the picture that I'll paint for you today

  • is one that's mixed.

  • There are some signs that are very promising,

  • and there are other trends that are more troubling

  • that warrant closer attention.

  • But now let's go back to the story at hand.

  • I started to witness the beginnings of China's green evolution

  • when I was a PhD student conducting fieldwork in China in 2011.

  • I traveled all across the country seeking answers to the question

  • that I often got myself from the skeptical outsider:

  • What, you mean China is doing something on the environment?

  • They have environmental policies?

  • What policies?

  • At that time, PM2.5 data was considered too politically sensitive

  • and so the government was keeping it secret,

  • but citizens were becoming aware of its harmful human health effects,

  • and they were demanding greater transparency

  • on the part of the government.

  • I actually started to see some of this growing evolution and awareness myself

  • cropping up all over China.

  • Department stores, for example, started to market these air purifiers

  • that could filter out harmful PM2.5.

  • Citizens were also adopting PM2.5 as the title of musical festivals.

  • (Laughter)

  • And then I went to a golf course in Shenzhen, which is in southern China,

  • and you can see from this banner, they're advertising a retreat from PM2.5.

  • Golf sub-par, but don't breathe sub-par air.

  • And then Shanghai's Environmental Protection Bureau

  • decided to create a mascot named after the air quality index

  • to better communicate the air quality data to its people.

  • I call her AQI Girl,

  • and her expression and hair color changes depending on the quality of air outside.

  • Five years later and she's still the mostly smiling face

  • of Shanghai's air quality.

  • And then in 2015,

  • former CCTV reporter Chai Jing

  • created this documentary called "Under the Dome."

  • It would be likened to Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring."

  • And much like Rachel Carson

  • brought to attention the fact that pesticides were harming human health,

  • "Under the Dome" stamped into the popular consciousness

  • that air pollution was leading to one million premature deaths

  • every year in China alone.

  • This video garnered

  • more than a hundred million views in a single weekend

  • before China's government,

  • fearing that it might incite some type of social unrest,

  • pulled it from the internet.

  • But the damage had already been done.

  • Public outcry over air pollution

  • galvanized China's government,

  • perhaps in an act of self-preservation,

  • to think big and decisively about how it could tackle

  • the root of its air pollution

  • and many of its other environmental problems:

  • its energy system.

  • For you see, in China,

  • about two thirds of its electricity comes from coal.

  • China has more coal-fired power plants than any other country in the world,

  • about 40 percent of the global total,

  • and it's because of this fact that China's government

  • has decided since 2014 to wage a war on coal,

  • shutting down small coal mines,

  • setting limits on coal consumption,

  • even canceling an Australia's worth of coal-fired power plants.

  • They've also been making enormous investments

  • when it comes to clean and renewable energy,

  • like hydropower, wind and solar,

  • and the pace and the scale of this transformation

  • has been absolutely mind-blowing.

  • Let me give you a couple of statistics to show you what I mean.

  • China leads the world when it comes to hydropower,

  • with a third of total capacity.

  • There's enough for every Chinese citizen

  • to power two homes in a single year from hydropower alone.

  • You may have heard of the Three Gorges Dam,

  • pictured here,

  • which is the largest power station in the world,

  • and it's powered by water.

  • In terms of wind power,

  • China has a third of the global capacity.

  • This makes it the number one leader by far.

  • When we look at solar, China's also leading.

  • In fact, they crushed their 2020 target

  • of installing 105 gigawatts of solar power.

  • This is after the government already revised upwards

  • several times its solar energy target

  • between 2009 and 2015.

  • Last year, in seven months alone,

  • China was able to install a whopping 35 gigawatts of solar power.

  • This is more than half of what the US has combined in total

  • and China did this in just seven months alone.

  • We can verify this remarkable growth in solar power from space,

  • like the startup SpaceKnow has done in this slide.

  • By 2020, China is on track to generate Germany's entire electricity consumption

  • from just wind and solar power alone.

  • It's pretty darn remarkable.

  • And we see some evidence now

  • that China's efforts on clean energy

  • is actually having an effect,

  • not just on air pollution reduction,

  • but also on global climate change,

  • where China has the world's largest carbon footprint.

  • If we look at some of the data, we can see that China's coal consumption

  • may have already reached a peak as early as 2013.

  • This is a major reason why China's government announced

  • that actually they've already achieved their 2020 carbon reduction pledge

  • ahead of schedule.

  • This reduction in coal consumption

  • is also directly driving improvements in air quality

  • across the country,

  • as I've shown here in blue.

  • In most major Chinese cities,

  • air pollution has fallen by as much as 30 percent.

  • And this reduction in air pollution is actually leading people

  • to live longer lives in China,

  • on average two and a half years more than they would have in 2013.

  • In yellow, we can see the cities that have experienced

  • the greatest improvements in air quality.

  • But of course, as I mentioned at the beginning of this talk,

  • we have to temper some of this optimism

  • with a healthy dose of caution,

  • and that's largely because the data are still being determined.

  • At the end of last year,

  • after roughly three years of pretty steady global carbon emissions,

  • scientific projections suggest

  • that global emissions may be on the rise again

  • and that could be due to increases in China's fossil fuel consumptions,

  • so they may not have reached that peak that I showed earlier.

  • But of course, the statistics and the data are still murky

  • and that's because China regularly revises its coal statistics after the fact.

  • Actually, it's funny,

  • since I've been here I've been having a debate on Twitter

  • with other climate modelers,

  • trying to figure out whether China's carbon emissions

  • have gone up, gone down or whether they're staying relatively stable.

  • And of course, China is still a rapidly developing country.

  • It's still experimenting with a range of policies,

  • like dockless bike sharing,

  • which has been hailed as a possible sustainable transport solution.

  • But then we have images of this bicycle graveyard

  • that tell a more cautionary tale.

  • Sometimes, solutions can move too fast

  • and outpace demand.

  • And of course, coal is still king in China,

  • at least for now.

  • So why should we care about what China is doing on the environment?

  • Well, what China does at home on the environment

  • can have global implications for the rest of us.

  • To borrow a line from Chai Jing,

  • we're all under the same dome,