The ghost of Jules Verne appears to be alive and well amid China’s environmental catastrophe. To clear out the smog that regularly chokes Beijing and other cities, inventors have proposed giant shower heads on skyscrapers. Others have suggested installing soot-sucking vacuum cleaners in parks or sending drones aloft to freeze toxic particles in the air and drop to them to earth.
In an earlier era, such ideas might have captivated Jerry Brown. Yet as he prepares to tour China in his second trip as governor, Brown is unlikely to engage his Chinese counterparts in whiz-bang environmental fixes. As California has shown, cleaning the air is a tedious, unsexy and often controversial process, involving expansive regulatory targeting, from cargo ships to backyard barbecues.
Brown has long sought to engage China as a partner and potential client in reducing smog and greenhouse gases. With Trump withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate change agreement, Brown’s mission takes on added urgency. More than ever, the Chinese Communist Party wants to be seen as a world leader and, more than ever, it is seeking outside expertise to reduce pollution that threatens its hold on power.
With Trump withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate change agreement, Jerry Brown’s mission takes on added urgency.
I lived in Beijing the last three years and regularly inhaled the coal soot that is a defining taste of the city. Routines that my wife and I once took for granted – such as shopping for vegetables or brushing our teeth with tap water – posed daily challenges, given what we knew about China’s tainted soil and polluted aquifers.
Beijing’s pollution also dominated daily conversations, including those with our Chinese friends. Talk tended to revolve around the latest air filtration machines and what to do with the kids when smog alerts forced the schools to close.
Polls suggest that, compared to residents of other leading countries, the Chinese public is far more concerned about smog at home than international impacts of climate change. In a survey last year, the Pew Research Center found that half of those polled believe their leaders should reduce air pollution, even if it means slower economic growth.
While interpreting Beijing’s motives is often tricky, Chinese President Xi Jinping clearly sees multiple advantages in sticking with the Paris Agreement and partnering with states such as California:
▪ Joining the pact allows China to enhance its international stature, helping it to achieve strategic goals. Speaking at the Davos World Economic Forum in January, Xi said “all signatories must stick to” the 2015 Paris deal, which is aimed at limiting global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Future generations could be endangered by “walking away” from the pact, he said.
▪ Transiting to cleaner energy sources stands to reduce air pollution in China, helping Beijing quell domestic unrest. Chinese leaders are highly sensitive about environmental protests, as reflected in their decision to censor a popular documentary in 2015 that explored the origins and impacts of China air pollution crisis.
▪ China already dominates the solar power industry and wants to do the same with wind power, nuclear power and and other alternatives to fossil fuels. In 2016, China invested a record $32 billion in foreign renewable energy projects, a 60 percent increase, according to a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
California and Brown have their own economic reasons for advancing the Paris accord, with or without Trump’s support. Silicon Valley venture capital for clean tech businesses went through a boom and bust between 2006 and 2011. Without the pressure exerted by an international agreement, California’s clean tech sector could struggle to rebound.
In an interview with the The Bee on Wednesday, Brown said he hopes that “California and America responds and gets competitive” on clean energy technologies. “We are looking at some loss here in our position in the world and jobs.”
While in China, Brown plans to engage his Chinese counterparts in the Under2 Coalition, a pact among 170 cities, states and countries that have pledged to implement and surpass the goals of the Paris Agreement. Signatories must pledge to reduce their greenhouse gases by 80-95 percent by 2050. Currently, the coalition includes 23 subnational governments in China – including Sichuan province, Zhenjiang and Beijing.
Even before Trump decided to pull out of the Paris pact, climate activists were concerned about its enforcement provisions, and the commitment of signatories to abide by their emission-reduction pledges. China is a particular concern, both because of its size and endemic corruption in everyday environmental enforcement.
Since 2013, the California Air Resources Board has been working with Beijing and other Chinese cities on strategies for reducing emissions from cars, trucks, factories and power plants. As a result of those meetings, Beijing closed its last coal-fired power plant in March.
In a 2013 speech to her counterparts in Shenzhen, in southeast China, CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols praised the city for setting up a greenhouse gas emissions trading program modeled after the one that California created through Assembly Bill 32, the state’s signature climate change law. But she also noted the challenges of collecting precise emissions figures – a challenge in China, where accurate and accessible government data is hard to come by.
“We will be watching with great interest and support as you undertake the effort being launched today,” Nichols said at the time. “And we are eager to continue sharing our experiences with you, and learning from yours.”
Stuart Leavenworth, a national correspondent in McClatchy’s DC Bureau, previously worked as the company’s Beijing Bureau Chief, and prior to that, served as The Bee’s editorial page editor.