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Photo of NRDC's China program staff near Beijing's Forbidden City.

Taming the Dragon

Can China meet its exploding energy needs without damaging the planet? Maybe...

Within the next two decades, China is expected to overtake the United States as the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, and the coal-fired power plants fueling the country's unprecedented growth will be the primary cause. Every week a new plant goes online somewhere in China, and its energy industry as a whole is growing faster than that of any other nation, expanding at a rate three times the global average. Last year, China's thirst for oil accounted for one-third of the worldwide increase in demand. Such rapid expansion is astonishing, and so too are its ramifications for our climate system.

Over the past 10 years, NRDC has assembled a team of experts to help China avert catastrophe and promote the widespread adoption of cleaner, more efficient power plants, vehicles, and buildings. Here are the key players.

Barbara Finamore, director, China program
As a young, idealistic attorney fresh out of Harvard Law School, Finamore took a job with the Department of the Interior under the Carter administration, to gain enough environmental law experience to score a job where she had always dreamed of working: NRDC. Finamore joined NRDC in 1981 but left in 1990 to spend several years with her family in Moscow and then Beijing. In China she worked for the United Nations Development Program, helping the Chinese government prepare its first plans for sustainable development in the twenty-first century. "I could see just how much needed to be done in China, and I realized NRDC could provide the expertise: policy development, legal training, technology transfer," she says. "In the early 1990s, we were just really waking up to the reality of global warming, and China was the world's second-largest greenhouse gas emitter. China needed NRDC and NRDC needed China." In 1995 Finamore returned to the United States and to NRDC, and helped launch the organization's China program. Today she meets regularly with national and provincial officials to develop energy efficiency programs for refrigerators, lighting, cooling systems, and other appliances, as well as for the power plants that supply their energy.

Rob Watson, director, international energy
When Barbara Finamore first agitated for a China program, Watson -- NRDC's "international energy guy" -- was skeptical: "Could we get anybody to work with us and make a difference?" As it turned out, the answer was yes on both counts. NRDC's no-nonsense delivery of technical and policy expertise, as well as the sensitivity of its staff to the needs of 700 million people living on less than $3 a day, helped make it possible, Watson says. Today he is optimistic. He can walk into the offices of China's top energy and environment officials and find them not only receptive but eager for his advice. "They're saying, 'Tell us more,' " he says. Watson has been with NRDC since 1985, and today his primary role is transforming the construction business in China to cut down on the amount of energy used to operate buildings. Over the next two decades, China's rate of growth will be equivalent to adding two cities the size of New York every year. "We're saying, 'As you build your infrastructure, do it right the first time,' " Watson explains. To develop energy-saving building codes, he works with the construction and the science and technology ministries on the national level, and with their local counterparts in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Shenzhen, among China's fastest-growing cities. And with the support of architects, designers, builders, and government officials, Watson helps create local green-building councils. "As China goes, so goes the planet," he says. "That's what drives me out of bed every morning."

Jingjing Qian, senior research associate
Born and raised in Beijing, Qian watched her country's environmental problems unfold firsthand. She worked for the United Nations on issues ranging from development around the Tumen River Basin in northeastern China to children's health, but left the organization to join NRDC in 2001. Now she focuses on reducing air pollution through advanced energy technologies: coal gasification power plants, fuel-cell hybrid vehicles, and biofuels. Qian spends much of her time researching the social, governmental, and economic barriers to the adoption of new technologies and developing strategies to overcome those obstacles. "It's one thing to come in with ideas that work," she says. "But our work is more effective when we can provide some seed money to get the ball rolling." From her post in New York, Qian has raised more than half a million dollars to support NRDC's work in China, and she makes several trips a year to guide the implementation of the projects she manages.

Alex Wang, staff attorney
"I first visited China a decade ago, on vacation right after college. Even then, I could sense the excitement over the unprecedented changes taking place that had the potential to alter so many people's lives for the better," says Wang, who was raised in the United States by Chinese parents. Wang returned to America, went to law school, worked for a few years at a New York City firm, and then went back to China as a Fulbright scholar. This time he stayed, and now works for NRDC in Beijing. Over the past six months, there have been more than 76 toxic chemical spills from factories and other industrial facilities, Wang says. He explains that people don't know what's in their water, nor do they have any means of obtaining that information and doing something about it. "We're working to give people that power," he says. Wang collaborates with Chinese nongovernmental organizations, such as the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, one of the country's strongest voices for public participation in legal affairs. Before the end of the year, he and his colleagues plan to submit to the national government a draft of a new law that would grant public access to environmental information, forcing industrial polluters to come clean.

Timothy Hui, director, Beijing operations
"You can see the air here," says Hui, who was raised in Jiangsu Province and moved to Beijing when he was 18 years old. "Everybody I meet is crying for better air, cleaner water. What we need is more sophisticated and effective laws, policies, and incentives." When NRDC was putting its China program in place, Hui was working for the South-North Institute for Sustainable Development, one of China's most highly respected nongovernmental organizations. He began working with NRDC as an adviser, but over the years his role has grown: Today he is the organization's primary point man in China. "Someone has to coordinate our efforts to make sure we're not just a bunch of people screaming separately," he says. Hui coordinates NRDC's work with that of other advocacy groups, as well as with local economic-development commissions, power utilities, and government officials. His top priority: promoting national energy efficiency. Right now he's working to create standards that will require new buildings to use 50 percent to 65 percent less energy.

Ruidong Jin, green building expert
Jin was an engineering student at Chongqing University in the late 1980s when China's economy started to take off. "People were glad for their new homes but dismayed by worsening environmental problems," he says. Jin joined a Chinese-Japanese research team that examined urban design from a philosophical point of view. "We found that if people lived on a desert planet without clean air and water -- without the natural surroundings that humans have known for thousands of years
-- nobody would pay any attention to life, and the world would have no soul." This conclusion inspired Jin to focus on sustainable building practices. In 1998, Barbara Finamore and Rob Watson formed a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy and China's Ministry of Science and Technology to build China's first green building as a demonstration of how economic growth and environmental protection could work in concert. Jin came on as the project's field manager. The building, now complete, has garnered international attention and a Gold rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.
-- Jason Elliott

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NRDC's China program staff near Beijing's Forbidden City. From left: Barbara Finamore, Ruidong Jin, Rob Watson, Timothy Hui, Alex Wang. Not pictured: Jingjing Qian.
Photo: Gilles Sabrie

OnEarth. Summer 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council

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