Han Chen manages NRDC’s work to address climate change at the international level—especially in key countries like the United States, China, India, and Canada. Her work covers the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations and implementation of the Paris Agreement, global financing and deployment of renewables, and limits to the expansion of high-carbon energy sources.
The 2019 United Nations Climate Summit had an urgent mission in the wake of the latest IPCC report that showed what we’re up against if we don’t drastically reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants worldwide. What was the outcome of that meeting?
Unfortunately, most of the national leaders who attended the summit missed the opportunity to demonstrate that they are on the right side of science and history. Meanwhile, multinational oil and gas companies hosted their own meeting in New York, seeking positive press for making relatively small commitments to reduce emissions without actually shifting the majority of their fossil fuel investments. But outside the summit, we’re seeing some true positive momentum on the global stage. Several developed countries—Germany, France, and Norway, to name just a few—have actually doubled their pledges to the Green Climate Fund, the world’s largest multilateral fund for climate action. While India and China are still planning to build new coal plants domestically, both countries also continue to install renewable energy at a record pace.
Although China is currently the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, it’s also the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy. What are the most encouraging signs in China’s energy policies?
For one thing, the climate discourse in China isn’t as rooted in partisan ideology as it is here, and there’s not the same concerted disinformation campaign. The discussion about energy policy there tends to focus on economic and environmental gains as opposed to politics. That’s why China is already seriously discussing—at both the national and local levels—things like a ban on sales of internal combustion engine vehicles, or converting public bus fleets to 100 percent electric vehicles. China has more than twice as much installed wind and solar power capacity as the United States, and its emissions per capita are only half what they are in our country. So what’s most hopeful and encouraging about China’s energy policy is that it has already figured out how to decouple economic growth from carbon intensity; its policies recognize the economic advantages inherent in developing renewables, batteries, and other technologies.
Despite the Trump administration’s disastrous actions to thwart climate action, we often hear about how the renewable energy sector is booming here in the United States. How does our renewables sector compare with those of other developed countries?
Other countries are illustrating how implementing policies early on in order to drive renewable energy is absolutely key to decarbonizing. Germany currently gets almost 23 percent of its power generation from wind and solar; that’s three times higher than the percentage here in the United States. Denmark gets 51 percent of its power generation from wind and solar. Both countries supported the wind and solar industries in their early stages of development, and both countries have shown that they’re serious about updating their national climate legislation to be in line with commitments made as part of the Paris Agreement. America needs to follow their lead by passing serious, ambitious legislation on the local, state, and federal levels.
What is the role of NRDC in pushing for that action in times like these?
NRDC isn’t in the business of simply commenting on existing policy; it actively drives new policy, globally, to help us all deal with this unbelievably complex and difficult threat. NRDC is willing to challenge government policy, campaign publicly, and advocate fiercely for the climate action we need. It’s this strategy that made me want to be a part of the organization when I walked in for my first job interview in 2015 and saw the office logo: “The Earth’s Best Defense.”
NRDC is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. What is your vision for the environmental movement, and the planet, 50 years from now?
I think our concept of growth will need to focus on the quality of economic development, not just on raw numbers by themselves, like GDP or net profit. The power of collective action taken by millions—such as the recent series of youth-led global climate strikes—will have helped us to understand the hidden costs of focusing only on high-level statistics and ignoring the impacts on individuals and the environment. In 50 years, the earth and its natural systems will hopefully have had some time to recover from centuries of human-driven greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, this assumes that within the next few decades we’ll have shifted from creating more greenhouse gas emissions to reducing them. If we can do that, though, we will have shifted from causing disastrous ecological damage to beginning a new era of better planetary stewardship by individuals, communities, and nations.
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