Will China Save the Planet?

Barbara Finamore, NRDC’s senior strategic director for Asia, witnessed the birth of China’s clean energy movement. Her new book considers its future.

Barbara Finamore speaking about her work at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, September 2018

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage for NRDC

Nearly 30 years later, Barbara Finamore still marvels that she was in the room the moment China emerged on the international climate stage. In June 1991, Premier Li Peng convened ministers from 40 developing countries for a meeting in Beijing to develop a joint strategy for negotiating a climate change treaty at the following year’s first-ever Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. That conference, where China committed to develop a blueprint for sustainable development in the 21st century, known as Agenda 21—which it then made good on—marked the beginning of the country’s environmental awakening. And Finamore, who at the time was living in China’s capital, got to watch it all unfold.

“I knew it was momentous, and I was so grateful to be a part of it,” remembers Finamore, who helped the country carry out its commitments to clean energy in a role with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Through that work, Finamore connected with some of China’s environmental leaders and interviewed experts in every ministry involved with sustainable development, experience that would prove invaluable over the following decades. “I got a really broad understanding at the very beginning of what China’s needs were, and that has stood me in good stead all these years,” she says.

That experience in Beijing—one of many places she and her diplomat husband lived in Asia during their careers—gave Finamore the impetus for NRDC’s China Clean Energy Project, which she helped launch in 1996, a year after joining the organization. (It was actually her second stint; she had also worked as an NRDC attorney from 1981 to 1987.) The organization couldn’t address climate change without addressing the world’s most populous country and largest carbon emitter, she argued.

Finamore, who has worked with NRDC on issues pertaining to China’s energy policies for more than 20 years, outlines this critical evolution and reflects on its significance for our collective future in her forthcoming book, Will China Save the Planet? In five succinct chapters, she takes readers on a journey from that first meeting of ministers in 1991 through its role at the 2015 Paris climate conference, traces the history of China’s reliance on coal, and highlights its recent national coal-cap policy.

“Barbara is a visionary,” says JingJing Qian, one of Finamore’s first hires and the current director of NRDC’s China program. “She started with one initiative, energy efficiency, which in the mid-1990s China could be receptive to. At that time, you couldn’t talk about climate change because it wasn’t on China’s agenda. It was rapidly industrializing, but energy efficiency could be a win-win situation for everyone—and there was a desire to learn international experiences.”

Finamore and her small team immediately got to work from hotels and coffee shops around the city—NRDC didn’t open a Beijing office until 2005, the year the project morphed into an official program. Qian calls that transition “a milestone for NRDC’s international vision.” In those early years the team promoted the benefits of energy efficiency and introduced the concept of green buildings to cities across China, an idea so novel that locals mistook them for real estate developers. The broader reception to these ideas was mixed. Overall, Finamore and her colleagues, including Rob Watson, primary framer of the LEED green building rating system, found that China’s leaders were far more focused on building coal plants to keep up with growing power demands.

Smoke from a factory chimney in northern China's Hebei Province
Credit: Ng Han Guan/AP

Meanwhile, air pollution was growing worse and power blackouts more frequent. As more and more Chinese citizens felt the impacts of these trends, public awareness of the environmental issues plaguing China spread, and attitudes started to shift. “It became too big a problem to ignore,” Finamore says, adding that sudden access to real-time data on the health effects of air pollution made a big impact. At the same time, China’s leaders had two important realizations: economic growth based on coal was not sustainable, and renewable energy offered enormous economic opportunity.

In the book, Finamore also documents China’s forward-looking commitment to building up renewable energy (last year China invested more in solar capacity than every other country combined), electric vehicles (it developed the world’s largest industry in essentially five years), and green finance (its two-year-old green bond market is now the second-largest in the world). “It's complex,” Finamore says of the shift. “But I feel like people don’t realize how far China has come because it’s happened so rapidly.”

Despite these hopeful advances, Finamore notes that China still faces its share of challenges. Decarbonizing its economy, cleaning up its air pollution, transitioning to clean energy—all while working with other countries to do the same—is no small feat. And although Finamore has stepped away from her role leading NRDC’s efforts in China—she now serves as a strategic adviser on the organization’s work throughout Asia and leads its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fast-growing shipping industry—she’s still as invested as ever in its success, and she still assists with China-related fundraising and communications. Finamore’s been living stateside for several years now, but under Qian’s direction, a team of nearly 50 Beijing-based advocates continue the hard day-to-day work of helping China see its environmental revolution through.

Solar panels at a photovoltaic power station in Huaian city, east China's Jiangsu Province
Credit: Imaginechina/AP

“Barbara is a dedicated leader, always focused on goals,” Qian says. “The most important thing is that she’s good at looking at the big picture. And she led a team to do that. Any foreign concept, no matter how good it is, needs to be adapted in some way to be locally viable—and she knows this so well.”

On a global level, our climate crisis has accelerated dramatically since that fateful 1991 convening. The planet is warming at an unprecedented and alarming rate, and the cost of inaction continues to mount. Thankfully, China continues to press ahead as a climate leader, reaffirming its intent to achieve its Paris Agreement commitments this past September. The country is now leading the rest of the world in investing in clean energy and is kicking its addiction to coal, the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. So, will China save the planet? We can only hope that the answer will wind up being yes.

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