When a former TV journalist released a self-funded documentary about pollution in China earlier this year, it struck a nerve among residents in smog-choked cities. In the first 24 hours after it was posted online Under the Dome had racked up a remarkable 100 million views. The government’s reaction was predictable: after a brief period of openness the film was banned and state media pretended it never happened. But even as they restrict dialogue on the issue, Chinese authorities understand that they can no longer avoid taking action; the public is too informed to accept it.
This could bode well for the new man in charge of the environmental protection ministry, an academic and political outsider who gave China’s environmental community hope when he took up the post in February. Chen Jining, who has a doctorate in environmental system analysis from Imperial College London, was refreshingly honest when he said that the country’s pollution battle was “unprecedented in human history” and praised Under the Dome by saying it should “encourage efforts by individuals to improve air quality”. This stands in contrast to Chen’s predecessor, the feckless Zhou Shengxian, perhaps best known for conceding that his own agency was an embarrassment.
“Chen impressed everyone with his first round of public appearances,” says Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. “He laid out plans to address the source of the problems and stressed issues of transparency.” But Chen’s charm offensive won’t amount to much if he can’t enforce China’s environmental laws and transform a system that has long protected polluters. There has been progress: inspections on the ground and with drones last year led to the arrest of 8,500 suspects for environmental crimes and the closure of over 3,000 polluting workshops. To Ma’s surprise the government also publicised the real-time emissions data from some of the largest factories and plants. “It’s a sign of China’s political will to fight against pollution,” he says.
A test of the government’s sincerity will come at the UN-sponsored climate change talks in Paris in December. At the doomed summit in Copenhagen in 2009, China and other developing nations were blamed for thwarting agreement on setting global emissions targets. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao even took heat for sending a lower-ranking official to talks instead of himself.
This time optimism is higher. China has agreed a hard cap on emissions, peaking by 2030 or earlier, and a target of attaining 20 per cent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030. It wasn’t just what it pledged but how it did so: in a face-to-face between president Xi Jinping and Barack Obama. It’s one thing to declare “war on pollution”; it’s another to set real target numbers with an adversary.
After years of inaction, China now has a chance to be a leader on the environment. Public pressure will be key to maintaining momentum; a fact not lost on Chen. “I’m so happy to see him talking about the importance of public participation,” Ma says. “He understands he needs the public in order to overcome intrinsic obstacles.”
Also made a joint pledge with the US this year. Among other goals it announced the restoration of 12 million hectares of forest by 2030.
Leadership lacks an environmental vision. Last year the country took a backward step as prime minister Tony Abbott repealed its carbon tax.
The third-largest polluter won’t set a date for emissions to drop. The UN climate chief calls India’s pledge “critically important”.
The rebuilding has begun following Nepal’s devastating double earthquake in April and May, which killed more than 8,000 people. One of the biggest challenges is education, after some 8,000 schools and 30,000 classrooms were damaged or destroyed. Nepal is currently in the midst of monsoon season, forcing thousands of students to take classes in tarpaulin-covered temporary-learning centres. Rebuilding the schools will cost a grand total of €360m. So far only €177m of the €2.7bn pledged by international donors for the overall redevelopment of the country has actually been delivered.
Can Iran’s successful nuclear accord bring North Korea back to the table years after it walked out on six-party talks? Much has changed since: only Russia and the US still have the same leaders.