Part of my work is trying to explain what is happening in China today. China – its attitude, infrastructure and even culture – changes substantially every five years. Even people living inside China struggle to keep track of these changes. What many foreigners don’t realise is that the Chinese government is structurally akin to a multinational corporation, making decisions in a business-like, pragmatic way that allows it to manage rapid change on a large scale – something that is unique in the history of mankind. Therefore, a lot of what I do involves explaining China’s attitude toward the environment.
Very often I am asked, ‘Does China really want to go green?’ My answer is that although it faces one of the most challenging situations in the world, China is in fact one of the most environmentally progressive countries, rapidly changing from the world’s factory to the world’s clean-tech laboratory. Furthermore, China has the capacity not only to test and develop green technologies on a large scale but also to manufacture them at low cost. Yet it still needs additional expertise to do this, hence the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE), which facilitates collaboration between countries with green know-how and China, in mutually beneficial partnerships that also benefit the environment.
The opportunities in China are enormous, but so too are the challenges. Urbanisation is among the latter: 350 million people will move to Chinese cities over the next 20 years, resulting in 50,000 new skyscrapers (the equivalent of 10 Manhattans). In terms of floor space, China is building the equivalent of two New York Cities every year. This is using up a vast amount of the natural resources required to produce aluminium, steel, chemicals, etc, as well as creating huge amounts of pollution. The Dow Chemical Company alone consumes US$4 billion in energy each year.
I like to call this the largest migration history has ever seen. Inevitably there will be consequences: when people move into cities, their incomes, standards of living and consumption increase, using up more energy and natural resources and creating more waste. Ultimately, if we didn’t have so great a population (currently estimated at 1.5 billion) then we wouldn’t be in such an acute situation. The same goes for the entire world, whose population is expected to rise to 9.2 billion by 2050. There are simply too many humans on the planet.
Furthermore, China is currently the biggest producer of emissions in the world. According to a 2007 report by Cornell University, 40 per cent of deaths worldwide are caused by air, soil and water pollution. And unfortunately, China’s growing pollution problem doesn’t stop at its borders – for example, a third of particulate matter in Los Angeles’ smog comes from China. If China fails to go green, then the impact of its appetite on the world’s resources will be global and catastrophic. So yes, the environmental challenges we face in China are great.
The key to overcoming these challenges is to create tipping points in key areas such as energy efficiency, building sustainable cities and sustainable consumption. This is essentially what JUCCCE does. Regarding electricity supply, we have helped create a tipping point for ‘smart grid’ technology, leading China’s State Grid to announce, in May 2009, a roadmap for implementation across China by 2020. This should not only greatly reduce energy use but also allow for more wind and solar power to be fed into the grid.
We have helped create a tipping point for consumer media awareness, which is important because ultimately, teaching children how to be sustainable leaders is what is going to save China. We have given 130,000 energy-efficient light bulbs to students and communities across seven cities in China, and are also training celebrities to become green advocates. In this way, JUCCCE aims to reshape China’s new lifestyle as aspirational yet sustainable, thus decoupling living standards from energy consumption.
The hot term of the moment is ‘low-carbon city’, and we are in the midst of creating a tipping point for sustainable, greener cities. JUCCCE has trained over 200 mayors, representing over 400 million people, and 50 state-owned enterprise executives on how to build energy-smart cities. We have also investigated alternative heating solutions for 100 rural schools which each currently chop down over 500 tons of wood per season.
Meanwhile, we are trying to define what it means to have a ‘China Dream’, and in so doing create a tipping point toward sustainable consumption in China. Until now we have been following the American Dream, and it is just not working in terms of energy efficiency. We literally want to redefine ‘prosperity’ and what it means to lead a prosperous life. The JUCCCE China Dream project is working with an expert network to create ‘intellectual’ and ‘emotional’ calls to action, recommending local policies that shape consumption as well as propagating awareness through the media. For example, JUCCCE is working with artists to create imagery and scriptwriters to create story arcs for film and television that represent a happy, healthy Chinese lifestyle of ‘do more, not have more’.
It wasn’t my plan to conquer China’s energy landscape from the start; rather, it developed out of a conference I produced in Shanghai in 2007 called the ‘MIT Forum on the Future of Energy in China’. Accidentally, this event became the first public dialogue between US and Chinese officials on clean energy. A lot of it had to do with timing and the ‘nightclub effect’ – I was able to bring top energy experts, government officials and NGOs together, creating a positive energy to tackle this seemingly insurmountable issue. It is only by getting stakeholders talking and gathering momentum that can we find solutions to these problems.
I am constantly asked how an organisation such as JUCCCE might be created for India, Indonesia, Thailand, etc. People know that collaboration is essential, but they don’t always know how to make it happen. As a result we have developed ‘Stone Soup Leadership’, a new model of collaborative leadership to help societies adapt to today’s global challenges, which are more cross-sector, cross-border and cross-culture, larger in scale and requiring a rapid response. The problem is that modern-day institutions tend to be better at keeping the status quo, and capable only, at best, of incremental change. Yet society, if it is to survive and thrive, needs to confront and adapt quickly to great challenges such as environmental degradation, rapid urbanisation and the global financial crisis. A new model of leadership that is more flexible, more facilitative and more transformational, which will empower individuals and organisations to collaborate for the common good, is therefore essential.
One key element of Stone Soup Leadership is the idea that organisations should be project-based and not created to last forever. JUCCCE is a 10-year project and we are four years in; our goal is to visibly change the way China uses and produces energy and then wrap up. We are not bound by a fear of making mistakes, because mistakes will not haunt us forever. Moreover, having a time frame creates a lot of pressure, thereby encouraging us to think outside the box in coming up with solutions.
Will the world be able to tackle the environmental problems it faces? Whilst I am hopeful, I also recognise that the rest of the world, generally speaking, does not run like China does. If the whole world behaved more like China, then it would be able to make the necessary rapid, large-scale societal changes. But instead we have countries that are hemming and hawing and not committing sufficient resources to addressing the problem. What we need is good change management, Stone Soup Leadership and, more than ever, collaboration within and between countries worldwide.