Environment: An Interview with Isabel Hilton of ChinaDialogue

ChinaDialogue is a fully bi-lingual weblog where environmental matters affecting China are discussed. Isabel Hilton is the editor, and we asked her some questions regarding the environment in China, the Olympics, climate change and lessons that can be learned from China's environmental challenges and solutions. She was kind enough to share her insight with us on our first GV-Enviro interview.

What are some of the main stories/ideas surrounding environmental conservation and preparation for the Beijing Olympics as covered by China Dialogue?

We see that preparation for Olympics has given a big boost to green consciousness in China. The Olympics are so important for the government that it has allowed environmental issues to override economic ones — some that is otherwise hard to do in any government — and stimulated all kinds of necessary action — from moving factories out of Beijing to building public transport infrastructure and greening buses.

We have read about green initiatives such as efforts to clean up the air in time for the olympics. What are your thoughts on such initiatives? Do you see them as short term steps particularly for the Olympics or longer term commitments to good environmental stewardship?

I think these initiatives are long overdue and if it takes the Olympics to make them happen, then fine. The important thing is that they happen and that the world attention on these issues will make the Chinese authorities try very hard to ensure that they really do happen properly, that there is no cheating or faking of the figures and that they don't face any environmental embarrassment. There is also an important aspect of public education: I have just been judging a debate competition involving five Beijing universities and, because of the Olympics, all the students were incredibly well informed and committed on environmental issues. So there are benefits that will last beyond the two week Olympic period. On the other hand, there are some things that won't last – and the Olympics itself inevitably has a heavy footprint. Already some provinces are complaining that they are being starved of water because it is going to Beijing.

Countries around the world will be sending athletes to compete in the Olympics, do they need to carry smog masks to protect the runners from the adverse effects of smog? Do you think the measures to clean up the air will succeed?

We shall see, but if it doesn't succeed, it won't be for want of trying. If necessary China will shut down factories for hundreds of miles around for the Olympic period to avoid losing face. People are trying very hard and they get very hurt when somebody pulls out because of fears about air quality. So there is a lot riding on success and for every body's sake I hope they make it.

What are your thoughts on China's position on climate change; particularly following the Bali talks?

China has come a long way on climate change in the past two years and many of China's domestic policies are aimed at mitigation — improving energy efficiency, big renewable targets etc. ON the other hand, China is, as everybody knows, building coal fired power stations and risks getting locked in to a very damaging technology. Much depends on the future position of the United States. In the last seven years, because of the obstruction of the Bush administration on these issues, there has been little pressure on China to adopt a forward position on climate change. As that changes, we should see further movement in Beijing.

What can other countries learn from the environmental problems currently being faced in China, and its solutions thus far?

China has had an industrial revolution at a difficult time.. it followed the Western path, then ran quickly into the limits of that model. If the Chinese government responds in the right way, China has the potential to become a leader in conservation and clean up. If it doesn't things look pretty bad.


  • Nano

    A fairly frank and impartial insight of China’s efforts on environmental protection and improvement devoid of the typical western media bias. China is big and under-developed and it’s going to be a long and tedious task.

  • ur chinese friend

    The environment movement reminds me of the Organic Foods market in the US. Organic foods are more expensive than regular foods but are supposedly better for you. Yet there are very little short term incentives for people to buy Organic foods. It took a couple of years but now they are finally catching on because the price for them have came down a point where it makes economic sense for the average folks to buy them. By the same token, it doesn’t make much sense for 3rd world nations to spend extra resources to manage its environment. However, with the advancement in technology which will result in reduction of the cost to be “green”, there will definitely be a point where a fair trade off will occur. Still, I don’t think China will ever be a leader in this movement, being the largest manufacture nation whereas the other “green” nations are a lot more service oriented.

  • Nano

    @ ur chinese friend,
    “However, with the advancement in technology which will result in reduction of the cost to be “green”, there will definitely be a point where a fair trade off will occur.”

    In addition to technology advancement which helps to reduce the costs, the economic status of a country also has a bearing on the efforts in environmental improvement. A poor 3rd world nation will need all its resources and money to look after the welfare of its people and to maintain a minimum infrastructure. Whereas, when that nation becomes wealthier, surplus resources can be diverted for environmental enhancement and pollution reduction. If China continues to grow economically, it will not be difficult for her to become one of the leaders in the environmental movement. A healthy environment will benefit and enhance the quality of life for its people.

  • I think China’s environmental record will increase dramatically proceeding the games, but the real challenge is in understanding whether or not their commitment to a “green” strategy will stay the course in the years after the Olympics.

    If you want to read details read my post “An Inconvenient Olympics” at ecounit.com/blog. I make the argument that the Olympics will be the turning point for a global focus on conservation and “green” for the next decade.

    Hope this adds to the discussion, Jamie!



  • David

    Who is funding this project? This is the most important question that is not asked.

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