Live from TED2014

China’s pollution problem, everyone’s problem: Peggy Liu at TED2014

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May
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Peggy Liu. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“I am so happy to be here, because I can actually breathe the air,” says Peggy Liu, who lives in China, as she steps on the TED2014 stage. Her typical day begins not with checking the time, but by checking the air pollution levels on her phone to determine whether her children will need to wear face masks that day. In Brussels, Belgium, if the air quality index reaches 50, she says, traffic is stopped for the day. But in China, she says, it sometimes goes to 500—the end of the scale—and beyond. 

“Pollution crosses borders. China’s problem is everyone’s problem,” says Liu. “What this means for all of us is that the decisions China makes in the next several years are going to affect the world for the next several thousand.”

China is urbanizing at an incredible pace. In 20 years, an estimated 350 million people in China will move into cities. Liu calls it “the largest animal migration the world has ever seen.” In many ways it is a great thing, offering opportunities for Chinese children to go to school nearby and for parents to find employment. But it will have an ecological cost. China is going to construct 2 billion square meters a year—equivalent to the entire building stock of Canada, says Liu. Meanwhile, emissions in China are growing at an alarmingly fast rate. Liu compares the country to a growing teenager, and already the size of basketball player Yao Ming.

She quotes Baoxing Qiu: “The world is at war with energy, and China is the battlefield.” Liu believes it could be the only battlefield that matters.

To keep this all in check, China must make two changes, she says:

  1. To decouple energy from economic growth. Liu notes that Sweden was successful at doing this, though on a smaller scale and with a higher per capita income.
  2. To decouple emissions from electricity production.

“The decisions that China makes in the next several years will determine if we are in a climate safe zone or a climate disaster zone,” says Liu. But she isn’t just here for gloom. She points out that China has committed $277 billion to combat air pollution and $333 billion for water pollution, and is already one of the largest investors in renewable energy around the world.

Liu says that China actually has six advantages that could help it become a green economy faster than any other in the world.

  1. China has centralized control. This means that the nation can make large-scale infrastructure changes quickly. For example, China created the world’s largest highspeed rail system in a few years, where California has been trying to build one since the 1990s. And China made the decision virtually overnight to ban plastic bags nationwide.
  2. It has just a few key decision makers. When trying to bring the smart grid into China, Liu says it was a huge advantage that China has only two utility companies compared to 3,200 in the United States. By surrounding key people with information, Liu’s organization—JUCCCE—helped pave the way for $7 billion to build a smart grid. 
  3. China is willing to learn from others. International coalitions on the ground in China can make big strides. As Liu points out, change here will depend on people from the outside coming in to help.
  4. China is willing to experiment. Liu says that China is now testing carbon emissions trading schemes in seven regions. She says they are taking commercially viable solutions, testing them and—if something works—will scale it across the country. “China has moved from being the factory of the world to being the clean-tech laboratory of the world,” says Liu.
  5. China is willing to change. Every five years, says Liu, China virtually becomes a new country. With 800 million members of the emerging middle class, part of the challenge is channeling it away from a desire for luxury goods and toward what she calls a “China Dream,” focused more on families then consumption.
  6. China is highly motivated. China has fewer resources than the United States, and they have to support four times as many people, says Liu. This means that, soon, the status quo will threaten China’s economic stability and its national security.

Change in China will happen, says Liu, not by an all-at-once overhaul, but through what she called “tweakovation”—small changes that add up quickly because of the size of China’s population. “You might think that China’s problems are too large to solve,” says Liu. “But because of these six advantages, China can actually make small, precise, focussed interventions —which I call ‘acupuncture points.’”

To make this happen, it’ll take the work of innovative thinkers to identify acupuncture points, cultivate relationships with decision makers, build cultural bridges, and engage in storytelling to help get all on board.

“It only takes a few passionate individuals to make transformative change,” she says. “So I ask, if you are frustrated by the small changes the world is making on climate change, why are you not in China yet?”