12/04/2014 09:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Two Weeks in Beijing

Over much of 2014, David Kroodsma and Lindsey Fransen are riding their bikes across parts of Asia, and sharing what they learn about the climate issues facing the countries they bike through.

Six months after leaving Istanbul, after cycling 5,000 miles (and taking a few buses, trains, boats, and trucks), we arrived in in Beijing, the capital of the world's most polluting nation. We were warned about biking into the city (it has "rings the size of Jupiter"), but we were pleasantly surprised to find that its wide roads had paralleling bike/scooter lanes for people like us. Although the air stung our eyes and the smog made our lungs burn, we felt safer riding into Beijing than I feel riding into most cities in the U.S.

We spent almost two full weeks in the capital, which we used to speak at two schools and two community events, and to meet with people at a few of the major environmental NGOs: the World Resources Institute (WRI), Greenpeace, the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Up to this point, most of our conversations about climate change have been with people in the countryside (In some cases we understood them -- and in others we have no idea what they said). Now we could speak with the "experts."

A few consistent messages emerged from our meetings. The biggest message is that the top leadership in China "gets it." They understand that climate change is serious, and that the country needs to do something about it -- and the people we spoke with said that this was not the case just five or six years ago. The bigger challenge is implementation of new environmental policies throughout all levels of the government, as proper incentives might not be in place, and provincial leaders either lack training or don't have the same priorities.

From our conversations, it appears that the government's motivation to reduce emissions comes from a few sources. The main driver is definitely local pollution and the public outcry over dirty air, water, and soil (and consequently food). Addressing these concerns would fortunately result in lower greenhouse gas emissions, as there is substantial overlap in the sources of particulate emissions and greenhouse gases. (Of course, this is only the case if polluters clean up rather than simply being displaced to other parts of China or other countries). China is also interested in becoming a world leader. According to many people we spoke with, China cares about its image on the world stage, and the international process is thought to have some effect. Finally, China is considered highly vulnerable to climate change. Of all the impacts of climate change that came up in our conversations -- sea level rise, loss of biodiversity, increased droughts -- food security was the most frequently mentioned. Water scarcity is already a major problem in the north, which is also a major food-producing area and the site of many of China's new, water-hungry power plants. Some villages have already been abandoned due to lack of water, creating climate refugees. If climate change results in even less water in this region, such problems could be exacerbated.

To help cut dependence on fossil fuels, NGOs can play a significant role. China is not a free society, and civil society plays a different role than it does in the U.S. Namely, NGOs are not allowed to directly challenge the government's decisions. But because the central government wants action and has adopted several policies regarding pollution and climate change, it seems to welcome these organizations helping them identify both problems and solutions (although one person we spoke with did say that the central police interviewed him because of general suspicions around foreign NGOs).

Perhaps the best example is IPE, started by Ma Jun. IPE publishes pollution statistics and maps online, using data from government agencies. IPE thus helps publicize and highlight pollution violations, helping the government enforce laws that are already on the books but not necessarily followed. Currently, they do not focus on greenhouse gas emissions -- mostly local air and water pollution -- but they show how environmental NGOs can help make a difference. Our contact at IPE said, "The major problem is not regulations, but the lack of enforcement."

And although the people can't vote, public discourse matters. A few years ago, nobody talked about measurements for PM 2.5 -- that is, particulate matter in the atmosphere about 2.5 microns in size, which has been shown to cause all types of health problems. One expert said, "In 2006, the air was really bad, but no one talked about it. Taxi drivers said it was 'fog.'"

But over the past few years, air quality has deteriorated further. 2011 was a particularly bad year in Beijing, and newspapers have started covering such pollution more seriously. Also, the U.S. embassy was tweeting the PM 2.5 measurements in Beijing every day, and the papers reported on this pollution. Soon the government started reporting the numbers as well and recognizing the problem. Now everyone talks about measurements of air quality in Beijing. We have seen advertisements for masks that protect from "PM 2.5" and there is a free app that reports the AQI (Air Quality Index) for various pollutants.

At NRDC and Greenpeace, we talked largely about the country's efforts to slow or reverse coal consumption. China now burns as much coal as the rest of the world combined, and coal power accounts for about 80 percent of the nation's electricity. One of the major reasons that global greenhouse gas emissions have increased over the last decade is China's construction of new coal-fired power plants. These power plants have also polluted the local water and air.

Greenpeace told us that they help educate government officials on the problems -- for instance, before 2010, government officials were relatively unaware of how coal consumption also stressed water supplies. Mining, processing, and burning coal require massive amounts of water, and in China's north, where most of the coal is found, there is little water. The five year plan for coal consumption did not reflect the physical limits set by water availability.

Greenpeace reports that 12 of the nation's 34 provinces, accounting for just under half of China's coal consumption, have made pledges to reduce emissions. Due in part to an economic slowdown, the pace of the increase of coal consumption has already been reduced -- and one report says it even has decreased, although some experts told us to view this number with skepticism.

One challenge, in general, is that pollution limits are more lax in the nation's relatively poorer west than in the prosperous coastal cities. One worry is that pollution caps in the east won't necessarily reduce emissions, as more power plants may just be built inland or in other countries -- similar to the way that factories are built in China instead of the (wealthier and more pollution-intolerant) United States. Nonetheless, the efforts are moving in the right direction.

One question we ask everyone is simply: "Is China the problem or the solution?" This is the paradox of China: Is it the country doing the most to cause climate change or the most to solve it? Will China save the world from climate change, or doom it to out-of-control warming? Our strongest impression from these meetings is not an answer to this question, though. It is that there is lots of very important work to be done here to reduce emissions, that this work is underway, and that it is possible to work with the Chinese government to slow and even reverse emissions growth.

The day after we left Beijing, Xi and Obama made a joint announcement to reduce emissions. While their goals fall short of what we need, such cooperation is an enormous leap in the right direction, and after our conversations in Beijing, I believe the Chinese leadership is sincere in their pledges. Now the challenge is acting.