“The world’s most important story”

Guardian environment reporter Jonathan Watts has spent nine years in China covering everything from pollution protests to species extinction. About to leave for pastures new, he shares some parting thoughts.

This is the text of a speech given by Jonathan Watts at the 2012 China Environmental Press Awards in Beijing on April 10. The annual awards are co-organised by chinadialogue and The Guardian, in cooperation with Sina and with the support of the SEE Foundation. They aim to recognise and promote outstanding environmental journalism in China.

It is a very great pleasure to speak to you today for professional and personal reasons.

Professionally, I am delighted because the China Environmental Press Awards are now strongly established after three years and the partnership between The Guardian, chinadialogue and Sina to organise this event has moved from strength to strength. On behalf of The Guardian Media Group, let me extend our appreciation to our excellent partners, and to all of you for participating. 

Personally, this is also a special moment. I will be leaving China later this month, and I would like to take this opportunity to share some reflections on my nine years in China. In essence, what I am going to say is that I believe you are covering the most important story in the world, but that story is too often shunted into a cul-de-sac. It is necessary to be more assertive and to take the key issues into other areas – economics, politics, foreign affairs.    

That is a bold statement. I want to explain how I reached such a viewpoint. It is mainly as a result of working in China since 2003, first as a general news correspondent up until the 2008 Olympics and then as Asia environment correspondent.

I did not come to China expecting to become an environmental writer.

When I arrived in China in 2003, I believed I had the best job in the world, working for my favourite newspaper in the biggest nation at arguably the most dramatic phase of transformation in its history. I still clearly recall my first few weeks and months here. Like many newcomers, I delighted at discoveries of Chinese literature and Daoist philosophy, Beijing parks, the edgy eccentricity of Dashanzi and the Chinese language, though I never managed to master it. 

That was a thrilling time – as Beijing prepared for The Olympics and a new leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao held out the prospect of change. My mantra in those early years was that in China “nothing is certain, so everything is possible”. 

This was true for the environment, which was horrible. I very quickly came to the conclusion that the situation was so appalling in China that this was the country most likely to make a change for the better. I told journalist friends at the time of my hopes for a green revolution here but they were more focused on politics and hopes for reform. 

But when I look back at the past nine years, the environment and the economy have been bigger drivers of change. It has been a remarkable period. Let me just give you a few numbers to hammer home the point: in the past nine years, China’s GDP has quadrupled; incomes have risen three-fold and car ownership five-fold; coal consumption has more than doubled and carbon-dioxide emissions have followed suit to become easily the biggest in the world. 

Under president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao, there has been almost zero political reform. But there have been a number of very significant steps forward in terms of environmental policy: anti-desertification campaigns; tree planting; environmental transparency law; adoption of carbon targets; eco-services compensation; eco accounting; caps on water; lower economic growth targets; the 12th Five-Year Plan; debate and increased monitoring of PM 2.5 [fine particulate matter]; investments in renewables and clean tech, which I saw in Jiuquan last month.

The last one has made a particularly big impact on the outside world. 

When I was in the United Kingdom last December, I heard several influential people say words to the effect of: “Oh, China’s going to fix things for the world.” It was a far cry from just a few years earlier, when China was being blamed for the planet’s environmental problems. 

This is typical, I guess. China – perhaps because of its size – has always tended to evoke extreme emotions of hope and fear among outsiders. This is as true now of finance and economics and demographics. One of my favourite jokes of this period was after the global financial crisis of 2008: in 1949 only socialism could save China; in 1979 only capitalism could save China; in 1989 only China could save socialism; in 2009 only China could save capitalism. 

It seems that much the same kind of joke could be made about attitudes to China’s environment. But the picture is more complex.

China is an industrial teenager in the body of a 3,000 year old civilization. It’s communist and capitalist. It is mega rich and dirt poor at the same time. It can suffer from drought and flood on the same day. And it is trying to do something without precedent in world history: it is trying to decarbonise its economy even before it has finished industrialising. So, yes, you can find signs of a black superpower and a green superpower at the same time. Mostly, though, I think the colour I associate with this period is grey.  

I have learned:

– Environmental stress is often exported, both through overseas “outsourcing” and internal relocation of dirty industries. Starting in my country the UK, this has been the trend of industrial development over the past 200 years. The unsustainable portion of the globe is now far bigger than the sustainable part.

– Poor environmental management can be lethal. This was brought home by visits and interviews in “cancer villages” such as Xinlong in Yunnan, which is badly contaminated by cadmium. 

– The collapse of an ecosystem can lead to the collapse of an economy. On a micro-level, the drying up of Anguli Lake in Hebei destroyed the tourist business that the local Mongolian herders had established. At a macro-level, we have barely started calculating the costs of environmental destruction, but these “externalities” cannot stay off the balance sheet forever. 

– Environmental disruption can lead to social disruption. This was brought home in covering the aftermath of violent protests in Huankantou, Zhejiang province. There have been peaceful demonstrations against petrochemical plants in Xiamen and Dalian, or incinerators in Beijing and Guangzhou. I also believe the upsurge in unrest in big minority areas, such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia is ultimately related to the increasing exploitation of natural resources in those areas, which is damaging grasslands, blocking rivers and disrupting traditional – and sustainable – patterns of life. So far, fortunately, we have not seen severe cross-border conflicts over resources in east Asia, but they could easily blow up in the South China Sea, or if major water-diversion projects are launched in Tibet or Xinjiang.  

– Some problems are being dealt with. Many others remain largely neglected. Awareness on air quality has surged in the past year (thanks in no small part to the US embassy’s monitoring twitter feed). But the very serious threat of soil pollution is barely entering public consciousness or policymaking priorities. 

– The Chinese government has tended to focus on top-down, engineered supply-side solutions to environmental problems, hence the South-North Water Diversion project and investments in renewables. But I have seen little movement on demand-side, cultural and educational campaigns at the grassroots to change behaviour. This has started to change somewhat with the moves to set ceilings on water and coal use and to slow economic growth. But I am not yet convinced the authorities will be able to implement this. 

– The transition to a low-carbon economy in China is far from assured. While I have seen the impressive transformation of wind and solar farms in Jiuquan, Donghuan [both in Gansu province] and elsewhere, the renewables industry is over-capacity. Many technical and financial challenges remain. Meanwhile, China’s coal addiction seems to be getting worse. The share of coal in China’s energy mix actually increased last year and China now probably accounts for almost half the coal burned on the planet. 

– Action often comes too late. I saw this during the expedition to search for the Baiji dolphin, which was lavishly funded, had strong political support and expertise from across the world. But it was too late to find a single dolphin. The baiji was declared functionally extinct after 20 million years on earth.

During the past few years, I have come to fear that the United Kingdom and China may be bookends on the most spectacular burst of development ever seen in human history. The carbon-fuelled, capital-driven model of economic growth, which started in my country 200-odd years ago, has spread across the planet and is now, I believe, reaching its apex here. We may well be blessed and cursed to be witnessing the era of “peak human” – at least in material terms. That is a huge and alarming prospect. It will require a complete readjustment of expectations.

In future, I believe there will be greater tension globally between conservers and the exploiters. This may become the new dividing line in world politics. We are already seeing the rise of Green Parties, which are scoring record success (albeit often from a low base) in Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada. 

I’ve come to see the environment not as a subject, but as a prism. That is important to stress. Mostly the environment is treated as a subcategory and posted away to a certain pages in newspapers and on the websites. But it should not be a niche interest, it should be mainstream. The ecology is the basis for the economy, not the other way around. 

We should look at consumption more. Before I started writing about the environment, I suppose I tended to think of the subject mainly in terms of pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss. But that is only half of the picture. That is the “out” side of the environment story – the emissions and discharges and waste. But I think the bigger threat, the initial threat, is from the “in” elements of extraction and consumption. 

The media can make a difference. I know that many journalists are extremely courageous. They take the risk of violence by thugs or punishment by senior officials to expose wrongdoing. Today, we celebrate that positive side of Chinese journalism – which is, I think, particularly strong in the field of environmental reporting. 

I think it is no coincidence that many Chinese environmental activists – Ma Jun, Feng Yongfeng, Wang Yongchen – are journalists and former journalists. Why? I don’t think we are any smarter or idealistic than others. We just get to see things that others don’t, we dig in the rubbish, we can make connections others don’t.

Our job is to search for the truth, but that is only the start. We may find many facts, all of which are true. But then we must prioritise them – what goes at the top of the story and what at the bottom. That is where values come in. Those values are constantly contested in society. We should use our experience to participate in that contest for values and to consider alternatives.

One of the reasons I am leaving China is to look at alternative models of development in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. Will they find a better balance between economic growth and environmental protection? Or will China’s path prove the most effective? 

China will continue to loom large in my thoughts. I will be leaving my home here with more pessimism than when I arrived, but also more affection, sympathy and respect – particularly for the great work many of you do in reporting the biggest story of our age. Thanks for you work, advice and friendship over the years. See you again!

Jonathan Watts is outgoing Asia environment correspondent at The Guardian. 

Homepage image of Jonathan Watts, speaking at the 2012 China Environmental Press Awards, by Guo Xiaohe.