Isabel Hilton on Environmentalism in China

Isabel Hilton is the founder of the world's first fully bilingual website devoted to climate and the environment, and of three related websites:,, and Isabel Hilton graduated in Chinese studies from Edinburgh University, then studied in China, at the then Yuyan Xueyan in Beijing, and Fudan University in Shanghai, in the closing years of the Cultural Revolution. Her professional career has covered broadcast and print journalism, and included staff posts in the Sunday Times, the Independent and the New Yorker, as well as regular contributions to the Guardian, the FT, the Economist, New York Times, the BBC and Granta. She is the author and co-author of several books, has received two honorary doctorates and an OBE in recognition of her work.
Jorlen Garcia CMC '24 interviewed Ms. Isabel Hilton on March 31, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Ms. Isabel Hilton.

How does China, as a top-down authoritarian state, set environmental goals and facilitate the switch to a greener society?

China is a Leninist state with a planning system that operates on five-year plans. Those plans are worked on for a long time before they're unveiled. It's important to understand that, since about 2010 or 2011 in this process, the political authorities and the party do try to balance growth against sustainability targets. Before that, although there were environmental targets, they were very low down the hierarchy of political concerns. But that's been shifting over the years and environmental targets have begun to come up the agenda in terms of how much they contribute to an official’s promotion, or lack of it, which is the kind of thing that local officials care a lot about. So, these days there's an effort to balance growth and sustainability. It's important also to understand that at least for the last 10 years, industrial policy has included investment in green technologies, so that growth and sustainability are not necessarily in opposition in the five-year plan. China did see the opportunity in green business and climate mitigation more than a decade ago, and they have invested as part of the plan. It's not just about cutting pollution. It's also about investment targets for green technologies. It's a long, complex business, and every five years, although the direction of policy remains the same, the targets get more stringent.

How does China's strategy for these environmental goals compare to the UK, US, or other Western countries that use democratic means to facilitate this?

The obvious difference is that democratic countries are more susceptible to political shifts. It's not that China doesn't have political shifts, but they're more contained within the party. Whereas in the United States or the UK, if you get a change of government, you often get a change of policy. The UK had the world's first Climate Change Act, brought in by the Labour government under Tony Blair, and that set climate policy in law. It would take another act of parliament to overturn that. I doubt any future government would do that because public opinion is getting more concerned about climate change in the UK and is more supportive of climate action. But if you look at the United States, what we see is US policy has lurched from positive to negative over many years. The US signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, and then it wasn't ratified. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof, and they were removed in the next administration. We've just come out of four years of President Trump where the US government became extremely hostile to climate action. We haven't had that kind of abrupt reversal of policy in China. Once the policy gets set at the level that China's climate policies are, then it really takes a lot to change them. External events can influence the speed at which they are implemented, and we can see that happening now with geopolitical tensions, but they haven't been reversed at all.

What led China to transition from a general lack of interest in sustainability and the environment to recognizing climate change as one of President Xi Jinping's administration's top concerns? 

After 1992, when Deng Xiaoping relaunched his policy of opening up, and because this was very close to the traumatic events of Tiananmen in 1989, there was a new bargain between the government and the people, which essentially said, "We'll let you get rich, but you have to stay out of politics." In terms of performance legitimacy, which the party does care about, the country getting rich became very important. Gross GDP, which was how they measured whether the country was getting rich or not, is not a perfect measure, but that's the one that was adopted. GDP growth then became a paramount target for the government at every level. It wasn't sustainable growth or efficient growth; it was just growth. The result of that was that by the early 2000s, they were well into an environmental crisis. That began to cause a lot of social tensions, particularly air pollution in the cities because this industrial revolution was fueled largely by coal. 

Around 2005, there was an explosion of green civil society. Journalists played a big part in this, concerned about the general environmental questions that China's model and every previous industrial revolution's model had thrown up. They began to worry that there was going to be social unrest and environmental breakdown, but also that that particular industrial model had begun to run out of steam. 2006 was the year that China became the world's biggest carbon emitter. All these things came together, and they began to think about the next five years: how to maintain prosperity, how to avoid the middle-income trap, and how to keep the newly urbanized middle classes happy when the air was toxic, were all problems that were impinging on party legitimacy. At the time, there was a very weak environmental protection agency, with a very smart vice minister who was teaming up with civil society and journalists to try to get political attention to the troubles that he could see coming. He wrote a whole series of essays around what he called ecological civilization, and that's how that began. These ideas slowly permeated the Central Committee and eventually up to the Politburo. They began to influence China's thinking about the next stage of its economic development that had to incorporate a different, cleaner and greener model. So, they invested in wind and solar energy, batteries, and electric vehicles that the world needed for the energy transition. It was a combination of push and pull factors that changed the policy in China.

How has your work with your nonprofit, China Dialogue, facilitated conversation and awareness about China and the environment within (and outside of) China?

China Dialogue was the world's first bilingual Chinese-English website on the environment and climate change, and I founded it in 2006. Around that time, all these issues that we have been discussing were surfacing. As I mentioned, China had just become the world's biggest emitter, but there was a lot of finger pointing going on. China would say, "Why should we constrain our development when the industrialized West is the guilty party in carbon emissions?" And in London or New York, people would say, "Well, what's the point of us doing anything when China is the world's biggest emitter? And if China doesn't do anything, why should we?" At the time, climate diplomacy operated on the basis of the Kyoto Protocol, which recognized a distinction between advanced economies and developing countries. The advanced economies, which had benefitted from emitting carbon in the past, were known as annex one countries. They were legally obliged under the Kyoto Protocol to take mitigating action. Non-annex one countries got a recognition that they had a right to develop, and that they should only take nationally appropriate mitigation actions: they were not obliged to set targets because they still needed to grow before they could tackle climate change. That was also reflected in Chinese policy. In 2006 China, you often came across an attitude that said, "Environment and climate are things that rich countries can afford to worry about. We are still a developing country. When we get rich, we will do something about it." That was the discussion that was going on, but as long as there was finger pointing between China and the developed economies, it was a real constraint on the kind of environmental collaboration that we needed. And it was also clear that policymakers who didn't read or speak Chinese or know China (and people didn't know China nearly as well at that point) really didn't have access to understanding how policy was made there, what the constraints were, what the obstacles were, and what the thinking was. They couldn't see the opportunities, maybe to advance the agenda or help things move along faster. And equally, Chinese policymakers who didn't know, speak, or read good English needed access to a better understanding of how the world worked and how climate policy was made in Germany or the United States, or what the debate was, and what the political constraints were. So, we set out to be that platform where each side could get something. If you came to the site speaking Chinese or speaking English, your experience would be the same. And that meant very good translation. There was almost no machine translation in those days. But even if there had been, translation is more than just the meaning of words, it's about how things are constructed and said, and how you tell a story. China Dialogue was not a place where a foreigner tells China what to do, but one where with a bit of luck, we could raise the understanding on both sides of what the other side was facing, trying to do, or having difficulty with in order to get on to a common ground in which we could cooperate. And that was what we set out to do.

What challenges have you faced with China Dialogue? 

Quite a few. At the beginning, people were interested in China, but the focus was all on the economic miracle. There was very little interest in mainstream media on climate and environment in China. So, getting attention was an obstacle. After we started, we did notice that the mainstream press started to pick up our stories and pick up our themes, and we really played a role in focusing attention on that. We're also not-for-profits, so another challenge was convincing funders that this was something they should support. There is a bit of a problem in the not-for-profit world that it tends to discourage or at least not actively support innovation. If you're a not-for-profit entrepreneur, it can be just as hard as being a for-profit entrepreneur. Additionally, because we were in the business of communications, a lot of people in the climate space didn't understand the difference between communications and propaganda when we started. They didn't realize how important it was or understand the role of narrative in creating political space or in closing it down. 

The problem of being ahead of our time for every website that we've set up has been a consistent difficulty. There's China Dialogue in 2006. The Third Pole was about three years later. That looks at the water nexus in the Himalayan watershed. We were trying to create a non-nationalist platform in which you could discuss ecosystems and watersheds without it being "my" water or "their" water. That was also ahead of its time, as was China Dialogue Ocean. And Dialogo Chino is the China and Latin America website that I set up. Because we were working in the space, we could see what needed doing before people who were paying less attention, so we were always trying to push the envelope a bit. And that's quite hard work. On the other hand, it has grown and prospered.  

Today, we also have geopolitical problems. In China, there's a growing suspicion that civil society is an instrument of a malevolent outside power. You have a similar suspicion in many cases in India, so that becomes harder. When we began, the environment was relatively untroubled. It was a space that wasn't seen as a political threat. Many people felt threatened by environmental campaigning, but they tended to be industrial actors or big companies, not governments. Whereas now, although governments have recognized the issues, they have become more hostile to the actors in many places. And that affects us too, so it's much more difficult than it was. The geopolitics today are very difficult. Since 2006, in the time that I've been working on climate change, I have repeatedly seen climate change pushed down the political agenda by an immediate crisis. And I don't need to point out that we're in the middle of a major crisis at the moment. The effects of that on the climate agenda could be helpful, depending on how you view climate security or energy security. But crises are unhelpful in that they take so much political attention, and it is going to take a lot of money to support Ukraine and its refugees. The disruption of the global conversation around climate change at a time when we don't have time is difficult, though inevitable.

China receives a lot of criticism for being the world’s largest polluter and emitter of greenhouse gasses, but it is also leading as the world’s largest producer and consumer of renewable energy. How does China balance being both of these at once? 

These are, in some ways, two different sides of an industrial policy. On the pollution side, there is an enormous negative legacy, particularly in coal use, that the positive side with investment in renewables is trying to address. They are quite closely related. And if I were a Chinese actor responding to this, I would point out that there are many ways to count greenhouse gases, greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere a long time, and it's the accumulation that is dangerous. That's what's causing climate change. So historic emissions are one measure of responsibility. And by that measure, the United Kingdom is a leading emitter because it was in the United Kingdom that the first industrial revolution took place in the late 17th and 18th centuries. So, we had a lot of coal burning and a lot of time to emit. There's another way of counting, which is per capita emissions, meaning how much do you emit per person in your country. On that front, the United States is way out in front: it's around 15 tonnes per person every single year. Here in the UK, we're at less than five tonnes per person, and China is at around seven and a half tonnes per person. The European average is 6.42. I don't think the United States lives three times as well as we do in the UK, so there are clearly savings that could be made there.  

When China looks at its own record, it looks to the progress that it has made in what it considers a relatively short time. You can argue that China shouldn't have gone quite so far down the wrong path because there were many negative examples, and it would have been useful to avoid the mistakes that others have made. I sometimes felt that China was determined to make every mistake the West had made. The result of that was an awful lot of coal fired power stations got built. But China would point out that it has made progress, particularly on things like energy density. Until China peaks its emissions, however, it will be difficult to point to progress convincingly. China would also talk about the contribution that it has made by investing in climate technologies a decade ago. And the result of that, because China has a fantastic capacity to manufacture at scale, is that it has brought the price down. It has made renewables cheaper for everybody. The solar panels on my roof are cheaper by a long way than they would have been 10 years ago. And that's the same for any emerging economy that's looking at what kind of energy system it should have. It's important in the conversation that we are having right now about energy security: "How do you reduce dependency on fossil fuel supplies from unstable regimes in times of political tensions?" Those renewables are much cheaper because China manufactures them and has invested in their manufacture. To say that China hasn't contributed is unfair. China has contributed, as I've described; it's a mixed picture. But I'm afraid every country is a mixed picture.

What effect does Chinese treatment and policies toward the environment have on the rest of the world?

For one, those benefits in lowering the cost of installing renewable energy. That's important because 10 years ago, it was an argument about price. Now, it's an argument about the technological challenges of managing large amounts of intermittent energy on a grid. Managing a grid with steady sources of energy, like coal fired power stations or nuclear plants, is very stable, but it's not a model that we can continue to use. So if you are building a renewables system, then you need a lot of technological support. China made the technology cheaper, but at the same time, it had a negative countervailing force, which is the Belt and Road Initiative. If you look at the investments on the Belt and Road Initiative, there is a lot of export of surplus capacity from China to other countries. Building coal fired power stations outside China, for example, and building infrastructure, some of which is necessary and some of it isn't, is often the product of a push factor rather than a pull factor from a host country. Most of the investments in the early years of the Belt and Road were in energy projects, and most of them are fossil related. That's very negative because it locks in other countries to a carbon profile and a carbon pathway, which affects everybody, but also makes it harder for them to turn around. So that hasn't been helpful, and hopefully this is changing. China has now promised not to build any new coal fired power stations on the Belt and Road, although they have also just confirmed that projects underway will be completed. It's promised to increase its support for the export of renewables on the Belt and Road. We should hold China to those pledges. How China approaches its responsibilities as a development actor has been very unsatisfactory to date. It's invested a lot and built a lot, but it hasn't brought the sustainable development goals to bear as a criterion by which projects are judged. 

There is another aspect of China's behavior, which bears inspection. China is a very big country with an enormous demand for raw materials, including agricultural products.  China has tended to not take responsibility for how goods, like soy, palm oil, and fish, arrive in China, how they are extracted, how they are grown, and what damage is done to rainforest in the production of palm oil. There have been many efforts over the years to devise systems of certification so that consumers can understand where things come from and make their own choices depending on what information they have. China has not been part of that. And China's demand is such that it is a driver of many negative environmental impacts around the world, including fishing. It has the biggest distant water fishing fleet, and it has been very slow in trying to control illegal, unregulated fishing. The expectations of a responsible power in the crisis that we face is that it needs to step up a little more vigorously. On climate, there's a big psychological factor because China is so big, that if the rest of the world feels China isn't doing enough, it's pretty discouraging for those who are trying to maintain the momentum in their own countries. As soon as China makes a big announcement, as Xi Jinping did at the UN General Assembly with the 2016 targets and 2030 targets, that injects a certain level of energy and optimism again into what sometimes feels like a long and weary campaign to avoid destroying the world.

What are some of the most popular misconceptions surrounding China and the environment?

There are several things. People misunderstand the nature of the political system because it is a top-down authoritarian system. As we know, Xi Jinping has concentrated more power in his hands than we have seen since Deng Xiaoping. So, people assume that he can pull a lever and everything happens in the most remote province. But it's not really like that. Power is negotiated in China as much as it is negotiated everywhere. It's harder to see these processes because of the nature of the system, but it isn't easy. They have to balance maintaining economic growth, maintaining employment for people who are not necessarily highly skilled, and feeding people. Policy sometimes goes more slowly than we would wish, but that's not necessarily a sign of bad faith. And in my observation, Xi Jinping has been consistent on climate and environment. The misconception about it being easier in China to do things is an important one. 

People say, "Well, China isn't doing anything, or the government doesn't care." That's really not the case. There is less of an issue of climate denial in China, partly because it wasn't politicized in the same way as it was in the United States. There are a lot of vested interests in China, but their opposition is not on the basis that climate change isn't real. You don't have that problem because there are a lot of engineers in the Central Committee, and they understand basic physics, and they can see the problem. And does the government care? Yes. China has a reputation for long term thinking, and the government talks as though they're thinking long term. So, how the Chinese political system works and the degree to which the short-term obstacles are intrinsic to the planning system are often not quite understood.

Jorlen Garcia CMC '24Student Journalist

Andrey Filippov 安德烈 from Moscow, Russia, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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