C2GTalk: An interview with PAN Jiahua

How might ecological civilisation consider emerging approaches to alter the climate?

1 April 2021

This interview was recorded on 25 February 2021, and is also available with interpretation into 中文, Español and Français.

Finding harmony between man and nature is essential as we tackle the climate crisis, said Professor PAN Jiahua in an interview with C2GTalk. In this episode, he explores the concept of ecological civilisation, and how carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation modification approaches aimed at altering the climate might be considered in this framework.

PAN Jiahua is Professor of Economics and Director at the Institute of Ecocivilization Studies at Beijing University of Technology. He was elected in 2018 as Member of the Academic Board of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In 2020, he was appointed by the UN Secretary-General as one of the 15 members of the Independent Group of Scientists for drafting the Global Sustainable Development Report 2023. Professor Pan is also Editor-in-Chief of the Chinese Journal of Urban & Environmental Studies, and a Member of the China National Expert Panel on Climate Change, the National Foreign Policy Advisory Group and Advisor to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. He has edited and authored over 300 papers, articles and books in English and Chinese, and was lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group III 3rd, 4th, and 5th Assessment Reports on Mitigation.

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

China has put ecological civilisation at the centre of its response to environmental degradation and climate change. Can you explain what this means and its role on the international stage?

Ecocivilisation to many people outside of China is something with Chinese characteristics and they may find it difficult to understand.

To make it simple: I think that everybody knows about industrial civilisation. Ecocivilisation is in contrast to industrial civilisation—a different transformative new stage of human development. So this is not only environmental or ecological; it’s a very comprehensive and somewhat fundamental—that is, in comparison with industrial civilisation. Under industrialisation, the ethical principle is utilitarian. If there is a utility, then there will be a value, and if there’s no utility then there will be no value. The objective function is profit maximisation and value accumulation. So in this regard, nature does not have, in many cases, immediate value to an individual or to a group of people. And then it has no value.

Under the new Ecocivilisation, then the objective function is not simply maximisation of profit or accumulation of wealth. It is seeking harmony between man and nature. It is for sustainability of humankind. It is not for the maximisation of present value; it is for the sustainability of our future. So we need to respect nature and work together with nature. This is something really fundamental.

Under industrial civilisation, we see the scale of economy. Everything big is good. Everything to do with money is efficient. Under ecological civilisation, we need to work within the natural carrying capacity. Everything lives within the capacity of nature. So this is very much in contrast to industrial civilisation.

And then, against such a background, we need to fight against climate change. We resort to renewable energy instead of exhaustible, carbon-intensive fossil fuel energy. So this is a very detailed technological comparison. In the production cycle under industrial civilisation, it goes from raw material through industrial processes and then you have a product and waste. Under Ecocivilisation, it is circular: from raw material through the industrial processes and then you have the raw materials and a product. We generate no waste, everything is recyclable.

How does this concept and how it is applied relate to existing international processes on climate change, biodiversity, and the sustainable development agenda? Is there a way in which these two interlink?

It is interlinked and it is not only a principle, it is also applicable at a practical level. You mentioned climate change. We mean that if we sit man and nature in harmony, then we need to work with nature, adapt to nature, and be friendly with nature. And then we need to be sustainable—that is, the energy, water, everything—instead of energy without consideration of nature.

And then, in terms of biodiversity, this is more even more relevant because in biodiversity many genus, many species are not known up to now to us human beings. We have no value at all in the market. And then for sustainability, we need to have biodiversity. We need to have the diversity of genus. And we need to be harmonious with the nature. So we need to conserve biodiversity. We need to be in harmony with nature, with other animals, with other species. This is something very fundamental: when you leave nature aside instead developing every inch of land. We need to keep nature reserves so that species, biodiversity, can have a place to stay, to live in, to continue.

So this is something very different from industrial civilisation: when you have value, okay, we have developed. We exchange it for money. So this is something we need to be conscious of, this change of mindset.

Does the world, in your opinion, currently have the multilateral governance tools and processes necessary to address and think about these interlinked challenges in this way? Or do we need to see an evolution of that multilateral governance? To what extent is China helping influence the evolution of those government systems?

This is also relevant to this new paradigm, ecological civilisation. Under industrial civilisation, when you are powerful and then you conquer the others, you ask others to follow you. You are the dominant guy and the others must be obedient. There is no diversity. That is hierarchical: some people at the top, and others at the bottom. This is industrial civilisation.

Under ecological civilisation, we have diversity, we cooperate, we stay together, we work together. So that is why we need to have multilateral international relations instead of somebody dominates everything. For climate change, we need to work together, we need to cooperate. No single country can get the huge problems resolved. So we must work together. There is a need to be somewhat inclusive, to be diversified—and then we can work together.

How do you think the COVID-19 crisis has influenced the way people around the world are thinking about how to govern these challenges? Are we seeing a shift in what we think we can do, how to react to the challenges that we’ve got?

COVID-19 is really very much underlining that human beings are not the dominant creatures in the world. With all the other species, you’re one of the members of the live community. So this is very much a way that we have to be together with a live community. This is something with man and nature, harmony with nature. So this is one experience, or one lesson we have learned.

And secondly, in a globalised world, in a universal village, we live together. Nobody, can isolate himself from the all the others. We are on Earth, we are together, and we have to cooperate and work together to fight against the common enemy, instead of the fragmented you do yours, I do mine. That cannot lead to a solution. We must fight against COVID-19 together and then we can have a solution. So this is the second lesson or experience that we’ve learned.

Third, the way of production, the way of consumption, the style of living—everything we need to reconsider. We should not only see that under COVID-19; that we are aware and then afterwards, everything goes back to normal. This is not the case. The new normal is that incorporate these lessons in our way of living in the future, into our global governance.

I wonder if I could turn out to some of the issues that C2G is specifically focusing on. First, the idea of carbon dioxide removal. China aims to become carbon neutral by 2060. As well as cutting emissions, what role do you think carbon dioxide removal might play in achieving that goal, whether nature-based or technology-based?

I must say that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is essential and it’s also part of nature. The vegetation in the forest, it emits carbon dioxide and it absorbs carbon dioxide, and then it is in balance. So that is carbon neutrality, right? Human society has interrupted the cycle of nature, and then we emit more and more, and nature cannot cope with such an increase in the amount of emissions. So this is something very, very important: that carbon dioxide removal and nature-based solutions must be the solution we have to resort to. So this is one thing.

And the other thing that we have to remember is that there is a natural balance and you cannot see that nature can get everything resolved. The human greediness—if you are too greedy, nature will not able to cope with it. Human beings have to have some self-restraint and have to respect nature.

The second point is something very important: we have to get rid of carbon. The carbon removal is somewhat helpful, but the capacity of nature is somewhat limited. So we have live within the capacity of nature and then beyond that, we should not emit more carbon dioxide. Otherwise carbon neutrality, will not be achievable.

That’s very interesting. So you would not see a role for technology-based approaches to carbon dioxide removal by that philosophy—am I understanding correctly or do you think there’s some role for technology?

You are right because currently we do have the technology. I think that the industrial civilisation was created and lead by technological innovation. I think that the you are certainly right. And the currently we do have Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage. We do have the technologies.

For the technologies, we need to improve and innovate—there’s no problem about this, this should be encouraged. But on the other hand, we you have to think about what technologies we are nearest to. For instance, with carbon capture and storage, currently the cost is much higher than solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind power. When you capture carbon dioxide and then store it in the geological formation, there is a risk that it can come out again. So then, what for? And then for direct air capture, I think that was also in theory okay. But the problem is that if there’s no usage for such captured carbon, then what is it for?

If you think about it comprehensively and longer term, then we need to see whether there is some harmony between man and nature. Of course, in case we have some sort of emergency, very short term, then we can have human-induced interventions or technologies. But if you use it as a something constant and normal, then you’ll see the value of it, the final outcome of it.

Your philosophy here is very clear. I am just wondering, as the world tries to reach this harmony, do you see in the meantime some actors nonetheless pushing these technologies? Do you see the possibility that we emerge in some kind of global competition to reach these technologies and that this could cause impacts with regards to trying to reach the harmony you refer to? I am trying to get a sense of this moment that we are at where there’s quite a lot of discussion around these technologies.

I know what you mean. Some 20 years earlier when I worked with the IPCC Working Group 3 Technical Support Unit, there was a term called geoengineering. And, of course, carbon capture and storage is part of geoengineering, and we talked about it already.

The other part is solar radiation modification. I am open; for one thing, at a different scale and under a different uniform, we see some of them can be very much helpful and useful. For instance, albedo modification: on the top of the roof or on the surface of the of the land, you reflect solar radiation. You would reduce the heat from the sun. If you use this, you know solar panels on one hand, increase albedo, and on the other hand you generate energy. And also you are reducing evaporation and increasing moisture. You see multiple benefits, so in this case, we shouldn’t we do it? We should do it.

The second thing that is the cloud injection. In China, this has been practiced: weather modification. In some arid areas where you have a moisture cloud, you have some injections, and then you have rainfall. Also you have some important event somewhere, and then you artificially remove some clouds. Why not? At local scale, it is manageable.

And then, at a global scale, there’s the injection of aerosols in the stratosphere. If we have an emergency and we have no other solutions as a final result, we should not have it excluded. It should be should be part of the portfolio for actions. So we should keep everything open—just like carbon capture and storage. Technological innovation—just keep it there, just in case we need it.

Let’s take specifically one of the most controversial ideas you raised: stratospheric aerosol injection—this idea that you put aerosols in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight to lower global temperatures. Is there research or debate in China on that idea? Do you see any discussion in Chinese policy circles and think tanks about that idea?

I think that such a term or such a technology has been discussed in the academic community. We have papers published in Chinese journals and we also have a RMB 10 million-level research project implemented with regard to solar geoengineering or solar radiation modification. So we have research, discussions and publications.

And then, in the policy arena, I think that some of the decision-makers or policymakers are aware of such an option. For actual application, I think that there is not sufficient information. There’s no so-called urgency to take such an option.

So I think that for these people, everything from an idea to research to implementation, that takes a long time. Just look at global greenhouse gases, global warming, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol, and Paris agreement—it’s a long process. Quite a few decades, if not centuries. Our knowledge is limited. We need to go step by step, and see when further information is available and further scientific understanding is clear. And then I think that we can go further and further. So after seeing that, I think that there’s no need to make a decision in a hurry.

But at the same time building up governance systems internationally takes time. Do you think there’s something that the world should be thinking about now? At least in terms of preparing for some of these steps that you mentioned—how one might go about governing at least the research, if not dealing with guidelines or guardrails against premature deployment or other such issues. What role do you see now for governance at the international level on the some solar radiation modification approaches?

I think that this is a very important issue, simply because for actual application, I think that the it will take a longer time. But for research, we do need to follow some principles or to follow some guidelines. Otherwise, just like embryo human gene modification, this is something that is not only unethical; there is huge uncertainty.

Because of such uncertainty, because of limited understanding, we need to have a governance structure created and agreed so that people can do research and undertake experiments in the right way, in the right manner. So that risk can be minimised and the uncertainty can be brought under control. So governance is an issue that should go in advance. If you have created so many problems, that will be too late. This should be done well in advance so that our research and experiments can be brought under control and management.

How do you see broader public attitudes in China evolving on climate change and sustainable development—and of course, ecological civilisation. Right now, we have a situation in a number of countries where there can be quite a lot of difference sometimes between what scientists or politicians or different members of the public think. Could you tell me a little bit about how you see this debate evolving in China? In particular, I’m very interested in how you see the general relationship between the role of science and how people think about these ideas, since countries differ in how public attitudes are driven by science and the research.

Well, I can tell you that the understanding and the attitudes are in a continued evolutionary process. Twenty years earlier or a quarter of a century earlier in the late 1990s, global warming and carbon emission reductions had nothing to do with China. At that time, I was a researcher. As an academic researcher, my attitude or my understanding was of carbon equality, carbon rights. The developed rich guys emitted so much and are so rich. Why should we poor countries restrict or limit our own emissions? No way. That was 25 years earlier. Technology is another fact. At that time, solar PV was so expensive and there was nothing in China at the commercial scale. And the wind as well, nothing at all, only hydropower.

And then early this century, we believed that carbon is not what we need; what we need is development. So in the academic community, we see that equal access to sustainable development is not carbon equality. It’s equal access to development. So this has changed already, and that’s only in the last 10 years or so.

And then later, in 2010 or a few years earlier, we realise that my goodness, carbon is not only bad, but also conventional pollution is also associated with the combustion of fossil fuels. The foggy weather, the filthy air, the health damage—we cannot tolerate it anymore. And also, my goodness, solar is so cheap now that we use a solar for electricity, for water heating. It is a nature-based solution. It is sustainable, accessible and affordable. And now,  it is an opportunity. Why should we not do it?

So I think that this is a process, a change of ideas. I think that now you can see China has number one installed capacity of solar, number one installed capacity of wind, number one installed capacity of hydropower. China is an indication that, for the less developed countries, you do not have to go high carbon for development, for being rich—you simply go to zero carbon, to renewable. And then you are clean, rich, and you have the energy services. You have everything. Now, in China, I think that everybody accepts that renewable  is the solution.

Maybe I just a final question on your personal approach and philosophy. This is sometimes a rather difficult topic, especially when one becomes acquainted with some of the possible outcomes for humanity and civilisation if we don’t get this right. How do you balance a hope that we will get this right and practical action, with the size and gravity of the challenge and the potential despair that can lead to? What kind of philosophies guide you? What keeps you centred in terms of approaching what a serious issue climate changes.

On the philosophy: 2500 years earlier, the Chinese ancient philosopher made it very clear:   man and nature are one. Man and nature must stay in harmony. Wealth and money is something outside of your body. Enough is enough. Everything redundant is not necessary.

So in that case, I think that it’s not simply industrial ideology or industrial philosophy that is more money, more wealth, bigger house. It’s not necessary; enough is enough. So I think that clean air, clean water, green space—human beings are part of nature. You have a huge   apartment, very high in the sky but it’s no good, because you need to be with nature, in the forest, with the other animals, with natural vegetation. So that means that you have to be in harmony with nature. You are part of nature.

Only in that case can you calm yourself down and then you can think about, what is our life for? Life is only for a short duration in the history of the human species. With respect to   nature, to Mother Earth, it is really negligible. When you think of all of this together, you see that our happiness should rely on harmony with nature. If nature is against us, there is no happiness at all.

So this is why we should redefine our happiness, which is not utilitarian; it is harmonious. If you have all the enemies around, how can you be happy? If everybody is friendly, you must be happy. You have no reason to be nervous.

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