Meyer: What’s your favorite story from reporting the book?
Biello: I think my favorite person in the book is Fan Changwei, this mid-level bureaucrat in a small resort town called Rizhao, on the east coast of China.
It’s not, I don’t know, Cancun or anything like that, but it’s often a place where people from inner China see the sea for the first time. So it’s a pretty popular place, and, of course, China—being the most populous nation—even a small fraction of China’s tourists is an enormous load of people.
Anyway, he was tasked by the local leadership to turn this town carbon-neutral. I suspect you know what carbon-neutral means, but I’m not sure that everybody did. (Basically, it’s that you emit no more carbon dioxide than you take in, or destroy, or bury.)
So Fan got this kind of impossible, monumental task, that has been undertaken by very few cities anywhere—and, on top of that, he had to do it in China. And Rizhao is also a port city, in addition to being a resort city. They import a lot of stuff from Korea and elsewhere that then disperses into China, and they export a lot of stuff. They get the bulk of their power from a coal-powered power plant, and they face all the typical challenges of working in China.
To even undertake this task seemed heroic, and to undertake it while also being tasked with reducing smog and air pollution… well, that’s more than the U.S. has been able to do. So how could Fan pull it off?
Spoiler alert, he kind of succeeds on the power plant front, but he is undone by the changing face of modern China, which is that more and more people want to drive. It turns out that controlling the CO2 coming out of all those tail pipes is a lot more challenging than controlling the CO2 that comes out of a couple of smokestacks. Which is a lesson that applies everywhere.
It’s a really illustrative tale of one man’s attempts to do what the whole world needs to do, and it highlights all the challenges therein. And I guess it is amusing to me that the Chinese, who are ostensibly Communist, are going to have the world’s largest carbon-trading market, while the United States, which is ostensibly capitalist, can’t fathom the idea of a free-market solution to our climate-change challenge.
So, just, exploring with Fan—who, by the way, smokes like a chimney—that was my favorite part of reporting the book and writing the book, because his story really encapsulates so much of what this challenge is and how in the end, it comes down to us and the choices we make. Do you get an electric bike to get around Rizhao, or do you buy a nice car so you can show off for the neighbors? And, at least so far, the Chinese are following their own version of the American Dream, with two cars in the garage.
Meyer: Where did the political will come for him to make Rizhao carbon-neutral?