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Isabel Hilton, the journalist engaging China on climate change

Abstract photo illustration of Isabel Hilton
Illustration by Ricardo Santos & Daniel Lee
  • Annabelle Timsit
By Annabelle Timsit

Geopolitics reporter

LondonPublished Last updated on

Isabel Hilton is a Scottish-born journalist and founder of China Dialogue, a non-profit website that produces bilingual stories about the environment and climate change in China. She was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2009 for “services to promoting environmental awareness in China.”

Hilton’s first exposure to China came as a teenager when, during a high school exchange year in Ohio, she challenged herself to learn Chinese. While that wasn’t very successful, she did manage to learn it upon returning to Scotland in order to matriculate in Chinese at the University of Edinburgh. She then lived in China for three years and studied at the Peking Languages Institute and at Fudan University in Shanghai. 

She traveled the world as a foreign correspondent but “kept an interest in China” all along. Back in the UK in 2006, she founded China Dialogue, and stepped down as CEO this year in order to pursue personal projects. She is a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs think tank and of the British Association of China Scholars.  

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Quartz: Can you tell me about China Dialogue?

Hilton: 2006 was that moment in the development of the internet when suddenly there was a kind of public sphere in China in a way that there hadn’t been. It was a moment of considerable optimism: China was better off, civil society was mobilizing, there was some really good investigative journalism going on, and it was a lively society that was looking to the future.

China Dialogue was conceived as a platform in which both sides could begin to understand the other’s position better, on the basis that you don’t make good policy with bad information.

At the time, the climate conversation tended to be pretty finger-pointing. In London or New York, if you talked about climate change, people would say, ‘what’s the point of me changing my light bulbs when China is building a coal fired power station every 10 minutes?’ And in China, people would say, ‘Your per capita carbon footprint is three times ours, you’re all living a high-carbon life, and you want us to stop developing in order that that can continue?’ It was a dialogue of the deaf. So China Dialogue was conceived as a platform in which both sides could begin to understand the other’s position better, on the basis that you don’t make good policy with bad information.

How was it received in China?

Hilton: In those circles where people were beginning to think about these issues, it was received with some enthusiasm, including in the [Chinese] Environmental Protection Agency, which at the time was underpowered and needed allies. A lot of Chinese officials understood that government information from China was not widely trusted in the rest of the world. (I won’t comment on how widely trusted it might or might not be in China.) [We] at least fairly represented the challenges in China, good or bad. We were an independent not-for-profit, and I have a background as a journalist. It was very important to me that this be a professional operation that could not be accused of being Chinese government propaganda. There were a lot of people who understood the value of that in China.

Now the climate and the environment are much more widely discussed in China. Back in 2006, not really. So we were opening a window onto something that people may have been aware of, but they hadn’t really considered. I would go to conferences on China in which nobody mentioned climate change, and I would go to conferences on climate change in which nobody mentioned China. As the spectrum of people who had to engage with China widened, that became a problem.

It’s very different now in a number of ways, some of them good, some of them not so good. There is a much bigger appreciation now of the reality of China in climate circles and there have now been many years of interaction. The Chinese are much more open—or, were. I think they still are in the climate discussion. However, since [the election of Chinese president] Xi Jinping, the conditions in which any foreign entity, be it a not-for-profit or a business, have to operate in China have become much more constrained. When we began, there were a lot of gray areas in which if you didn’t cause anybody trouble, you could sort of get on with things, whereas it’s much more controlled and regulated now, and much more difficult to maintain independence as a think tank or as an operation of any kind.

And because of the geo-strategic tensions, the level of suspicion is higher. You see this affecting Asian-Americans who become subject to abuse from non-Asian Americans. And you see it in China, where foreigners are regarded as hostile to China. So that makes life more difficult. But I think it will settle down at some point. I’ve been engaged with China long enough to think nothing is permanent.

What is the best Chinese offer currently on the table when it comes to climate change?

Hilton: The best Chinese offer is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and to peak China’s emissions by or before 2030. That’s 10 years after most countries have pledged net zero—which isn’t quite the same as carbon neutrality. Carbon neutral is that you balance the production and maybe the capture of carbon. You don’t actually release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in any of your activities. But there are greenhouse gases which are not carbon dioxide, [like] nitrous oxide, and methane, and those are very damaging, and not included in a carbon target. Net zero targets incorporate both CO2 and non-CO2 greenhouse gases.

The carbon neutrality announcement is important because it does set the long-term trend. But what really matters about that is the steps you take now to make sure that you reach that goal. So what is disappointing is the 2030 target. That was a pledge that [China] made in Paris nearly six years ago now, and it was regarded as a fairly relaxed target then, and a lot of Chinese modelers that I spoke to around that time said China could peak its emissions at 2022-2023. That matters because then you start your downward slope a full eight years earlier and you’re starting from a lower peak. The longer you leave your emissions growing, the higher the peak is, and the steeper the slope that you have to achieve beyond that. From now to 2030 is a really critical time, not just for China, but for everyone who is trying to be Paris-compliant and to meet the 1.5-degree target.

At the moment, frankly, nobody’s on track, but China is really quite seriously not on track.

Why is that?

Hilton: There were hopes that the 14th Five Year Plan would set a very clear and determined pathway, and it didn’t. It was a speech in which security was invoked far more than climate, and I think that was an outcome of the geo-strategic tensions that have taken the focus off the longer-term ambition on climate.

If China wants to be seen as a global player, it needs to take Paris into the heart of its development, aid, and overseas finance practices. And it has not yet done that.

Most of [China’s] energy has to be shipped in one way or another, some through pipelines, but most in ships. And the Malacca Strait is a famous choke point. So China has always felt vulnerable in terms of its external energy supply. What it has in abundance at home is coal. And that’s partly why it went so extremely coal-dependent in its big expansionist phase, and why it’s stuck with a massive problem of how to get out of that dependence.

What are some things you’d like to see China do in that regard?

Hilton: China could join the countries that have already pledged not to finance new coal-fired power stations. Most of the investments China has made in Belt and Road countries to date have been energy, and the overwhelming majority of those investments have been fossil fuel energy, much of it in coal. These coal-fired power stations are going to be stranded assets within five years. If we are to meet the Paris targets, we need to be closing down coal globally. Building new coal-fired power stations, which have a life expectancy of 30 to 40 years, is absolutely crazy at this point. That takes us to mid-century, when we are supposed to be out of fossil fuels entirely. So the countries that are paying for these and are building their energy systems around them are essentially buying something that will have to be closed down within 10-15 years.

What they could have from China is 21st century grids powered by renewables. China is a massive global renewables power. And yet its exports are still massively in favor of the big SOEs, which are the coal companies and Big Hydro, the dam builders. They could mobilize the finance and the diplomatic effort and the technological support in support of their renewables companies to go along the Belt and Road and build sustainable energy systems that would allow these countries to develop in a way that will work for the rest of the century.

If China really wants to be seen as a global player, it needs to take Paris into the heart of its development, aid, and overseas finance practices. And it has not yet done that.

What are the challenges of that?

Hilton: I first went to China in 1973 as a student, and it was extremely poor. It was the end of the Cultural Revolution. There were almost no consumer goods in the shops and people lived lives which were very controlled by the Party and very limited in their material circumstances and in their opportunity. It’s good to remember the speed with which things have happened. The speed is a tribute to the energy and capacity of the Chinese people to make this extraordinary thing happen, but if things happen at that kind of speed, they have consequences which are not immediately visible.

When I was setting up China Dialogue in 2006, there was an emerging civil society movement who were really concerned about, for example, the fate of the rivers in southwest China, which were being dammed by Big Hydro in major ways. And there was an environmental protection agency—it wasn’t yet a ministry—which was relatively weak and underpowered in the Chinese bureaucratic structure, but it was making alliances with civil society and with journalists in order to try to change the narrative about the relationship between the economy and the environment. The official narrative at that time was: The environment is something that rich countries can afford to worry about, so when China gets rich, we will clean up. That continued for a number of years, until it became evident that China’s environmental crisis was so severe that it couldn’t afford to wait until it was rich.

The Party then had to tackle the fact that the industrial system that is supporting its economy is also destroying the country in the long term. And so you have to start putting things into reverse. You sometimes had to feel sorry for Chinese bureaucrats because they have a list of things that they have to achieve and many of them are completely contradictory. Their target, for example, for protecting the environment, is in contradiction to their target to grow the economy by 10%. And so they tended to grow the economy because the environmental target ranked lower and because they probably knew that by the time the environmental consequences were evident, they’d be somewhere else. All of this structure was geared not to environmental protection or even fairly basic regulation, but to economic growth. And changing that is a relatively slow business.

Climate activists often say of China’s climate commitments that it could do more—that the Chinese Communist Party, as the leader of a one-party state, could just decide to do these things. Is that fair?

Hilton: Well, no more than anyone else can just do this, and probably rather less, since China committed so heavily to a high-carbon model because of its abundance of coal. So turning that around is very difficult.

If you are a developing country, it is no longer more expensive to build a renewables based energy system than a fossil based energy system because China has made the technology cheaper.

China has politics and vested interest, like everywhere else. A lot of people seem to think that Xi Jinping has all this power—why doesn’t he just do it? But power is always negotiated and it’s negotiated in China, too.

On the positive side, by the time you get to the 11th and certainly the 12th Five Year Plan, China understood that the future was going to be a low-carbon future and that if China was to develop through the middle-income trap, it needed to upgrade the economy and develop the kind of technologies that would assist it to make that transition—renewable energy, so wind and solar, but also electric vehicles, battery technologies, carbon capture and storage experiment, and nuclear. China begins to invest extremely heavily in all of those technologies to the point that it is now the major supplier of low carbon goods and technologies to the rest of the world.

So China has a direct economic interest in the success of global climate policy because it’s selling the stuff that you need to make it happen. And in the course of that investment, China also lowered the cost of renewable energies enormously for everybody. If you are a developing country, it is no longer more expensive to build a renewables based energy system than a fossil based energy system because China has made the technology cheaper. It’s done the world a big favor in that respect. And it shows that there is a commitment to climate action in China, even if we could wish the execution could be speedier. But it’s a big and complicated country, and there are a lot of external pressures, and it’s contributing in a lot of other ways.

Is there space left for meaningful engagement on the issue of climate change? And will it happen at COP26 1?

The 26th United Nations Climate Change conference, which will take place in Glasgow in Nov. 2021. US climate envoy John Kerry has called it "the last best chance" to avert environmental catastrophe.

Hilton: It’s hard to be totally confident about global relations right now, but a number of things are looking very much brighter than they were this time last year. We’ve had a change of government in the US. That’s very important because the fact that Donald Trump took the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement and was so conspicuously hostile to any climate action really let China off the hook. China could present itself as a constructive global player without actually having to make much more effort than turning up. With the US back in the climate process, there’s a challenge for China. You’re the world’s biggest emitter. You have the world’s biggest responsibility at this point.

The fact that the US and China can preserve that climate conversation from the negative effects of their wider hostilities to the degree that they can is absolutely critical. There is on both sides nationalist pressure of one kind or another not to cooperate. In China, to be seen to be doing the US’s bidding is not a good look for Xi Jinping. And there are many voices, some sincere, some self-interested, both in the UK and in the US, which say essentially we shouldn’t talk to China about anything at all. Those tend to come out from sectors of opinion which don’t take climate change as seriously as they should. And the danger is that climate change could be instrumentalized in pursuit of other policy goals. I think that would be a grave mistake.

And so the challenge for Britain’s diplomats is to try to ring fence the climate conversation between now and December to get the most positive pledges on the table in Glasgow at COP 26.

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