Rating: High school and post-secondary
Summary: Bloomberg energy and climate journalist Dr. Akshat Rathi joins Markham to discuss China’s Sept. 23 announcement it will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Not quite the same as net-zero emissions, says Rathi, but progress nonetheless.
This interview is lightly edited.
Markham Hislop: Before we get into China’s announcement last week, let’s talk about your background a little bit, because it’s not very often that I interview journalists who have a PhD in organic chemistry from Oxford University, a BTech in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai who has worked at The Economist, The Royal Society of Chemistry, and whose writing has been published in the guardian nature and many other publications.
Please, please give us a little bit of your background and story and your journey from science to journalism.
Akshat Rathi: I became an engineer, but while studying engineering writing was a hobby I pursued. So in college, in India, in Mumbai I started a magazine and it was about gossip and things happening in the college. But it became a thing that I wanted to continue to do because it was a lot of fun. I got to work with the kinds of people I wouldn’t usually interact with.
When I was pursuing my Ph.D. that hobby continued. Oxford has a number of student newspapers that publish really good journalism. And many of them actually go on to become journalists and it has science magazines and it has literature magazines. And so I continued to do that as an evening sideline. About the middle of my Ph.D., when I realized I didn’t want to stay in academia because if I wanted to do the kind of science I wanted, I was hoping I could do, I would have to spend about 10 years being a postdoc slaving away in a lab before there was any chance I could run a lab of my own.
To me, writing felt like a way in which I could find a shortcut to still be in the world of ideas and still be able to pursue interesting science without having to grind it out in the lab. And I was fortunate to get my first journalism gig at The Economist right after my Ph.D. I joined as an intern and that was where I got my crash course in journalism.
Markham Hislop: Well, most journalists either graduate from a journalism course, or they’ve got an arts background and stumble into journalism, which is what happened to me. And then you kind of learn your beat on the job. Do you find that having the kind of training that you did gives you an advantage covering technically or scientifically complex stories?
Akshat Rathi: Absolutely. I think if anything, there are fewer science students in journalism than there should be. One of the reasons I got into journalism was because I could see there were stories that I could have told better or explained better than many of the journalists could at the time anyway. And that felt like an opportunity.
So much of life is shaped by science, especially now with the pandemic. I mean, pretty much every minute of our life outside our own home is governed by rules that scientists have come up with for our own safety. So that level of scientific knowledge and, and conversation needed to happen. And I’m just lucky I get to do it. And I’m not the only one. Now there are a number of science PhDs I know who are journalists today. And I think more people should join it.
Markham Hislop: This will be the last question. And then we’ll get into talking about China’s announcement. How disturbed are you by the anti-science trend that we’re seeing, particularly in the United States. Canada is not immune to it, not sure how that plays out in Europe, but what do you think of that?
Akshat Rathi: It’s troubling. But I would also say if you look at it from a much longer period of time scientists have never been as trusted as they are today. So yes, in pockets you know, in the US maybe in, certain parts of the U S that that trust has fallen, but the global trend has been one of increased trust in science and where the trust is falling, we should do all we can to overcome it. Because there can be some serious consequences.
One episode that I can share is from here in the UK where there was one paper published and then a series of articles by right-wing media, picking up on the MMR vaccine which is the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, and how this particular scientist concluded that it might cause autism. There is no fact in that science paper, but because it was published in a science journal it took a whole decade to ensure that that was debunked and that people had the same level of trust in the MMR vaccine or generally vaccines that they do now in Europe.
I mean that still comes up in the right-wing press and still is spreading as we are talking about the coronavirus vaccine. So it’s very hard to kill these zombies but you know, the more trained people we have from this profession into journalism, the better.
Markham Hislop: Well, let’s talk about China. Maybe you could give us a brief overview of what exactly was announced.
Akshat Rathi: So we only got one sentence from President Xi Jinping about this goal. And it said China is on target to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. That’s about it.
Since then, my colleagues have been able to eke out some more detail from researchers in China about what this goal might be. And what we can see now is that the goal is tied to co2 emissions, which is, you know, 75% of the climate problem. So the vast majority of it, but not all greenhouse gases. Not methane, not nitrous oxide, et cetera. And we know that even though 2030 is the peak that China is aiming for, and that is something that it had already committed to in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, there is a good likelihood that China will reach its peak of emissions sooner. So maybe between 2025 and 2030, and maybe even on the side of 2025, and that will give China about 30, 35 years to go from its peak to be an 11 gigatons.
Markham Hislop: There’s a lot of terms that are thrown around like net-zero emissions by 2050, that sort of thing. What is carbon neutrality?
Akshat Rathi: When I spoke to scientists about this they were categorical in their sort of disdain for the word neutrality because people can make it mean what they want it to mean. There are more precise terms that they prefer. And the precise term is net-zero.
And then you describe the type of emissions, net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, or net-zero carbon dioxide emissions. The net part is almost no large entity is going to be able to reach zero, to get as close to zero as possible. And then you’ll offset it with some form of negative emissions, maybe natural negative emissions or technologically used carbon-capture systems. And so that’s their preferred term.
If we are to use it, of course, journalists like to be able to use synonyms because they don’t want to bore the reader you’re not writing science papers here. And so what I came away with from the scientists was to sort of create the style system where whenever you’re talking about an emission, be precise in the first mention, and then you can use other synonyms, but at least you’ve got your point across.
Markham Hislop: Now, why is carbon neutrality by 2060 for China important? And I’ll give you a little background here in Canada oil and gas boosters. Many of them in Alberta are fond of saying, Canada is only 1.6% of global emissions. China is so much more, 28% I think is, is the percentage. Why should we penalize our economy when China is doing so little to bring down its emissions? Is it important, in least in part, because it shows the rest of the world that China is serious about this and sends a message to countries like Canada.
Akshat Rathi: There are a number of reasons. And I think the first one should be, it’s been five years and we should really kill this idea that your emissions, no matter how small, don’t matter, it’s really China’s emissions that matter. What the Paris climate agreement tells you is that to be able to have a stable temperature, which is what we want from trying to tackle climate change, the only way to do it is to have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions or you have net-zero total emissions, and then you have a number of negative emissions that manage the other greenhouse gases that you can’t.
But essentially without stabilizing emissions, we are not going to be able to, stabilize temperature. And that means every actor in the system needs to get to this net-zero, whether you’re contributing 28% as China is or 1.6%. Everybody has to be able to align to this target. And that is sort of a clarifying message we shouldn’t miss.
China’s goal is huge because not just the fact that China will cut its emissions. And of course, as I said, China is at 11 gigatons or 28%. And we’ll bring that to net zero, at least on CO2 in the process of doing that, China will accelerate the clean energy transition in a way that few countries can do because of its size and scale.
It’s already the largest manufacturer of solar. It’s already one of the largest manufacturers of wind turbines, already the largest manufacturer of batteries, already the biggest seller of electric cars. What future technologies do we need? We need cheap nuclear. We need clean cement and steel. We need clean hydrogen. All of these things are something that China’s currently working on to be able to get to this carbon neutrality goal.
It will have to accelerate that part and that will benefit the rest of the world.
Markham Hislop: There was a point I think, that you made in your column, which caught my eye, and that is there’s a growing trend amongst the larger economies to commit to net-zero emissions and China joining that group really sends a message. And I guess I mentioned this in the last question, but if there’s what’s the word, we seem to be getting past the threshold and, and China seems to be the one that’s going to push us over that threshold from a policy and public perception point of view.
Akshat Rathi: Yeah. I mean, this is also perhaps a response to the very first question you asked about shouldn’t China cut emissions. Well, now it is telling you it is going to cut emissions. So that’s one, there’s also the market signal.
You’re right. If you look at the top five economies (the US, China, the European Union, Japan, and then California if you pull California out of the US). Apart from the US, all the other four economies have net-zero emissions goals. And that’s because the Paris climate agreement gives you this framework and economies see that adopting this goal is to their benefit because they’re not just going to cut emissions and avoid some of the impacts, but develop these technologies, which will make them money and make their people richer.
Markham Hislop: How does China intend to achieve carbon neutrality? I think there’s a perception that China continues to build coal-fired power plants and continues to finance coal-fired power plants outside of China. It’s hard to reconcile. It’s a commitment to carbon neutrality and its commitment to coal.
Akshat Rathi: That is right. I think the world needs to push China a lot more on that aspect. It hasn’t yet committed to as you talked about lowering emissions faster, so it still sticks to its 2030 target that it had said back in 2015 as the peak of its emissions. And it hasn’t announced that it’s going to start shrinking its coal pipeline both nationally and internationally.
Those are things that, only through dialogue and pressure from other countries, will China push itself on, but the pathway is clear to be able to get to carbon neutrality. China has said, and this is from the government researchers that my colleagues spoke to, reductions in oil, coal and natural gas consumption are going to be drastic. We are looking at, upwards of 75% reduction in natural gas consumption, 95% reduction in coal consumption, you know, similarly high percent digital reduction in oil consumption.
You have to first reduce your fossil fuel consumption only then can you rely on some carbon capture technology.
Markham Hislop: What are the obstacles that China’s going to face? And one of the ones that you pointed out, I think in your column, again, caught my eye was the fact that whatever Beijing thinks, the smaller governments, the junior governments in China, aren’t always on the same page.
Akshat Rathi: We think of China as this monolithic country that is run top-down by a small group of people in Beijing. And that’s not the case. It’s, you know, it’s not a healthy, thriving democracy by any means, but it is a federal structure where local governments have quite a lot of power.
Many of these local governments rely heavily on income that they make either from coal mining or from coal power plants or from cement or steel, you know, they’ll have their pet industries that they’ve been backing for so long. And it’s going to take real pressure and incentives to bring those regions along.
And of course in this process, China will also have to develop new technologies to be able to allow these regions, to still have an economy that is flourishing and helping their people while cutting emissions.
Markham Hislop: Can China afford this? I, I think in your column, you mentioned a figure it’s either $150 billion a year, or maybe it was $250 billion a year. That’s an enormous amount of capital that needs to be invested to achieve this target. Can they afford it?
Akshat Rathi: $180 billion. This was an estimate made by a think tank. We don’t know the actual figure. And of course, this is sort of an average, it’s $180 billion every year until 2050 to reach a certain proportion, 85% proportion of renewables in the mix out of a hundred percent. So it’s not carbon neutrality.
We don’t know the figures, but what we do know is those figures are not outrageous. China’s already been spending upwards of a hundred billion dollars on renewables anyway. This is not about scaling it 10 times. This might be about two times, maybe three times or four times which are not crazy numbers and what China sees and what most countries will start to see is that acting and paying up right now will bring dividends later. Otherwise, they’re going to have to spend that money, trying to deal with the impacts of climate change. And those sums will be much larger.
Markham Hislop: China has been a leader in a lot of clean energy technologies. And is there a perception within China that there’s a significant benefit to being a first mover in batteries and electric vehicles in wind turbines and solar panels?
And I bring this up because in Canada, particularly Alberta, there isn’t that recognition. And there’s a sense that we should hang back. We should let others take the risk. We should be followers. And that seems to me to be a very dangerous kind of strategy, because if you’re not first mover, second mover, and you’re not establishing yourself in some of these market niches now, getting into them five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road seems to me to be a dangerous strategy. What’s your take on that?
Akshat Rathi: It’s true. But in the case of China, for example, with solar, China, wasn’t the first mover. You know, the solar panel was invented in the US was then taken up by the Germans and Japanese for both energy independence or security purposes, but also climate purposes.
It was only in sort of the late 2010 that China became the solar giant that we know of today, and then getting there because it had to come into it sort of as a, not a last mover you know, second, third, fourth mover. It had to put in a lot of capital from the state to make it happen. So it’s heavily subsidized those industries to get them off the ground, but it learned from that process that it can do it.
And that is why China then took on the risk to become almost a first-mover on electric cars and batteries.
You know, again, if we go into the history of China, they have always felt at least the, the government the party, the communist party has felt a little bit embarrassed by the fact that their internal combustion engine cars are subpar to what is available in the West. And they’ve had to partner with all the Western companies, be it Audi of Volkswagen or General Motors to really bring technology into internal combustion engines.
But they saw an opportunity that with electric cars, they could turn that phenomenon around and become the leader of that technology. And they’ve partly succeeded. Of course, we have Telsa in the USA that continues to be the technology leader. And yet the deployment leader is still very much China.