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Q&A With Jennifer Turner

Jennifer L. Turner has been director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. for 13 years. Her current research focuses on environmental activism in China and how water use and energy are inextricably linked.


What is the China Environment Forum?

My project—the China Environment Forum—prides itself on being the “go-to” source for information on energy and environmental issues in China. We create meetings, exchanges and publications that create dialogues on a broad range of issues, from clean energy development to pollution and biodiversity challenges. Most recently, we have explored China’s energy-water confrontations in our multimedia reporting and by convening the initiative “Choke Point: China.”


Tell us more about Choke Point: China.

We began this project five years ago with Circle of Blue, an NGO founded by journalists and scientists that produces reliable and actionable on-the-ground information about the world’s resource crises, particularly water. With Circle of Blue, we were the first to report on the significant thirst of China’s coal sector and a very energy-intensive water sector. We used our reporting to hold workshops with key policy, research, NGO and business communities in China as well as in the U.S., which also faces considerable water-energy nexus challenges. Our work catalyzed China’s top energy think tank and the Ministry of Water Resources to start investigating the coal-water nexus. What was most exciting was to see how the U.S. and Chinese governments agreed to create a new Water-Energy Program as part of the November 2014 clean energy and climate agreement.


What implications do China’s problems with pollution have for the rest of the world?

China is the world’s factory and at least 20 percent of the country’s electricity, which is mainly generated from coal, is used to create products for export. So, the world’s hunger for cheaper products clearly plays a role in China’s pollution challenges. China’s pollution mainly impacts Chinese citizens but, of course, neighboring countries are also impacted. China is now the world’s number one emitter of carbon dioxide. That said, China has been taking major steps to start shifting away from coal and has become the world’s leader in clean energy investments and installed wind and (soon) solar power.


Is the international community engaged with China in addressing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions? 

Yes, China has been expanding bilateral programs with the U.S., Europe and other countries to address pollution and energy challenges. Very important have been the U.S. environmental and energy NGOs and foundations that have worked to help build the capacity of the government, researchers and NGOs to improve policies, regulations and transparency around pollution and energy issues. They likely played a key role in helping the government take some very impressive steps to shift the economy to being more energy-efficient and dependent on cleaner energy. China has now committed itself to limit coal consumption. Public pressure to fix the air pollution problem is pushing this as well. 


What will you be speaking about during your upcoming visit to India?

I will be talking about water-energy-food confrontations in China, offering comparisons with similar trends in the U.S., Australia and India, where we have also worked with Circle of Blue to do water-energy-food reporting. I will talk about the pollution challenges in China, but I will also highlight some of the impressive shifts that are occurring in China to really address the problems.


What lessons can India draw from China’s experiences of dealing with environmental challenges?

China and India face many similar challenges—big population and massive and growing energy hunger. India is now the number one importer of coal. It is striking that China is where we are seeing a push to unseat “King Coal” and shift away from the “pollute first/clean up later” mentality. There are clearly plenty of enforcement gaps in China, but it is encouraging to see how the pollution problem has pushed some very promising reforms, such as information transparency and decisions to make local officials more accountable in delivering on pollution targets. I am looking forward to having conversations in India to learn more about the energy-pollution dynamics there.


Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.