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The Big Read

Is China’s iron fist approach the answer to the climate?

The state’s highly authoritarian crackdown on coronavirus helped it regain control of the pandemic. The same logic could be applied to the war on pollution, says Andy Martin

Clouded past: in 2014, air pollution levels in parts of China were 45 times the recommended daily limit

We know that toxic emissions from coal and gas and oil are heating up the climate. The Arctic is melting. Siberia is having the hottest summer ever. We are setting fire to the planet. So what are we going to do about it? China has a simple and brutal answer: the “iron fist”. For the purpose of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, they decided to clear the air beforehand by simply shutting down factories around the city (and tidying up the streets by “relocating” vagrants, beggars and other “undesirables”). But come 2014, air pollution levels had crept back up – parts of the country were at 45 times the recommended daily limit. So the iron fist cracked down again: they banned coal-fired plants and restricted road traffic. They stopped home fires burning. Within a few years’ air pollution had massively improved and 20 million people in Beijing were living 3.3 years longer, on average.

Could the west – or the whole world – do with a good dose of the iron fist too? Do central governments need to get more communist to have any hope of turning back the tide? China talked about declaring a “war” on pollution. The fact is we are now at war with ourselves. We are the “anthropos” in Anthropocene. We live in a fossil economy. So if we want to save our own habitat we have to take restrictive measures against ourselves, like Harry Houdini tying himself up in knots (and then, hopefully, making his escape). Sound familiar?

When China first started “locking down” whole cities in the wake of coronavirus, we tended to think that was something that could only be accomplished in a highly authoritarian state. And yet we eventually adopted exactly the same policy, relying rather more on compliance and cooperation than actually barricading people up in their own homes (as happened in China). The iron fist in a velvet glove. Doesn’t the same logic apply to the war on pollution?

World-wide problem: the internet uses 10 per cent of the world’s electricity and emits as much CO2 as the pre-Covid aviation industry (Getty)

The truth is China is far from solving its own problems. Air pollution in Beijing is still more than twice that in London, for example. And they outsource a lot of emissions. Their blind-eye approach to the treatment of animals has almost certainly led to the current pandemic. But there remains the powerful argument that capitalism itself is to blame for our ills. The industrial revolution is like a huge old steam train that digs up vast amounts of the earth and shovels it into the boiler to fuel our progress and spits out carbon residue into the air. And let’s not kid ourselves that the digital revolution is much better. So at least we can work from home and cut down on transport use, but the most misleading word in our current techno-vocabulary is “cloud”. There is no cloud. To restate what everybody knows but perhaps forgets: the cloud is a metaphor, verging on a myth, a smart marketing misappropriation of thin air. In reality, there are only immense data centres, vast warehouses populated by processors and disk drives that require a lot of cooling.

The internet is now burning up so much electricity it has become a major contributor to climate change. According to the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, the internet is using up 10 per cent of the world’s electricity and emitting as much CO2 as the pre-Covid aviation industry. In 1992, global internet traffic was 100 gigabytes a day. By 2022 it will be 150,700 gigabytes a second. Binge-watching is scorching the planet as much as coal-fired power plants and gas central heating.

If you compare it with Covid-19, the big difference is there is a solution to the pandemic. It’s called a vaccine. If we can come up with one, that would be a silver bullet. But climate is not a single problem – it’s an accumulation of problems

In The Progress of This Storm, the ecologist Andreas Malm, who thinks that more Marxism is the answer, suggests: “The only meaningful thing to do now is to let go of everything else and physically cut off fossil fuel combustion, deflate the tyres, block the runways, lay siege to the platforms, invade the mines.” To which you would have to add: send in the troops to switch off everyone’s computer, including Andreas Malm’s.

The broadly anti-capitalist agenda of green parties and Extinction Rebellion looks, on the face of it, like an attractive option, until the iron fist starts smashing your phone too. In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein foresees “a battle between capitalism and the planet”. I think she is right to say that “climate change could be a galvanising force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather but with societies that are safer and fairer in all sorts of other ways as well”. But she also writes a lot of blank cheques to anonymous “mass movements”. The fact is that renewables don’t just renew themselves: they have to be produced, which requires capital and creativity and people with the vision and will to make things happen. Central government is quite good at stopping stuff but not so good at starting anything (as our current experience demonstrates). Extinction Rebellion is similarly good at staging street parties and blocking traffic. I’m not personally against that but it can’t be the whole answer.

It’s not just the beach at Bournemouth that has been hit by human-engineered pollution. Plastic bags and wrappers have been found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, at a depth of some 36,000 feet. In the other direction, we can find tons of rubbish (and more than a few dead bodies) on Mount Everest. We are trashing all the most remote and pristine places. Similarly, our carbon emissions are highly distributed across the planet. But then our decarbonisation response needs to be just as distributed.

We are trashing the most remote and pristine places, including Mount Everest (AFP/Getty)

One of the problems is the word “climate”. The word itself is singular. But it’s an umbrella term that encompasses a vast spectrum of phenomena: just about everything terrestrial – and even extra-terrestrial – impinges on and participates in the climate. What I eat for breakfast is climate (since it’s directly affected by our system of farming). As Jonathan Safran Foer neatly puts it: “We are the weather”. When I spoke to Iggy Bassi recently, I noticed he doesn’t like to use the phrase “climate change” or “climate crisis”: he prefers “climate security”.

In 2010, aged 40, Bassi decided he’d had enough of the city and went off to start a farm in Ghana instead. It was going well: he established the second largest rice farm in west Africa and a network of 800 farmers. But every so often there would be freak climatic events, massive storms or gales (one of which blew down their grain silos), that his fellow farmers would call “acts of God”. It occurred to Bassi that the simple fact was that these “acts” had not been forecast. But, if you had enough data, maybe they could be.

A woman has her temperature checked before entering a shopping area in Beijing (Getty)

At present we are faced with a massive disconnect between knowing that there is a climate change problem (unless your name happens to be Donald Trump) and knowing quite what to do about it. “If you compare it with Covid-19,” says Bassi, “the big difference is there is a solution to the pandemic. It’s called a vaccine. If we can come up with one, that would be a silver bullet. But climate is not a single problem – it’s an accumulation of problems.” His start-up, Cervest, in collaboration with the Alan Turing Institute, is not offering a vaccine, but at least something like track and trace and tips on how to self-isolate.

Since the rise of agriculture, but especially since the industrial revolution, a rift has opened up between humankind and the rest of the natural world. The question is, can it be healed? Naomi Klein would say that we’re in a death spiral and that the only hope is to get rid of the old system. Bassi has a less apocalyptic perspective. “There’s an aggressive side to capitalism that needs to be fixed,” he says. “But we’ve tried other systems and they don’t work.” He’s not a fan of the iron fist approach. He thinks that capitalism can get more eco-friendly. Big business is not in favour of climate change because they’re adversely affected by climate too. Which is why L’Oréal, for example, one of the biggest beauty companies on Earth, is doing something about greening up its annual 7 billion products and going carbon neutral. Now if only Coca-Cola and KFC would follow suit.

The Cervest website enables you to zero in on any building anywhere on Earth – or field or river or railway line or power plant – and find out what the chances are of getting hit by floods, fire, pollution, disease, or flat-out annihilation. Their chief technical officer Alex Rahin uses a disturbing metaphor (particularly if you are a frog) for the climate emergency. “It’s like you’ve put the frog in the saucepan. He’s swimming around but you’re heating it up. It’s not boiling yet, but the temperature is getting too hot for comfort. We are at the level of where it hurts.” Their database offers a quantified way to measure the impact of climatic events on physical assets before the “acts of God” actually happen and then do something about it. Rahin says: “It’s almost a silly question to ask, ‘What do you do to protect against climate change?’ It requires everyone to do something. We’re showing a window on the future. If we can bring toxic emissions down by 2 per cent … It’s better than putting a gun at someone’s head.”

The only meaningful thing to do now is to let go of everything else and physically cut off fossil fuel combustion, deflate the tyres, block the runways, lay siege to the platforms, invade the mines

One thing that Covid-19 has brought home with a vengeance is the sheer importance of numbers. Thanks to all those daily briefings and graphs, we are now fully conscious of the significance of statistics and modelling when it comes to life, death and… football. Mark Girolami is a fanatic when it comes to numbers, being director of the data-centric engineering programme run by the Alan Turing Institute and Lloyd’s Register Foundation. But he is also a football fan, having been born in Glasgow to an Italian family. He once worked at Celtic FC, bringing the data science approach to football, fitting everyone with GPS trackers and measuring the power in players’ legs. More recently he has been pulled into consulting with Public Health England on the spread of the pandemic and collaborating with Iggy Bassi on running simulations of the fate of the world. “It’s all about the data,” he says simply.

Since the climate is everything combined, if you want to measure the climate, you have to measure everything. Measuring is the necessary condition of mitigating. Girolami quotes Lord Kelvin, the great Victorian scientist: “If you want to improve anything, if you want to understand it, you have to measure it.” He has been putting together data from weather stations and traffic cameras to track pollution levels in London during lockdown. “The air quality has improved dramatically under Covid,” he says. “But there is a cost. Now we need to work out how to do that again without a pandemic.”

Naomi Klein foresees a ‘battle between capitalism and the planet’ (Getty)

Girolami has also been counting bats. Bats are a barometer of the climate health of a particular region, so it’s important to get a fix on their numbers. Girolami devised a bat app based on acoustics and a system of citizen scientists to try and add up the number of bats all around Europe. The good news is that the population of common species is going up. Hopefully, post-coronavirus, fewer people will be eating bats than of old. One alternative option is urban farms. Which sounds like an oxymoron but isn’t. Until I spoke to Girolami I had no idea that there were underground farms in London. There are great green fields of cress (not to mention broccoli and radish) growing in disused Tube stations. Girolami is an enthusiast. “The space is there. And you can control the amount of light to optimise the yield.”

Girolami admits that these are only “adaptations” to climate change. They’re pointing in the right general direction. “A major intervention requires collective political will and a concerted response on a global scale. But Covid-19 shows that it’s possible. It shows there are things that can be done to mitigate climate change if we keep on measuring and observing.”

Underground farms have been set up in disused Tube stations and tunnels across London (Getty)

The Cervest-Turing collaboration is an example of the kind of public/private cross-fertilisation that we are going to need more of post-Covid. Just as our macro-knowledge of the climate is made up of an infinite number of micro-measurements, so, too, are we going to need an endless multitude of small fixes rather than one big fix. Climate change, as Bassi says, “is the biggest challenge of my generation – maybe any generation”. And there is a financial imperative to do something about it. “The cost of prevention is way lower than the costs of those risks materialising. Imagine a 3-degree rise in temperature over a century. The costs would be monumental. You would have to completely rethink plants, buildings, cities.”

Nitrogen dioxide is down by 27 per cent in central London since March. But then the Ultra Low Emission Zone had brought the figure down by a breath-giving 44 per cent even before lockdown. The climate simulations that people like Iggy Bassi and Mark Girolami are devising are like alternate visions of the future. We are facing a fork in the road. Our planet is like the cat in Schrödinger’s experiment: at the moment it is both alive and dead. When the box is finally opened up, we can be the dead cat, or we can be alive and kicking. It’s not inevitable.

China is like a microcosm of the world. It is the world’s largest producer of nearly everything and therefore, at the same time, is also the world’s largest rubbish dump. The highly centralised iron fist approach is not going to seem too congenial if you’re living in Hong Kong. But some variation on the hybrid communist/capitalist system is the future. And the good news is that of the top 10 wind turbine manufacturers in the world in 2020, six of them are Chinese. If it’s broke, fix it.