The Greening of Asia — An Interview with Mark Clifford

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Mark L. Clifford is executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council. Clifford’s impressive resume includes periods spent as the South China Morning Post’s editor-in-chief and as Asia regional editor for Business Week. He’s been based in Asia since 1987, when he moved to Seoul to serve as a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He chairs the editorial board and is a regular contributor to the Asian Review of Books. I caught up with Clifford via email and asked a series of questions about both his new book, The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia’s Environmental Emergency, and recent news stories related to the topics his book addresses:

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: What is your book’s biggest contribution to the debate on Asia and environmental issues?  

MARK L. CLIFFORD: The Greening of Asia looks at the key role that businesses are playing to solve Asia’s environmental emergency. Businesses have money, technology, and people — and they are set up to get things done, to turn challenges into opportunities. Government policies are, of course, critical — governments need to set rules. Individual efforts and actions by NGOs and other parts of civil society are important. But the uniquely positive role that business can play is too often overlooked. Through detailed case studies in a variety of areas, I show why businesses are making efforts in everything from renewable energy to greener cities and buildings to more sustainable tropical agricultural practices. Sustainable growth is not just feasible — if this is going to be the Asian century, greener growth is mandatory.

In a related vein, what sets your book apart most, whether in terms of approach or argument, from some of the other books that have come out in recent years?  Obviously, you are concerned with more than just China, but as books on that country are the ones I know best and perhaps of most interest to readers of this blog, how does your work diverge most from, say, that of Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump and Craig Simons in The Devouring Dragon? And do you draw heavily on those books or others published a bit earlier by people like Elizabeth Economy and Judith Shapiro?

China is key — it burns half of all the world’s coal and is responsible for almost one-third of global carbon dioxide emissions — and it is a big part of my book. Big as China is, it’s not all of Asia. My reporting spanned eight countries, from Japan to India to Indonesia — and, of course, China. I take the crisis as a given but try to point the way for a way out by looking at innovative, market-based solutions. Books by Liz Economy and Vaclav Smil lay the foundation for understanding China’s crisis, and Judith Shapiro’s China’s Environmental Challenges is a good up-to-date summary of many issues. Jonathan Watts’s book contains superb reportage that provides a vivid sense of China today. My book draws primarily on my own reporting combined with primary documents — and, of course, it is focused mostly on looking for solutions and looking at the ability of businesses to solve problems when the right economic and policy incentives are in place.

Since your book came out, there have been several news stories that have put Asia’s environmental challenges into the headlines, from the furor over the Chinese documentary Under the Dome, which Maura Cunningham wrote about for this blog, to reports underscoring that Delhi’s smog is even worse than the more commonly commented on Beijing variety. Could you comment on either of these stories, bringing in their relevance for your book?

Under the Dome was downloaded more than 300 million times during the few weeks it was available in China. [Note: 200 million downloads is the figure that is commonly used but according to our research it was more than 300 million]. This confirms the depth of public concern — and is a powerful reminder to Chinese authorities that they must meet public aspirations for cleaner air and a better environment. The revitalized interest in New Delhi’s air pollution is an interesting reminder that even in an open society, environmental issues are often fairly far down the list of issues that concern governments but that public concern can spike unpredictably. It will be interesting to see if India’s impressive investment in solar and wind reaches the ambitious targets set by Prime Minister Modi’s government — as well as the fate of his plan to dramatically increase coal production.

The Pope’s statements on climate change have also made news recently. Do you see his comments as being important in Asia, and, if so, in particular countries?

There is little debate about climate change in Asia, for there is almost universal acceptance that it is a serious problem. Asian countries like the Philippines — also the only majority Catholic country in Asia — are literally on the front lines of climate change, bearing the impact of more frequent and more severe storms. The Pope’s encyclical amplifies the sense of urgency, but it doesn’t have the same direct political impact that it does in, for example, the United States.

Word will come soon from the IOC on whether Beijing will be chosen as the host city for an upcoming Winter Olympics. Are there lessons about the environmental costs and issues associated with the 2008 Summer Games held in that city?

The 2008 Summer Games provided some interesting lessons. In 2008 there was a serious cleanup effort, one which showed the strengths and weaknesses of China’s top-down approach. Vehicle use was restricted, factories shut, clouds seeded — skies were reasonably blue, the rain fell at convenient times and it looked to many people as if the city had turned the corner and was about to embark on a path of more sustainable environmental policies. These hopes were dashed when it became apparent that the improvements were simply a matter of short-term measures. Shutting down factories and severely restricting traffic gave people a glimpse of what government was capable of. While the campaign raised awareness and was a short-term success, it didn’t create fundamental changes. Air quality has worsened dramatically. In recent years, China has implemented more sweeping changes, from extraordinary investments in wind and solar power to tougher restrictions on pollution sources in cities like Beijing.

Water is a key issue for the winter Olympics. If Beijing used the games to seriously reform its water policies, it would be a remarkable Olympic legacy.

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