‘When I talk to people around the world about the greening of China, most people are completely shocked that the country even cares, much less that it’s a leader in driving green innovation and implementation,’ says Peggy Liu, a Shanghai-based former venture capitalist who, since 2007, has been instrumental in catalysing societal-scale change on climate-related issues. Using her skills at bringing people together across borders and from different industries, she organised an MIT Forum on the Future of Energy – the first public dialogue between US and Chinese government officials on clean energy in China. ‘At the time both sides were realising that if China doesn’t go green and clean, then the world can’t. They agreed that we needed cooperation, starting with tech, to transfer best practice on anything that would impact emissions,’ she recalls.
The success of the conference led her to co-found NGO and non-profit organisation, JUCCCE (Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy), with Steve Papermaster, who was part of the United States President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under George W. Bush. ‘The first area US officials encouraged us to look at was a smart grid and that essentially revolutionised the spine of energy use in China,’ she says, likening it to going from dial-up to high-speed internet overnight. ‘We accelerated the adoption of the Smart Grid.’ The game-changing upgraded electrical grid wastes less energy by automatically removing faults in distribution lines within seconds and allows for a more renewable, efficient supply to be delivered at scale. An initial US$7.2 billion was put into the project (since supplemented with private investment) and the smart grid is now powering more than 500 cities.
Her second, equally ambitious project, which began in 2009, was training over 900 mayors, central government officials and state-owned enterprise executives on how to build sustainable cities. ‘First of all, we had to define what an eco city was; then we taught mayors across the country in the government academies how to develop thriving eco cities with sustainable infrastructure.’ JUCCCE was also the catalyst behind China’s decision to start using efficient lighting. GE and Philips Lighting agreed to donate 130,000 compact fluorescent light bulbs to eight cities as a way of encouraging residents to replace incandescent light bulbs – which waste 90 percent of the energy they use as heat.
Crucially, Peggy’s trademark cross-cultural approach meant that everyone; from corporate figures, to influential celebrities and the publishing industry, supported the initiative and there was a huge media blitz. Following this, the Shanghai and Beijing governments then distributed an additional four million bulbs. ‘We helped move the needle in terms of usage of compact fluorescent light bulbs,’ says Liu. ‘Now China’s building codes mandate energy efficient lighting and as a country, we are a leader in LED innovation.’
Early on, Peggy understood that eliminating climate change isn’t simply about applying technology in the right way: it also taps into the fundamental need for everyone to live in harmony, happily and healthily. It’s a mindset that echoes Quintet’s ‘For a Richer Life’ philosophy, which redefines notions of success by imagining a world where elements such as well-being, family, enjoyment and environmental impact are all in balance. That’s why the private bank has put its own carbon reduction plan in place (including removing all single-use plastics from its premises by the end of 2020) and uses its influence to actively encourage other financial services to support pro-planet business models. To continue the conversation about how we can all live more sustainably, Quintet hosted an online discussion: ‘For a Richer Planet: Carbon reduction and the role humans must play’ – which Peggy Liu took part in as a guest speaker.
So how did Peggy set about shifting the mindset of a nation? ‘I knew that we needed to address the use of energy, not just the supply, but changing people’s lifestyle is difficult,’ says Peggy, who canvassed everyone from advertising agencies to NGOs to try and understand the best way to alter behaviours. ‘You need to speak to people’s hearts, not their heads; they only change their behaviour if they feel loved and safe. No-one is going to be swayed by statistics that make them feel guilty. The key was to change our language from words such as sustainability and climate change to things like liveability, thrivability, survivability.’ In 2010, she coined the term ‘China Dream’ with the goal of ‘infiltrating people’s vision for a prosperous life with images of blue sky, nature and harmonious neighbourhoods. In other words, retelling the story of sustainability through a lens of personal prosperity.’ Three years later, ‘China Dream’ was used by Xi Jinping when he gave his first speech as Head of State.
Comparing China to the Western world’s approach to reducing carbon emissions, the difference, says Peggy, is that not only are the Chinese used to radical change at a gigabyte-scale and pace, but that the leaders have a very different philosophy. ‘Here, we think of pollution as a 20-year battle, not a political four-year battle. Xi Jinping has just announced that China is committed to going carbon neutral by 2060, which is a pretty big stake to put in the ground, but it’s a long-term vision.’ Peggy’s own actions towards a more environmentally-conscious planet continue. She is on the board of Project Drawdown where she was involved with Food Heroes, an educational curriculum created in collaboration with game gurus, artists, nutritionists and doctors, that aims to shape the eating habits of children between age five and eight, through a set of fun, cartoon characters. ‘Eliminating food waste and adopting a plant-rich diet are two of the biggest interventions that can help reverse climate change,’ she says.
This year, as well as spending the majority of her time working on the medical response to Covid-19, she has also been planning a new project: co-creating an exciting pilot eco-community for the Navajo nation in the US. ‘In China, what I learnt was that everything starts with a pilot community - something tangible that shows the possibilities of what a new reality could look like,’ she concludes. ‘Societal change is like a tornado that gathers energy and pace, reshaping the land with its momentum.’
Peggy Liu took part in Quintet’s webinar ‘For a Richer Planet: Carbon reduction and the role humans must play’. If you missed the discussion, click here to watch a recording of the full event.