“The World’s Most Important Story”

Jonathan Watts has spent the past nine years covering China and the environment for the Guardian. As he prepares to move to a new job covering South America for the paper, he delivered a parting speech at the 2012 China Environmental Press Awards in Beijing on April 10. The speech was posted by China Dialogue, one of the sponsors of the awards:

When I arrived in China in 2003, I believed I had the best job in the world, working for my favourite newspaper in the biggest nation at arguably the most dramatic phase of transformation in its history. I still clearly recall my first few weeks and months here. Like many newcomers, I delighted at discoveries of Chinese literature and Daoist philosophy, Beijing parks, the edgy eccentricity of Dashanzi and the Chinese language, though I never managed to master it.

That was a thrilling time – as Beijing prepared for The Olympics and a new leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao held out the prospect of change. My mantra in those early years was that in China “nothing is certain, so everything is possible”.

This was true for the environment, which was horrible. I very quickly came to the conclusion that the situation was so appalling in China that this was the country most likely to make a change for the better. I told journalist friends at the time of my hopes for a green revolution here but they were more focused on politics and hopes for reform.

But when I look back at the past nine years, the environment and the economy have been bigger drivers of change. It has been a remarkable period. Let me just give you a few numbers to hammer home the point: in the past nine years, China’s GDP has quadrupled; incomes have risen three-fold and car ownership five-fold; coal consumption has more than doubled and carbon-dioxide emissions have followed suit to become easily the biggest in the world.

Watts is the author of When a Billion Chinese Jump, which explores the relationship between China’s economic growth and its massive ecological challenges. Read more by and about Jonathan Watts via CDT, including a podcast interview we conducted with him in 2006. Read more about China’s ecological challenges in CDT’s special Environment section.