Page 2 of 2 Broad's Zhang builds for a cleaner world
By John Haffner
He details the many aspects of the environmental crisis confronting us: not
only greenhouse gases, but also forms of ocean pollution and health-related
pollution that "break the natural balance". When this balance is broken, says
Zhang, "there could be diseases and disorders of human reproductive functions."
Credit: A Broad employee presents company equipment. Courtesy of Broad.
Zhang takes a machine from his desk, explaining that it measures formaldehyde.
He pulls a pear from a drawer and digs beneath the skin with his nail, holding
the machine to the exposed inside. The
measurement jumps immediately to 0.66 parts per million (ppm) and keeps
climbing to 2.33 ppm. He explains that some fruit producers in China use
formaldehyde (as part of the packaging and shipping process) so that fruit will
keep longer without spoiling, and he claims that the average Chinese may be
exposed to many times what is thought to be the safe level of formaldehyde.
Next he produces a machine that measures particulates in the air. Inside his
office, with an air filter and closed windows, the machine registers low levels
(but not zero) for particulates of all sizes. He then opens the window and asks
me to hold the machine outside. Immediately the numbers begin climbing rapidly.
Larger sizes of pollutants (0.5, 1.0 μm) increase by an average of
500-fold. More disturbingly, the smallest size pollutant measured, 0.3 μm,
jumps from a reading of just above 5,000 indoors to more than 428,000 outdoors
- a more than 800-fold increase. The smaller the particle, the more dangerous
it is to human health.
Zhang explains that Germany's outdoor particulates at the 0.3 μm level
would be only two to six times the reading in his filtered office - not 800
times. The vast majority of this air pollution, he says, comes from power
plants, steel production, and cars. And Changsha is not the worst of it, I ask?
"Changsha's pollution," he says, "is around the middle level of cities in China
- better than Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, or Chengdu."
Sustainability requires sacrifice
For Zhang, we cannot continue like this. We face a binary choice: "There are
only two ways to regain balance for the planet: humanity's self-discipline in
its activities or mass scale death of the population."
Moving beyond the typically sanitized rhetoric of companies known for green
technologies, Zhang continues: "In my opinion, if the consumption pattern does
not change, humanity will be destroyed sooner or later, maybe in 100 or 200
years. Disasters will kill most of the people, and the planet will gain balance
I ask Zhang what can be done - and in particular, what governments can do. He
answers that "there should be policies and standards to tell people how much
they should consume." Technologies alone cannot save us, he argues. Even a
proliferation of companies like Broad will not be enough to save the planet. We
need to become "a low-carbon society", he says, but even if green technologies
become much more advanced, the current direction is something the world "cannot
What we need, says Zhang, is "a revolution in peoples' attitudes towards life".
This revolution must include a global imperative to minimize carbon emissions
per person: "If we are moving towards a planet of 10 billion people, we should
reduce emissions to 0.5 tons per person, to meet the hypothesis of limiting
temperature increase to another two degrees - and even then we will already be
And then Zhang uses a word that politicians take pains to avoid, no matter
whether they are Chinese or Western: "There should be sacrifice. If there is no
sacrifice among people in developed countries, especially wealthy people in
developed countries, the world has no hope."
Credit: The Broad motto: "We preserve life." Courtesy of Broad.
Zhang singles out the West not only because its emissions are much higher per
capita, but also because people from developing countries "want to live like
people from developed countries". But he is no less concerned about attitudes
and trends in China. The fundamental problem everywhere, he says, including
China, is the blind pursuit of economic development. "All the standards the
governments are looking for are about GDP, or public income," but these
measures, he says, only capture part of the story of human needs and wants.
I ask Zhang whether he is optimistic or pessimistic that such a revolution is
possible, and his response is instructive: "I don't have an attitude towards
this. I just try my best to promote my understanding." He predicts that more
and more people will come to share this view, "but for now we don't have many".
He acknowledges that he is both awed by and fearful of the pace of change in
his country: "I see from changes in China that humanity has infinite power to
create. But infinite creative ability," he says, "can also lead to infinite
We talk about the sweep of Chinese history, of how Chinese attitudes toward
nature have changed. I point out that whereas Mao regarded nature as a hostile
force to be controlled, earlier conceptions placed human beings within the
natural order. I ask whether China could rediscover this older view, and
whether it would help.
Zhang seems to brighten at this: "If foreigners can understand this aspect of
Chinese culture, then we have a chance. This is a very central problem."
He mentions the Tang Dynasty (618CE to 907CE), and goes back even further:
"This concept of people living in harmony with nature comes from 2,000 years
ago. The other Chinese traditional concept is to be satisfied with what you
Zhang sums up his philosophy: "The most important change that people can make
in their lives is to understand the internal meaning of these ideas.
Technologies can be refined to save the environment, but without these ideas of
life, we will not solve these problems."
Thanks to Bob Zhou for his assistance with translation and transcription.
Based in China, John Haffner is a business executive, consultant, and
writer engaged in a variety of clean energy projects in Asia and Canada. As
vice president for Bridge Renewable Energy Technologies, he is developing
biomass gasification projects in the Philippines and Indonesia. As a
consultant, he has recently advised on projects related to the smart grid,
low-carbon transportation fuels, and climate change adaptation. As a writer, he
is author of a series on Chinese clean energy leaders for Policy Innovations,
and was lead author of Japan's Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship
(Anthem Press, 2009). Haffner was a 2008 World Fellow at Yale University, and
in 2009–2010 was co-leader of a Yale University-funded project examining
renewable energy innovation in Asia.