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An illustrated portrait of Liu Hongqiao. Rebecca Clarke for Vox

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Liu Hongqiao is holding China accountable for its role in the climate crisis

The journalist is covering the role that the world’s largest carbon emitter plays in the climate fight.

Perhaps no country will play a bigger role in fighting climate change than China, the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases. But without a thorough understanding of China’s approach, the people living within and outside of its borders won’t be able to ensure it does what it needs to. That’s where people like reporter Liu Hongqiao come in.

Born and raised in China, Liu wrote for the Southern Metropolis Daily and Caixin Media, some of the country’s premier investigative news outlets. Beginning in 2010, along with her burgeoning coverage of climate change in China, she investigated a slew of environmental issues, including unsafe drinking water, rice laced with toxins, and contaminated soil. As a result of pushing the government to address these problems, she later won journalism awards for her impactful environmental reporting.

However, since current President Xi Jinping took power at the end of 2012, the Chinese media ecosystem has become much more censored and difficult to operate in for investigative reporters like Liu. Two years later, she temporarily left the industry to work as an independent consultant in China, and later in Europe.

Liu advised NGOs and policymakers alike on environmental and climate issues in China for more than seven years, focusing particularly on issues related to water risks. In 2017, Liu then moved to Paris, where she still lives today, and has continued consulting there. But her work outside of journalism only confirmed to her that reporting is the best avenue to highlight issues related to climate and the environment in China.

“How do you use the same type of knowledge, capacity, intelligence to inform policymaking, inform the public, and inform civil society groups who are pushing for a better society?” Liu told me. “For me, journalism is really the most powerful and effective tool to do that.”

Liu saw her opportunity back into climate journalism when Xi announced at the 2020 UN General Assembly that China would aim for carbon neutrality by 2060. Despite the magnitude of this announcement, she found much of the press in the West did not handle the topic with the nuance it needed. “We need to push China for higher ambitions, I acknowledge that, but to do that, you have to understand what is actually happening on the ground in the mind of [Chinese] policymakers,” Liu told me.

So in 2021, she joined Carbon Brief, the award-winning climate newsroom based in the UK. There, she was a founding member of its China reporting project, where she reported on what China’s commitments actually meant in practice as well as how China could support the Global South in addressing climate change.

After a year at Carbon Brief, Liu left to become an independent reporter. She recently launched Shuang Tan, a newsletter tracking China’s dual decarbonization goals of peaking its carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2060. Being a one-person newsroom, though, has not been without challenges (the newsletter is currently on hiatus due to a lack of financial support). But Liu said she eventually plans to build out a team.

Above all, she hopes to serve as a bridge to facilitate understanding and empower good policymaking related to China’s decarbonization. Her work in this regard culminated last year when she participated in the TED Countdown Summit, where she spoke about how China can live up to its climate ambitions.

“Whether it comes in terms of climate diplomacy, cooperation, or competition, however you frame it, you have to understand the biggest [carbon] emitter of the world,” Liu told me. “What works, what doesn’t work, [and] what can be taken away as lessons for other developing countries that will also go through this process.”

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