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Building Bridges: Teaching China’s Youth about Energy & Climate Change

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Ricky Perry

As a newly minted graduate from the University of Washington, I had never envisioned myself lecturing on the topic of energy. That changed when a friend reached out to me with an offer to be a Core Lecturer at the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China (HSYLC), hosted by the Harvard Association for U.S.-China Relations. Every year, for nine days in August, over 1500 of China’s top high school students convene in three summit sites in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. Students are taught a variety of subjects, seminar style, and engage in a myriad of activities from speaker sessions to extracurriculars and research projects, all with the aim of strengthening the bonds between China’s next generation of leaders and America’s most prestigious university. This year HSYLC went 100% virtual, allowing me the opportunity to teach these students from the comfort of my living room.

As a passionate environmentalist and energy professional, I saw the opportunity to influence the trajectory of China’s energy future through China’s young leaders. No doubt, China is a critical country in humanity’s fight against climate change. Not only is China the biggest global polluter, but it also has the most developed and robust renewable energy resources in the world. China’s energy dominance is present in the U.S., where we rely on imported solar panels and wind turbines to “green” our own grid. Moreover, China is exporting its energy industry throughout Asia, Europe, and Africa. The policies, technologies, and business practices tied to these projects will dictate the future of economic decarbonization.

The course I taught for HSYLC, Global Energy Systems in the 21st Century, consisted of three lectures and included a homework assignment and a final test. Its goal was to build students’ energy literacy, communicate the current state of the global energy system, and chart a path towards decarbonizing economies. Day one was dedicated to a climate change reality-check, that the current global energy system is over 80% fossil fuels, and while renewable energy is growing, its pace only puts a small dent in carbon emission reductions. On the second day students were taught energy literacy: units of measurement, graph reading and Sankey Diagrams, and the characteristics of the prominent energy resources that make up the current system. The final day was dedicated to understanding how the global clean energy transformation may occur. Students learned about electricity grid load dynamics, building true substitutes for fossil fuel electricity generation, and promising new technologies like distributed energy resources, battery storage, and smart buildings.

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Through all the lectures and office hours, I was impressed by the awareness and proactivity of my students on climate change issues. Whether it was participating on a Model United Nations panel on Energy Transformation for Sustainable Development or working in high school environmental clubs, my students were passionate about environmentalism.

When presented with surprising information, my students asked probing questions to build a stronger understanding of the situation. While we were focusing on reading Sankey Diagrams or energy flow charts, for example, students were most surprised by the sheer amount of energy wasted throughout the energy supply chain. In the U.S., a whopping 68% of all energy is actually rejected energy, or energy that gets wasted through various inefficiencies, compared to China where only 52% is rejected energy. Students quickly dug into the details about the factors that may contribute to this issue and the differences between our two countries. Energy waste highlights the need for new technologies in transportation, innovations in the built environment like repurposing heat waste, and distributed energy resources for on-sight electricity production.

China can and will take part in the United States’ transformation to a low carbon economy. The United States can also take part in theirs. Climate Change is a global problem that needs a global solution and, by building bridges between our two countries over the long term through trust and mutual goals, together we can slow climate change on a global scale. I left the class inspired that young leaders in China care about climate change and economic decarbonization. While the current leaders of the U.S. and China seem to only moderately recognize climate change as a threat to our shared humanity, I am confident that future leaders will be committed to facing it head-on.