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‘Development can be sustainable’

19 April 2022
Yuli Shan
Yuli Shan

Yuli Shan, a talented, young climate change and energy policy researcher from China, is now a research fellow in Groningen. His ambitions towards sustainability reach further than just climate change.

Groningen is a green city, literally and environmentally speaking, says Chinese academic Yuli Shan. And he is the one to know. Having published around 100 articles on climate change and sustainability in high-impact journals and having studied the environmental footprints of cities across the globe, he can make a valid judgment. ‘Groningen is doing well, all things considered’, he says. ‘One of my Master’s students just finished a project on the prospects of Groningen being carbon-neutral by 2035 – and it should be possible. Groningen is scoring well in terms of clean energy and stimulating green modes of transport, like cycling.’

Have you always been environmentally-minded, for instance when you were a child?

‘Not really, to be honest. I knew the environment was important, but when I was a child, I never imagined that I would devote myself to research in this area. My passion started when I found a book in my Master’s supervisor’s office. It was the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I read it and became fascinated by the possibility of calculating emissions. I started becoming interested in China’s energy use and coal-based power plants. I wondered, what could China do to bring these emissions down? That is how it all started.’

Why did you come to Groningen?

‘My current supervisor in Groningen is Klaus Hubacek, a globally well-known ecological economist. He was one of my collaborators during my PhD research. We published one paper together in Science Advances, which is a family journal of Science. When he moved from the University of Maryland to the University of Groningen in 2019, he asked me if I wanted to come as well. I agreed.’

What is the focus of your research in Groningen?

‘I study emissions from different sectors and forms of energy in countries and cities around the world, particularly in developing countries. I analyse these data and pass the results on to governments, including local governments, such as city councils. If they know what the greatest sources of emissions are, be it steel factories or power plants, they can design policies to target these super-emitters. The challenge is to come up with smart solutions. Just closing everything down is not an option: people still need energy, products, and employment. But it is possible to design strategies that improve the efficiency of energy production and consumption and bring down emissions without compromising development. The two can go hand in hand.’

You also study the correlation between the COVID-19 pandemic and global emissions, right?

‘Yes. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the patterns of economic structure, energy demand, and emissions around the world have been drastically altered. Understanding the mechanisms and the possible impacts of the pandemic measures on global emissions is timely and vital for global climate change mitigation and for the achievement of the Paris Agreement goals. Aiming at this research gap, I simulate the disturbance of global carbon emissions caused by the COVID-19 lockdown and possible economic recovery.’

Are you teaching as well?

‘Yes, here in Groningen I am teaching for 30 percent of my time. I also organize an annual summer school for Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD students in China. The summer school focuses on sustainable cities. We work on real-world cases and calculate and analyse emissions and carbon cycles in general. This is a collaboration with several Chinese universities. During one of the schools, we calculated the environmental impact of single-use tableware used in Chinese takeaway restaurants. The amount we calculated was really staggering: 323 kilotons of tableware and packaging waste in 2018. We concluded that the amount of waste could be reduced by up to 92 percent if these restaurants used reusable tableware.’

What drives you in your career?

‘Climate change is happening around the world as we speak. It is one of the most urgent challenges in the world today, even in the face of the coronavirus and war. It is our generation’s task to do something about it. Especially in developing countries, the debate of emissions versus development is always there. In my view, we cannot restrict the development of countries. But the development itself does not drive emissions. It all depends on how these countries develop. In China, emissions actually went down by almost four percent compared to the GDP in 2021, thanks to a reduction in the use of coal and an increase in sustainable technologies. It is true that the GDP is still rising in China, but the important thing is that there is a decoupling between development and emissions, which is crucial. Development can be sustainable.’

Are you an optimist in this regard?

‘It is difficult to say if I am an optimist or not. Some countries are moving in the right direction, but some are not. It all also depends on the speed of the transition to a net-zero emission society; the speed with which we develop new technologies, including negative-emission technologies.’

Do you like Groningen?

‘I like Groningen a lot. What do I like the most? All of it. The green parks, the nice old houses, and the narrow streets from centuries ago. Being able to walk everywhere. It is all very beautiful. There is just one thing—the food… In China, there are takeaway restaurants everywhere. Here, if you live in a residential neighbourhood, it is very hard to find to a place with restaurants nearby. A friend once said to me: “Oh, it’s easy. You just take this one bus, transfer, take another bus, walk a bit, and there’s your restaurant.” Ha! That would take half an hour! In China, it would be five minutes. On the other hand, what I like is that many restaurants in Groningen use paper tableware and paper straws for takeaways.’

What are your plans for the future?

‘I do not know yet. Let’s just say I will continue my academic career. I am very happy in my field of research. Maybe someday I will move to other places in the world to experience different lifestyles.’

About Yuli Shan

Yuli Shan (born in 1990) studied energy use and policy at Fudan University in his home country, China. He obtained a PhD in Climate Change Economics at the University of East Anglia (Great Britain) in 2018. In 2019, Yuli moved to Groningen for a Faculty Research Fellowship. His research focuses on greenhouse gas emission accounting, climate change economics, and sustainable development, with a special focus on cities in developing countries. He was a Global Highly Cited Researcher both in 2020 and 2021.

Text: Nienke Beintema
Photo: Corné Sparidaens
Source: Broerstraat 5

Last modified:20 April 2022 09.05 a.m.
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