Our favourite stories of 2023

Reflecting on China Dialogue’s ongoing mission to increase understanding and awareness of the planet’s challenges, our editors showcase their favourite article of the year
<p>A tourist in the Chinese city of Chongqing struggles in abnormally high temperatures in August this year. 2023 was the hottest year in recorded human history. (Image: Alamy)</p>

A tourist in the Chinese city of Chongqing struggles in abnormally high temperatures in August this year. 2023 was the hottest year in recorded human history. (Image: Alamy)

In this year – the hottest in human history – much of consequence has happened on the global environmental stage. Key acts have included countries agreeing for the first time to language on transitioning away from all fossil fuels in a UN climate text; a legally binding agreement to protect life on the high seas; and progress, albeit stuttering, towards a treaty to terminate plastic pollution.

Yet, when asked to choose their favourite article of 2023, most of our editors have picked those that focus on a local issue. Farmers in China’s Taihang mountains navigating a changing climate by interplanting diverse local crop species, for example. Women in Zimbabwe and Malawi striving to close the loop on plastic waste in their communities. Or a local scientist in Malaysia working to rehabilitate rainforest replaced by oil palms along the Kinabatangan River.

What you might have noticed is that these local stories each concern a problem being felt in many places. The issues humanity faces are many, as are the impediments to solving them. But the will of people everywhere to imagine and create a cleaner, fairer, nature-positive world certainly gives cause for hope.

These are our editors’ picks from the past 12 months.

Liu Lican, China consulting editor

How China’s mountain farmers are coping with climate change

Agriculture is actually a way for humans to adapt to the changing climate so as to feed and sustain people. Prior to industrial agriculture, small-scale farmers would sow suitable species, and practise intercropping and crop rotation; these are the real “local nature-based solutions”. The wisdom gained through years of daily work informed diverse farming cultures in diverse places.

Today, while many farmers may not know the phrase “climate change” – let alone all the related policies and goals that are buzzing around governments – they already feel the threat posed by it and are trying to adapt for survival. Ecological farmers near Beijing, for example, are finding ways to deal with extreme weather. While in China’s north-west, farmers are coping with more uneven precipitation and drought.

A female farmer working in the fields
A Naxi woman tending to a terraced field where she grows taro, corn and local vegetable varieties (Image: Miaomiao Qi)

This excellent article by Miaomiao Qi poses a problem and offers solutions. It shows how, in the face of increased drought and extreme heat, mountain farmers (especially women) protect agricultural biodiversity: they are diversifying planting and breeding, choosing seeds more suitable for local conditions, and drawing on traditional farming methods. The article demonstrates the survival strategies they are adopting in response to climate change, thanks to their resilience, tenacity and wisdom.

Qiwen Cui, China editor

Online videos fuel craze for harvesting creatures on China’s beaches

Collecting seafood from the beach during low tide is an ancient practice in China. The popularity of short-video apps such as Douyin has brought the tradition to the attention of a wider audience, but has also raised concerns about ecological destruction.

Lican’s thought-provoking article discusses the double-edged sword of social media’s role in the dissemination of environmental knowledge. On the one hand, it has helped to raise awareness of China’s beach-harvesting culture and the importance of coastal biodiversity. On the other, it has led to an influx of tourists in these areas who are using salting and other similarly destructive harvesting methods.

Screengrabs from a video of a man using pig lungs as bait in a rockpool and an electric pump to remove the water from a pool
Screengrab from a video of a man using pig lungs as bait in a rockpool and an electric pump to remove the water from a pool

I find the story to incorporate both the traditional and the modern, the grand and the personal – in it, contradiction and reason somehow co-exist. It is a complex issue, and highly relevant to our world today.

Tom Baxter, global China editor

The ‘new three’: How China came to lead solar cell, lithium battery and EV manufacturing

China occupies a central position in the world’s battle to mitigate climate change. That’s not only because it is the world’s largest emitter. It is also the country-mile leader in the production of many of the products the world needs to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The figures are astounding: in 2022, China’s global share in the manufacture of polysilicon, solar cell wafers, solar cells and solar panels were, in order, 94%, 96%, 90% and 81%. Meanwhile, its share of global lithium battery exports is 52%.

A solar panel factory worker, China
Manufacturing solar cells at a factory in Hefei, Anhui province, in October 2023. Chinese companies produce most of the world’s solar panels, as well as the parts needed to make them. (Image: Alamy)

This article addresses the history and future of the unique position China has come to occupy in a decarbonising world. How did it get there? And what does it mean for the world?

Justus Wanzala, Africa editor

South Africa’s women need the energy transition to work for them

Across Africa, the role of women in the energy transition has not been well highlighted or understood. In this story, Dianah Chiyangwa reveals three important aspects to the situation through the case of a shuttered coal power plant in eastern South Africa. Firstly, the wives of those men left redundant are rendered economically vulnerable. Next, these women are left out of the public consultations into the plant’s decommissioning process. And thirdly, many of them lack the requisite skills to secure jobs in the growing local clean energy landscape.

woman in front of poster depicting clean air protest
Dineo Mokoena works to build awareness of the effects of coal mining and of a renewable energy transition that can benefit entire communities (Image: Dianah Chiyangwa)

The article offers some solutions to these issues: better monitoring of the gender gap in the energy sector; joint work by government and businesses to deepen women’s participation in clean energy research and project implementation; and a meaningful say in the decisions being made that affect their communities.

Chiyangwa raises key issues regarding the energy transition in Africa for policymakers and other actors to consider, to make sure the process works for all.

Kebba Jeffang, West Africa regional editor

Overfishing off West Africa hits livelihoods, fuelling emigration

As a West African citizen, the level of poverty I see every day is mind-blowing. Born and living in The Gambia, I travel to Senegal frequently and have visited Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso.

Young people in these countries who cannot bear the shame of poverty and hunger are driven to extreme solutions: many have been risking their lives to enter Europe via very dangerous sea routes in the hope of changing their fortunes. Along the way, thousands are perishing.

dead fish on a rock, fishing boats behind
Among other factors, trawlers in West Africa’s waters and lopsided fisheries agreements with overseas governments have fuelled emigration in the region (Image: Aliu Embalo / China Dialogue Ocean)

The Gambia and Senegal have been particularly affected by irregular migration and its related consequences. In this article, I tried to shine light on the issues contributing to the situation and engaged experts on the lasting solutions to poverty, while holding leaders to account.

The work captures an important aspect of what is transpiring today in West Africa. I believe the relevant authorities – nationally, regionally and internationally – have all learned through this piece.

Temwani Mgunda, East Africa regional editor

In Zimbabwe and Malawi, women mobilise to tackle plastic waste

I particularly appreciate stories that highlight women’s efforts in environmental protection initiatives. This article, by the Zimbabwean journalist Sally Nyakanyanga, captures grassroots efforts to deal with plastic waste mismanagement, spearheaded by women in Zimbabwe and Malawi.

While the women – who are mostly widows, divorced, or single mothers – are eking out a living by selling the plastic bottles they collect to recyclers, they are simultaneously reducing waste in their communities.

an overflowing bin with broken bottles surrounding it
Recycling rates in sub-Saharan Africa stood at just 4% in 2012 (Image: Alamy)

Furthermore, the women are inculcating a culture of well-kept surroundings: instead of throwing reusable waste away, community members now take it to the women for processing. Sally’s story also identifies the gaps in governmental capacity to implement policies and laws aimed at curbing plastic waste – at country, regional and global levels. And while applauding the women’s work, this piece also points out the potential dangers of plastic recycling, covering fires in recycling facilities and inadequate environmental and employee safeguards.

Fidelis Satriastanti, Southeast Asia regional editor

Coal extraction in Indonesia is driving deforestation

With coal still being the most common energy source in Indonesia, one can easily overlook the deforestation required to extract it from open-pit mines. This article highlights how mining permits are awarded for forested areas and the subsequent impacts, particularly for local people.

A coal mine in East Kalimantan, Indonesia
A coal mine in Tenggarong, East Kalimantan, Indonesia (Image: Afriadi Hikmal / Alamy)

Despite reports that deforestation is declining in Indonesia, the phenomenon will continue as Indonesia prepares its new capital city in East Kalimantan province, which is also the national centre of coal extraction. This article serves as a reminder of the need to acknowledge mining impacts on forests and how the government should exercise caution in its land management.

Tyler Roney, Southeast Asia regional editor

Poorest districts worst affected in Ho Chi Minh City floods

The Mekong Delta finds itself at the sharp end of changes to the most important river in Southeast Asia. Ho Chi Minh City knows that better than most. This article from Nhung Nguyen is a cogent look into how the problems brought about by a changing Mekong River are not shared evenly, either geographically or economically.

In a city of 9.4 million people, it is the most vulnerable that face the greatest risks. The article, featuring striking photos from Cuong Tran, highlights the human costs of a sinking city. Projections see as much as a fifth of this major Southeast Asian city submerged by 2100.

three dogs look at a woman carrying a bag over her head while wading through floodwaters
This flooded residential complex on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 2 is mostly home to migrants from the Mekong Delta (Image: Cuong Tran)

We were also excited to have the cooperation of the city’s Saigoneer news site in translating this piece into Vietnamese.

Patrick Moore, Latin America editor

Will Lula be Brazil’s environmental saviour?

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s return to power as Brazil’s president in January was among the more hopeful environmental stories of 2023. Meghie Rodrigues’ report told of the tempered optimism among the country’s environmentalists after four destructive years under his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.

As Lula’s first year nears its end, talk of him being a “saviour” may have proven to be a little strong, but there are reasons to remain hopeful: deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon fell by 49% in the first nine months of the year; an ambitious drive to restore vast swathes of degraded land is underway; and Lula has shown green leadership beyond Brazil, convening a summit of Amazon leaders aimed at boosting protection of the rainforest (even if its outcomes were said to be underwhelming).

Brazilian President Lula at his final campaign event in September 2022, in front of a crowd giving a speech
Lula at his final campaign event in September 2022 (Image: Oliver Kornblihtt / Mídia NINJACC BY NC)

But Lula has also drawn criticism for backing efforts to explore for oil at the mouth of the Amazon River. At COP28, the president announced that Brazil will become an observer to the OPEC group of oil-producing nations, a move he says will allow it to “influence” the bloc to invest in renewables, but one that critics say has undermined his climate leadership. Next year is likely to be pivotal – how Lula chooses to proceed on oil will either strengthen or stain his environmental legacy.

Lizi Hesling, multimedia editor

The story of palm oil

It’s not often that multimedia takes the lead on China Dialogue, but sometimes we have the opportunity to do something really bold.

We wanted to highlight our palm oil project: a celebration of four years of in-depth reporting. The initial idea was a map showing all the places we’d reported from, to convey that palm oil is grown across the world’s tropics and used pretty much everywhere. We love a good map at China Dialogue, but it’s stories about people that usually grab my attention.

Having been closely involved in many of our palm oil reports, what has stood out for me is the people we’ve met along the way. People like Bockarie Landa in Sierra Leone, who still produces his own palm oil in the traditional way despite pressures from a nearby plantation. And scientist Amaziasizamoria Jumail, who’s working to rehabilitate rainforest along the Kinabatangan River in Malaysia. I wanted to hear their voices again and let them take our readers on a journey.

Illustration of a scientist doing research in a reforested area in Malaysia
Maz Jumail, scientist, Sabah, Malaysia (Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

It sounds so simple and once we’d landed on the idea, it was easy to pick the people we wanted to highlight. But condensing four years of work into less than 3,000 words is no mean feat. Thankfully, I had our in-house palm oil expert, Josie Phillips, to lead the way. She plotted a journey that not only tells a human story, but also the wider tale of this controversial commodity. The result is a thorough overview in digestible droplets.

In the meantime, I took inspiration from some of our other coverage – The Third Pole’s award-winning Lament of the Brahmaputra – and commissioned the wonderful Luisa Rivera to add artwork. The result? Well, it’s all about joining the dots.

Regina Lam, special projects assistant editor

Squid fisheries are booming in a regulatory vacuum

The lack of oversight in our international waters enables unbridled exploitation, which often catches the public’s eye only once a resource has dwindled perilously. Scientists have warned that, owing to scant monitoring and regulation, the burgeoning squid fisheries on the high seas are heading down the same path.

In this article, Olive Heffernan interrogates how squid fishing blooms in the gaps between fragmented fishery governance; although some bodies managing high-sea fisheries have already recognised the issue, attempts to put in adequate measures to fill the cracks have fallen flat.

squid jigging vessel
A Chinese-flagged squid boat in the Northern Indian Ocean (Image © Abbie Trayler-Smith / Greenpeace)

While scientists and policymakers identify ways to rein in these practices, consumers can join the author’s inquiries into the impacts of fishing for squid – a species appearing on our dining tables with increasing frequency.