Where size matters

John Doyle and Tim Flannery. Picture: Supplied

Close friends comedian John Doyle and environmentalist Tim Flannery are on the road again but this time they are not in a tinnie on the Murray- Darling rivers or climbing the Great Divide.

They are in China, where they follow the mountains of iron ore and coal being exported from Australia.

Two Men in China sees the odd couple use their combination of ad-lib comedy and scientific fact to analyse life in the giant Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu.

Speaking from his home in Melbourne, Flannery said that two things struck him - the magnitude of the ore being moved and the pollution in China.

In the first episode of the three-part ABC series, he uses a striking analogy - that the amount of ore removed from the Pilbara is equivalent to scooping off the top 2m of the soil in Tasmania.

Flannery, now head of Australia's Climate Council and a former Australian of the Year, admits that that was a very rough calculation.

"It might be wrong but we were trying to get a grip on what was gone," he said.

"We have literally shipped away mountains of iron ore to China. The impact on planet Earth is beyond comprehension it is so large.

"It is building China, everywhere you look you see it whether it is (steel) in a building or whatever, that is a bit of Australia."

Working in the pollution during the seven-week shoot for the series was a problem, though Flannery said the Chinese were making impressive inroads into reducing it.

"I am pretty in tune with my own environment - I know when we are in a sick environment and China's was dire. It is depressing to see all of those people who are going to die of lung cancer early and all of that environmental damage and the species that used to be there that are gone

"We were both sick all the time."

But he added that the Chinese were moving incredibly fast to combat pollution.

"I just saw this week that their targets for coal burning have been brought forward from 2017 to 2014, so they are years ahead of schedule in terms of getting rid of their old coal-fired plants," he said.

"I should say the coal-fired plants here would not pass muster in China as they are too old and too polluting. The Chinese are burning a lot of coal but they are doing it more efficiently than we are."

But Two Men in China is not only about industry and the environment. Doyle and Flannery also track down a man who is making robots from scrap metal and visit a restaurant specialising in dishes made from penises.

The show is not scripted and Doyle's often whacky humour is spontaneous.

"You can't script that sort of stuff," Flannery laughed. "John is a comic genius. He is a wonderful jolly hangman: he can give you the bad news in a comic sort of way. And he is far more gloomy than I am; I am much more of an optimist."