China’s BYD and Korea’s Samsung: Can Two Battery Kings Forge a Profitable Partnership?

News that South Korea’s Samsung Electronics plans to invest in China’s leading electric vehicle maker, BYD , raises the prospect of a powerful alliance that could grab pole position in the world’s fastest-growing e-vehicle market.

The two companies announced that they were exploring a tie-up that would see Samsung take a big stake of a planned secondary stock offering by BYD. BYD would not confirm a South Korean press report saying that Samsung would spend about 3 billion yuan (just shy of $450 million) for a 4% interest in BYD as part of the deal.

The planned investment would bring together two northeast Asian manufacturing powerhouses, each with a strong, even cultish,  corporate culture.

Samsung is by far the bigger company – it is the flagship company of South Korea’s most powerful business group – but it doesn’t have much of a track record in taking a small minority stake in a sizeable Chinese company. Samsung is also a substantial battery maker in its own right, with one of its group companies (Samsung SDI ) the world’s largest producer of lithium-ion batteries. Samsung, led by second-generation owner Lee Kun-Hee (see photo gallery below), is having difficulty cracking the Chinese electric auto market. Although Samsung built a battery plant in China it has not had success in getting on a government-approved procurement list for electric-vehicle batteries in China.

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed here.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon To Beijing: Environmentalists Need Protection, Too

Kudos to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for singling out the positive role that environmentalists play in promoting economic growth on his early-July trip to Beijing.

At a news conference with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on July 7, Ban underscored the need to protect environmentalists and other NGO activists. The Secretary-General “emphasized that environmental activists, human rights lawyers and defenders, government watchdogs and other civil society groups can act as a catalyst for social progress and economic growth.”

“They can represent the diverse interests of the population and bring the voices of the vulnerable in from the margins. Along with a free and independent media they can help ensure accountability and thereby helping the state to be more effective and strengthening the standing in the eyes of the people,” Mr. Ban said, adding that the world will look to China to complement its “remarkable economic advances by giving citizens a full say and role in the political life of their country.” The Associated Press noted that Foreign Minster Wang Yi, who last month made news on a trip to Canada when he berated a Canadian journalist for asking about freedom in China, stared down at his lectern during Ban’s statement. Domestic Chinese media did not refer to Ban’s remarks.

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed here.

Hong Kong’s E-Waste Nightmare: Where Old Phones Go To Die

Where do old phones and computers go to die? More and more, aging motherboards and hard disk drives and touch-screens are broken up in illegal waste dumps in Hong Kong, according to a blistering report from the Basel Action Network.

China’s crackdown on corruption has slowed the illegal export of e-waste, much of it from the United States, to southern China, the traditional home of highly polluting electronics recycling sites. That has left more of the toxic material marooned in Hong Kong.

The South China Morning Post’s Sarah Karacs did an impressive trio of follow-on stories to the Basel Action Network’s far-reaching report, which was released in May, by poking around Hong Kong’s New Territories.

The Basel Action Network put GPS tracking devices on dozens of used electronic devices, which were given to designated recycling centers, from Dell to Goodwill. The SCMP then visited the sites where the GPS trackers indicated the goods had ended up and found that seven of the 10 sites were storing electronic waste. “There were hives of stripping-down activity by workers, few if any of whom were wearing protective clothing,” Karacs wrote. The SCMP used a drone camera to catch glimpses of the illegal waste dumping grounds.

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed here.

Watch Out, Coal! Dubai Announces Plans for World’s Lowest Cost Solar Plant

King Coal is taking a lot of blows recently. But at least it could usually count on being the cheapest alternative. Now even that’s called into question.

The latest battering to coal’s standing came when Dubai announced June 27 that it would build a massive 800-megawatt solar plant that will produce electricity at an average cost of 2.99 cents a kilowatt hour, substantially below what even coal-fired power plants charge.

This rock-bottom price offered by the developers doesn’t benefit from any obvious subsidies and is the lowest price offered by any solar plant in the world.Bloomberg reports that the price is a full 50% below the price a Saudi firm bid just 18 months ago in the same solar park in Dubai – a price that at the time was a record low, but has since been eclipsed by ever-lower prices.

That price of less than 3 cents a kilowatt hour is one-third cheaper than a coal plant also being built in Dubai, one that, like the just-announced solar facility, is also expected to start operations in 2020.

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed here.

Japan at Nature’s Edge

If Nature were human, we would wonder at the cruel irony of its setting the Fort McMurray fires that in May 2016 struck at the heart of Canada’s oil production, shutting down petroleum extraction in the country’s tar sands heartland, a place that even by the standards of a messy industry is at the far, very bad end of the environmental spectrum.

If we wanted to continue thinking of Nature as anthropomorphic, perhaps even thinking of her as Mother Nature, we would also wonder at the even crueller irony of anearthquake off the coast of Japan in March 2011 that led to the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at Fukushima. The incident was, excepting the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl, the most serious civilian nuclear accident ever. These triple meltdowns, whose toll of death and suffering remains unclear, occurred in a country that was the subject of the only two atomic bomb attacks in history, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945.

Nature is not a person, of course, and our attempts to anthropomorphize environmental forces is dangerous.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Can Cooperation on Climate Change Transcend the Challenges of U.S.-China Relations?

Environmental issues – especially climate change – is about the only area of cooperation in the often fraught Sino-U.S. relationship. I recently moderated a discussion featuring leading thinkers on the issue: Barbara Finamore (Natural Resources Defense Council), Isabel Hilton (China Dialogue), Orville Schell (Asia Society), Deborah Seligsohn (University of California San Diego), and Clay Stranger (Rocky Mountain Institute).

Highlights of the video can be accessed here.

The full round table can be found here

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Voices on China – Mark Clifford: Executive Director of the Asia Business Council and Author of “The Greening of Asia”

Young China Watchers (YCW): Many provincial and local governments in China are facing pressure to maintain economic growth while tackling pollution. Are China’s broader economic goals compatible with its ambitions to transition into a low-carbon economy?

Mark Clifford (MC): Absolutely. I think the economics have become very clear that China can grow more rapidly if it shifts away from fossil fuels towards clean tech sources of energy such as hydropower, wind, and solar. These are cost-effective—not as cheap as coal, but that’s because the true costs of coal are not usually included. Outdoor air pollution, of which coal is a primary component, kills 1.6 million people every year in China. When we look at the health impacts and broader costs, it is clear that not only can China afford to go towards a greener energy path, it can no longer afford this heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

That’s the macro-picture. Although provincial and local-level officials have been told that environmental factors will become more important in their job and performance assessments, they tend to very focused on the short-term: immediate jobs, immediate economic growth, and putting up dirty industry whether it’s factories or a coal-fired power plant. It’s going to be interesting to see how this tension between Beijing and local governments plays out, especially concerning the more than 200 coal-fired power plants approved by local and provincial authorities that are yet to be built. It’s yet unknown whether Beijing can keep this building frenzy under control because it’s clear that China already has a looming excess supply of electricity generating capacity.

YCW: The Chinese government has invested heavily in developing one of the largest clean tech sectors in the world. Yet, you say that China’s “’top-down” approach has its limits. What needs to change?

MC: Every country’s energy policy is deeply embedded within its political and social structure. China has been lauded by many environmental campaigners for its ambitions to have one of the world’s largest cap-and-trade programs. And yet, the amount of bureaucratic discretion and lack of transparency suggests that it may have been more effective to go the tax route and let people make their own decisions.

Prices tend to drive people and companies’ behavior more effectively than regulations; for example, a carbon tax is more effective than a cap-and-trade system. Many resource prices in China are distorted: Electricity prices are far below global norms, which means it is used wastefully and—given coal-fired power plants still produce two-thirds of the country’s electricity—drives excess use of coal. If China could start disentangling itself from the policies and regulatory complexities and rely principally on prices, I think that’s the single most important thing that it could do.

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This interview was originally published on the Young China Watchers’ blog. The rest of the interview can be accessed here.

Is China Doing Enough for the Environment?

Let’s congratulate China for what it‘s doing to fight environmental damage and climate change. It has the world’s most ambitious clean-tech program, investing $110 billion in clean-energy technologies last year, almost as much as the U.S. and the E.U. combined.

From almost nothing five years ago, China now has the world’s largest installed base of wind power and solar power. Coal use has dropped each of the past two years. Electricity generated by coal was less than 70 percent last year, down 10 percentage points from 2011. Low-carbon source such as hydro and wind have made up the difference and are now significant sources of electricity generation in China.

Energy intensity is falling, as China shifts away from its traditional reliance on heavy industry to embrace the service sector. Indeed, China is responsible for much of the good, and unexpected, news from the International Energy Agency that global carbon emissions have plateaued in the past two years despite continued economic growth.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a historic agreement with Barack Obama in November 2014 promising that China’s CO2 emissions would peak “around 2030,’” the agreement was hailed as a big step forward. And it was. At last, China formally put a date on peak emissions.

Good as this news is, China needs to do more.

Originally published as part of an Asia Society ChinaFile Conversation. Can be accessed here

Zoos, Cities and Sacred Spaces: Four books on Imperial Japan and Colonial Korea

No country can match the needlepoint-like intensity that Japan brought to its embrace of modernity following the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The burst of reformist energy intent on proving Japan the equal of the West gave birth to a modernity project like no other, one that consciously and intently drew from the West yet retained uniquely Japanese characteristics.

Modernization was about electric lights and streetcars, jazz music and bobbed-hair. It was the age of the railroad and an emperor but also of the bicycle and the suburb, an age of women workers and consumers. Japan’s modernization has always had a strong backward-looking tug, one designed to support the Emperor and a newly powerful nation-state. The past was used to support the modern, with meticulously catalogued local history and the nurturing of craft traditions. Japan’s is a hybrid approach to modernity, embracing what is best from outside but re-working it inside the insular eco-system of this island nation.

That energy ultimately was channelled into imperial, colonial expansion and a cruel fascism whose shadows continue to spook Japan’s neighbors today. Looking back through the lens of history, it is too easy to see the violence of  the 1930s and 1940s Japan as pre-destined, a war whose gratuitous cruelty was too thorough-going to have been anything but inevitable.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. It can be accessed here