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

Can China’s top-down approach fix its environmental crisis?

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China has the largest and one of the most dynamic clean tech sectors in the world. The close to $90bn invested in clean tech last year puts it well ahead of both the EU and the US. For all the recent troubles of companies such as Hanergy, China has some of the world’s largest solar, wind and other green tech companies. As growth slows in western markets, they are increasingly looking for business at home.

There is good reason for this too. China burns almost half the coal in the world, and accounts for 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions each year. Emissions from coal plants in China are responsible for a quarter of a million premature deaths a year.

China’s leaders know that they have a problem. They know that time is running out on the “get dirty, get rich, get clean” strategy pursued by the west. The bill for its environmental degradation is too high for its own people.
 
Originally published in The Guardian. Can be accessed here.

Climate Change Governance in Chinese Cities by Qianqing Mai and Maria Francesch-Huidobro

Global warming is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Yet despite all the attention that climate change, air pollution and other environmental issues receive, too few books go inside government decision-making processes to look at the messy, inconsistent and usually unsatisfying business of making and carrying out environmental policies.

This specialist book fills some of that gap with a detailed look at policy formulation and implementation related to climate change in three important southern Chinese cities—Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. The focus on cities, and the close-up look at the collaboration between these three cities, is valuable. Around the world, cities are where some of the most innovative and important experiments in environmental policies are being undertaken. Today’s mega-cities are the size of Britain and Germany two centuries ago.

There is a wealth of fascinating detail in this book. These are cities with similar populations (seven to nine million), yet many differences. Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region that enjoys much more autonomy than the other two cities, is much more energy-efficient: it produces more than triple the GDP per unit of energy as Guangzhou and two-and-a-half times that of Shenzhen. Put another way, although Hong Kong is much richer than Guangzhou, it uses less energy.

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

Fair Winds Law Means Better Air For Hong Kong

Hong Kongers will breathe a bit more easily after July 1. That’s when container ships and cruise liners at one of the world’s busiest ports will have to switch to low-sulphur fuel.

Hong Kong will be the first Asian port to make low-sulphur fuel mandatory. The switch should cut the city’s annual sulphur emissions 12% and also see a 6% reduction in particulates. That’s likely to mean fewer trips to the doctor for residents in the Kwai Chung port district.

What’s more interesting than the technical details in the change is the unusual business-government partnership that led to the landmark legislation.

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed here.

Christine Loh

What Will It Take For Humanity To Listen To Scientists?

What will it take for humanity to listen to scientists?

That was the question a panel of Nobel Laureates asked at Hong Kong’s Asia Society Center on April 22nd as they urged quick global action on climate change.  “We can” make the transition to a low-carbon future, said Brian Schmidt (2011 Nobel for physics), “but I’m not sure we will.” Schmidt warned that humanity is “poised to do more damage to the Earth in the next 35 years than we have done in the last 1,000.”

The seminar kicked off the fourth Nobel Laureates Symposium on Global Sustainability, organized by the Asia Society Hong Kong Center and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research.

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed here

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