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

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?

guardian photo

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

HK ferris

Beat The Hong Kong Smog: Outdoor Air Purifier Doubles As Bus Stop

Hong Kong’s smog is one of the biggest downsides to what is one of the world’s most dynamic and visually stunning cities. Views of Victoria Peak and Hong Kong Harbour too often are obscured by a choking haze.

Expatriates grumble, and some have moved to Singapore, while locals who want a better life for their kids simply emigrate. There’s good reason: Air pollution kills some 3,000 people a year in Hong Kong.

Now comes a novel way of at least spotlighting the problem, if not fixing it. Property developer Sino Group has teamed up with engineering-and-urban design experts Arup to develop a roadside air purifier that offers some hope of relief.

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed here

hong kong air purifier

The Greening of Asia: Businesses’ Role in the World’s Biggest-Ever Environmental Clean-Up

By Mark L. Clifford

The challenge of improving Asia’s environment has been translated into business opportunities. These range from providing clean, always on, tap-water and sewage treatment to providing renewable energy and energy efficient buildings. It would appear that in the quest for sustainable growth, businesses in Asia are discovering that what is good for the environment is also good for business.

The East is Black. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom of anyone who has seen pictures of Beijing’s shrouded skies, India’s fetid rivers and the steel mills and cement kilns which blanket much of the countryside with a pall of smog.

Sadly, this dystopian image of Asia’s environmental misery is all too accurate. In China alone, 1.2 million people a year die prematurely from air pollution. Skies in some Indian cities are even dirtier. Large parts of the region are in danger of running out of clean water. Clusters of cancer villages testify to the human cost of fast economic development.

If this sounds like an environmental nightmare, it is. Asia is home to 4.3 billion people, six out of every ten people in the world, as well as to some of the fastest-growing economies. What’s been good for economic growth has come at a high cost for the environment.

Asia’s strategy seemed to be summed up as “get dirty, get rich, get clean.”

When the developed world asked developing Asia to accept limits to carbon emissions as part of the Kyoto Protocol, Asia’s response was that the West had had its turn at economic growth and now Asia wanted its chance, too. Forcing Asia to lock in ceilings on carbon emissions, so the thinking in the regions’ capitals went, would be like the West kicking down the ladder behind it, denying Asia the chance to climb the rungs of economic development.

Now the “get dirty, get rich, get clean” strategy, idea that a country can only afford to clean up once it is rich is starting to look badly out of date. The problems, from cancer cluster villages and deaths from air pollution, are becoming politically difficult to justify from populations that are becoming richer and more assertive about their health – and that of their children. Chinese journalist Chai Jing’s documentary ‘Under the dome’, about air pollution in China, generated over 200 million views in the two weeks in March that the authorities allowed it on Chinese website, testament to the depth of public concern.

At the same time, hard physical constraints are putting pressure on governments. Access to safe drinking water is emerging as a potential “hard-stop” issue in parts of Asia. Northern China has only as much water per head as Saudi Arabia. The more severe weather associated with global warming is forcing the Philippines and others to invest in a variety of mitigation measures, including better watershed management.

Change is on the way. In the absence of a follow-on agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which attempted to limit greenhouse gas emissions, countries are trying up their own environmental and climate action plans. Singapore and Japan are among Asia’s leaders in this regard. China has adopted targets that will see about 20 percent of its energy come from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030. Coal use in China should peak before 2030 – although experts say that a combination of a tax on carbon and continued support for renewable energy could bring forward the peak on coal use to around 2020.

The rapid growth of solar and wind power, especially in China, reflects a dramatic decline in prices as well as stepped-up government support for domestic installations, [see charts]. This renewed commitment to renewables is also present in Japan, where the reliance on nuclear power has been re-thought in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Despite a significant increase in solar power Japan’s policy remains uncertain, as the country’s energy policies are subject to intense political wrangling.


The city-state of Singapore is an excellent example of a public-private partnership to bring about a greener city. The country’s five million people live in a territory smaller than New York City. Long reliant on Malaysia for water, today it is largely self-reliant as a result of desalination plants and sophisticated water harvesting techniques, reservoirs and water treatment facilities. The tropical country has launched plans that will ensure most of its buildings are far more energy-efficient by 2030.


The rapid growth of solar and wind power, especially in China, reflects a dramatic decline in prices as well as stepped-up government support for domestic installations.

Public opinion is also proving to be a powerful motivator for change. Asia’s often aggressive newspapers, TV and, above all, social media commentators, can be unforgiving toward companies that cross the line of what’s acceptable in terms of environmental practices. Large companies can be particularly vulnerable. Many leading companies, some of whom have been around for a century or more, have a genuine desire both to do the right thing and to be seen doing the right thing. Major Asian corporations, which remain the employer of first choice for many graduates, use environmental effort as one way to burnish their standing, both among employees and in the larger community.


Unlike the Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial culture of the West, large companies typically lead the way in Asia clean-tech, as in so many other areas of the economy. Large companies tend to have the most talented people as well as access to financial resources and technical know-how.


The challenge of improving Asia’s environment has been translated into business opportunities. These range from providing clean, always on, tap-water and sewage treatment to providing renewable energy in the form of solar and wind power. Solar and wind power prices have fallen sharply in the past decade. In Japan, leasing giant Orix is one of many corporations that, prompted by government support for solar power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, decided to use its balance sheet to fund an expansion into clean energy ranging. Green buildings are another promising area. Property developers that build more energy-efficient buildings often find that profits increase as a result of higher rents and sales prices as well as ongoing energy savings.

Property developers that build more energy-efficient buildings often find that profits increase as a result of higher rents and sales prices as well as ongoing energy savings.

This competitive advantage of environmentally conscious companies is likely to increase. Fundamental resources such as water and carbon are now underpriced. Companies that are using water more efficiently and moving to less carbon-intensive modes of production, will increase over time as these resources are priced more accurately. Textile giant Esquel is one example. The company makes more than 100 million men’s dress and polo shirts a year. Based in Hong Kong, it is one of the largest vertically integrated shirt makers in the world, buying cotton from farmers in remote regions and ginning dyeing and sewing the shirt. Since it started tracking its use of water and energy about a decade ago, profits are up, at a time when many of its competitors have been driven out of business. That, says founder Marjorie Yang, is proof that good environmental policies can make good business sense.



In a continent as large and diverse as Asia it is to be expected that there are many different approaches to sustainability. What works for Singapore might not in China.

Still, there are some basic principles:

1. Government needs to set out clear, measurable long-term policy choices. These must be backed up with short- and medium-term targets. Wherever they can, governments should use prices – market forces. Prices almost always work better than regulations. A carbon tax is better than a carbon-trading scheme. Eliminating subsidies for fossil fuel is a good place to start.

2. Business needs to turn environmental challenges into business opportunity. The top leadership must be committed to seizing sustainable business opportunities.

3. Public opinion has an important role. A vibrant civil society – both environmental groups and media – helps advance change. Civil society ensures that governments and businesses follow through on their promises.

The best way to move forward is in a three-way partnership, where government sets clear and forceful policies, business creates and invests in products and services to help clean up the environmental mess and civil society acts as an arbiter to see that governments and businesses do what they say.

Originally published in the World Financial Review. Can be accessed here.