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.

energy-intensity

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.

cumulative-Installed-wind

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.

 

cumulative-installed-solar

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.

Chinese Coal Cuts

In the fight to limit global warming, no country matters more than China – a massive coal-dependent country, which is responsible for 30% of global carbon-dioxide emissions. Fortunately, it is moving to improve its environmental record. But is it doing enough?

If China could pursue only one goal, it should be cutting its reliance on coal energy. The country is home to one-sixth of the world’s people, yet it accounts for almost one-half of global coal consumption. If China does not reduce that share and cut its greenhouse-gas emissions, keeping global warming in check will prove impossible.

The good news is that coal use in China seems to have fallen slightly last year – a trend that is expected to continue. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis estimates that the share of coal-generated electricity in China will decline from 72.5% in 2014 to 60% in 2020. While last year’s drop in coal use may have been a technical blip, Chinese coal consumption is expected to peak very soon – probably next year.

That means that CO2 emissions – the largest component of the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause global warming – will begin falling, too, enabling China to fulfill its pledge, made last November as part of a landmark climate agreement with the United States, that emissions would peak around 2030. In fact, if China’s leaders act boldly, the peak could be reached even sooner, in the early 2020s.

As China’s coal use begins to fall, its renewables sector is growing rapidly. Last year, China spent a massive $90 billion on renewable energy – far more than the $52 billion invested by the second-largest spender, the US. China now has the world’s largest installed base of wind power, and its solar power capacity is second only to Germany’s. From humble beginnings at the turn of the century, Chinese wind and solar companies have grown into some of the world’s largest and most efficient.

The government’s efforts to promote renewables are driven partly by growing pressure from middle-class Chinese, who are increasingly frustrated with pollution levels. Indeed, the environment is a hot topic in China today, exemplified by the response to the documentary film “Under the Dome,” which takes a critical look at air pollution and the role of the country’s coal and petrochemical companies. More than 300 million Chinese saw the film after its late-February release, which was timed to coincide with the annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress in early March.

The 103-minute production, by the prominent journalist Chai Jing, highlights the health risks posed by the thick smog shrouding China’s most productive cities. The film begins with the story of Chai’s own newborn daughter being diagnosed with a benign tumor. Though Chai never directly links her daughter’s tumor to air pollution, “Under the Dome” delivers a compelling message.

The public reaction was overwhelming. The film even drew support from the incoming environment minister, Chen Jining, who compared it to Rachel Carson’s influential book Silent Spring. Despite – or perhaps because of – this response, “Under the Dome” and related commentary have been removed from China’s media.

But, though the government may not want not to draw attention to its pollution problem, it certainly is trying to address it. Its investments have already helped to lower global prices of renewables. Researchers at Harvard University and Tsinghua University say that wind power could, in theory, produce all of China’s electricity for the price of coal by 2030.

Still, China should be acting even more aggressively. The authorities should focus not only on producing renewable energy, but also on improving the energy efficiency of existing systems. As it stands, China’s economy is about three times as energy-intensive as America’s (a country that is not particularly energy-efficient itself).

As renewable energy becomes increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels and energy consumption becomes more efficient, China will become better able to reduce emissions without undermining economic growth. According to a recent study by the Tsinghua/MIT China Energy & Climate Project, a combination of carbon taxes – especially on coal – and continued support for renewable power would enable China to reach its carbon-emissions peak in the early to mid-2020s.

Such an outcome would bolster global emission-reduction efforts considerably. In fact, new data from the International Energy Agency show that, in 2014, global CO2 emissions did not rise, suggesting that efforts to mitigate climate change may already be having a more significant effect than previously thought. This is particularly notable because the recent pause in emissions growth, unlike the other three that have occurred in the last 40 years, occurred amid economic expansion at a respectable annual rate of 3%.

As greenhouse-gas emissions become decoupled from economic growth, the world’s chances of successfully mitigating climate change become much higher. As IEA Chief Economist (and future Executive Director) Fatih Birol put it, this development “provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December.”

China still has a long way to go. But its recent progress in reducing emissions shows that, with the right combination of government policies, corporate initiatives, and public pressure, even the largest and most polluted countries can clean up their economies and help fight global warming.

Originally published in Project Syndicate. Can be accessed here

The People’s Republic of Chemicals by William J Kelly and Chip Jacobs

Each day air pollution in China kills more than 3000 people—that’s more deaths each day than the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington, some 1.2 million a year. This comparison is one among a torrent of scary statistics in The People’s Republic of Chemicals, written by a self-described team of “gonzo mavericks of environmental reporting”.

How can one convey the magnitude of China’s environmental nightmare? After all, this is not September 11th, and people are not dying in deliberate terror attacks. Instead, China’s pollution victims are succumbing one by one to respiratory diseases in hospitals and clinics and homes and cancer villages. They’re dying before their time, yet the country is growing and becoming richer in part because of environmental degradation.

The authors’ message is to remind us that we’re in serious trouble and that the situation is getting worse. China’s many announcements about increased environmental protection and its impressive accomplishments in installing solar and wind power should not obscure the reality that the environmental situation continues to deteriorate. An obsession with growth continues to triumph over the environment. We may look back and see that the  severe air pollution in Beijing in recent winters, which on bad days has been like breathing the air in a forest fire, marked a turning point. For now, Kelly and Jacobs are understandably skeptical that environmental progress in China is for real.

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

Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis by Julie Sze

China’s environmental emergency, Julie Sze tells us, has given rise to fear, loathing, and, more recently, what may prove to be a historic agreement by Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to limit carbon emissions. The growing crisis has also set off a race to find solutions. From wind farms and solar panels to electric vehicles, Chinese government and businesses are in a race to keep the Chinese dream of a higher living standard from being overwhelmed by coal-choked air, toxic water and clusters of cancer villages.

China needs big solutions for problems that are almost unimaginably large. Setting up entire new cities—so-called eco-cities—was one path to change. On paper, it seemed sensible enough to build high-end showcases that could serve as experimental demonstration sites and diffuse good environmental practices more broadly throughout the country.

Dongtan was the most ambitious of these projects. Set on Chongming Island, the world’s largest alluvial island just north of Shanghai, Dongtan was supposed to exemplify the way in which a rising and increasingly urban China could live in harmony with nature. Crucially, it was also one of the earliest such cities, so the entire concept was something of a blank canvas.

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

Review: City of Darkness Revisited by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot

Two decades after its destruction, the Kowloon Walled City has acquired an increasingly shiny gloss of respectability. Architects of the new urbanism celebrate its dense, human, organic development. The government’s dystopian view of the Walled City as a place of “notorious… drug divans, criminal hide-outs, vice dens and even cheap unlicensed dentists,” has given way to a vision of the Walled City in the collective imagination as the lost paradise, a sort of Atlantis, Xanadu and urban Shangri-La rolled into one.

Symbolizing this re-imagined city, and helping make the gloss even shinier, is a new and dramatically expanded twentieth-anniversary edition of City of Darkness. In its earlier editions, the book was smoothing of a cult classic. It was also a book that focused very much on the people of the City, trying to de-mystify and humanize this place of urban myth.

The new edition is big and bold, a colorful heavyweight book perfectly suited for gift-giving and coffee-table viewing by people who never would have gone to the City while it was real. But it is also a far more ambitious attempt to look at the underside of the city and at its larger global and urban-architectural dimensions.

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