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

Review: Villages in the City, edited by Stefan Al; Paris Reborn by Stephane Kirkland

The city was one vast construction zone. New streets were literally smashed through buildings. Half-demolished buildings dominated the cityscape. Roads were ripped apart and mountains of rubble piled up.

Much of this will sound familiar to anyone living in China today. In the eyes of the Chinese media, a village that stands in the way of lucrative high-rise property development is derided as an “eyesore”, “cancer”, an “ill” that is a “scar” on the city. The residents of these poorer areas are labelled as filthy, as burglars, drug users and even murders.

As in Second Empire Paris, so too in China today: governments exercise their power of eminent domain to seize land. It is a contest, naturally, with the state and its development allies against those who stand to lose their apartments. Importantly, it is also a struggle between the state and private developers over profits. For urban real estate redevelopment can be spectacularly lucrative, whether in Paris or Shenzhen. Money, as much as vision, drives urban change.

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

Review: China Fast Forward by Bill Dodson

Dodson’s book is a bit like China itself: fast-moving, somewhat kaleidoscopic, hard to pin down, by turns baffling, frustrating and entertaining. Reading the book is a bit like watching a movie running at twice or four times its normal speed—it is sometimes a bit jerky, but fast-paced and often entertaining.

Despite writing a book filled with often searing criticism, Dodson dearly hopes that China will somehow pull it off… yet despairs that it won’t. This is a rapidly-paced, even scattershot book, more of a quick tour than an in-depth visit. For anyone familiar with China, most of these arguments will not be new. For anyone who knows less about China or who thinks that China’s rise is unstoppable, there is much here to recommend.

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

Review: The Singapore Water Story by Cecilia Tortajada, Yugal Joshi and Asit K. Biswas

In exploring exactly how Singapore prepared for contingencies and achieved water security, The Singapore Water Story is a detailed and often fascinating look at one of the most remarkable yet least remarked-upon political and environmental successes of modern Asia. It is an extraordinary story of how the country simultaneously made everyday life more pleasant for its people and enhanced national security through a focus on securing and diversifying its water sources.

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

Review: Greenprint by Aaditya Mattoo and Arvind Subramanian

In their slim book, Aaditya Mattoo and Arvind Subramanian make a case for action led not by the rich West but by the giants of the developing world. The biggest carbon emitter is China; other large developing nations—India (third largest), Brazil, and Indonesia—are also significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions…

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed at www.asianreviewofbooks.com/?ID=1494

Review: Greening Asia by Nirmal Kishnani

Even five years ago, green buildings in Asia were an exotic concept. Now, one major real estate developer after another has converted to the green creed. Green building organizations have sprung up in most countries, trailing a gaggle of certifications in their wake. The U.S. Green Building Council’s platinum and gold ratings, or their local equivalents, are increasingly needed by building owners eager to attract the best tenants.

Nirmal Kishnani’s focus on buildings, therefore, is well-deserved…

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed at www.asianreviewofbooks.com/?ID=1417