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.

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

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

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