China Environmental Law

A discussion of China’s environmental and energy laws, regulations, and policies

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China’s Best Party School?

November 30th, 2009 · No Comments

The Panyu waste incineration plant protest in Guangzhou last week was important for a number of reasons, but one of the most thoughtful takes on the event comes from an unlikely source, the Communist Party of China’s Guangdong Party School.

In an article entitled, “Confronting pollution: ‘expel it’ or ‘manage it’”? (I’d welcome a better translation, this is the original Chinese:面对污染”赶”还是”治”?) first published in the Nanfang Daily and reprinted at the China Energy Conservation and Environmental Protection Network, a provincial party school cadre presents a balanced, nuanced, and practical prescription for addressing situations where general societal needs impose disproportional environmental burdens on a subset of the population.

His or her points (the author is not named):

Environmental awareness has risen among the people with improving economic conditions.  At the same time there has been a rise in polluting entities to meet the demands of an improving economy.  This has created difficult “contradictions.” Who wants a waste incineration power plant, electric substation, gas stations, hospital or a variety of other polluting facilities built close to their own home, but the reality is that socio-economic development and people’s livelihoods are inseparable from these facilities.  How to resolve this contradiction is a test for the government, but also a test of the wisdom of the people.

When people hear that a potentially polluting facility will be built in their neighborhood, their first reaction is to try to “expel” it, and they will use a number of means to “sabotage” the project.  The author says this reaction is actually a great improvement from earlier years when people did not dare mount such opposition.

However, the result of this type of opposition is simply to have the facility moved from a developed to an undeveloped region, from a region where economically empowered people live to an area where more vulnerable people live, and from densely to sparsely populated areas.  The writer analogizes such an outcome to the developed world’s movement of their polluting facilities to China.  Such moves did little to improve economic conditions in China, and left China with a legacy of pollution it now must pay to clean up.

The alternative approach to moving the pollution problem elsewhere is to “manage” the problem by understanding it in a more holistic fashion.  Shifting pollution around from one region to another doesn’t decrease the total amount of pollution.  We must adopt rational production and treatment processes that reduce the amount of pollutants generated in the first instance.

The author notes some of the voices raised in protest regarding the Panyu waste incineration facility (although not the loudest) argued that this type of facility should not be built anywhere in the country and the government should place more emphasis on recycling, waste separation, and recovery.

Now, the author says, it is time to test the Government’s wisdom.  It must trust the people and work with them to address the incineration plant issue and gain their confidence.  The pollution management of any project must be open and transparent and gain the full trust of the people.  Only then will people no longer be afraid and have to resort to confrontational options.  If the Panyu waste incineration plant, as reported, will meet EU emissions standards, this fact and its consequences should be explained to the people.  Both the government and the people must genuinely and sincerely adopt a “management” approach to pollution problems.

Guangdong sounds like its got a party school worth attending!

→ No CommentsTags: air pollution · environmental policy · public awareness · public disclosure · public protests

Notable Margins

November 27th, 2009 · No Comments

In September President Hu Jintao announced at the United Nations that China would reduce the amount of its carbon emissions per unit of GDP by a “notable margin.”  We now have China’s definition of notable.  It means 40-45% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 (at the high end, that’s 3% off 2005 emissions per year).  If you have a sense you have seen these numbers before, you have a wonderful memory.  They have been batted around since at least 2007, and China has hit these targets for the past couple of decades all the while churning out greater amounts of carbon emissions.  Indeed, it was estimated by the World Resources Institute in 2007 that

China’s GDP is projected to grow around 400% by 2020. So even with a 40% intensity cut, emissions in the absolute sense would increase by 250%. That growth would make China the biggest national emitter by far, and [pose] a daunting challenge for reducing GHG emissions.

While the announcement was rolled out with much fanfare and supporting cameos by the usual suspects, including Pan Jiahua, it was greeted by most observers with little enthusiasm.  I fall into this category, but there are a few things to be thankful for.

For one, it used to be that if you were asked what China was doing on climate change, it was necessary to compile laundry lists of initiatives (20% energy efficiency improvements over 2005 levels by 2010, aggressive renewable energy targets, etc.) that have the effect of reducing the growth rate of carbon emissions.  With the exception of China’s afforestation efforts, this carbon intensity target should encompass all of the other initiatives.  It will be nice to have only one metric that covers everything else and is expressed explicitly in terms of carbon.

In order to perform the measurements necessary to track achievement of this new goal, China will need to increase its capacity to measure its carbon emissions.  There are several NGO-sponsored programs already under way to help China build capacity in this sector, and the US EPA recently entered into an agreement in which it “may” help China with these efforts.  That agreement needs to be amended or supplemented post haste, to actually get a cooperation program up and running.

A carbon specific goal that will drive carbon emission measurement capacity building, so far so good; the bad news is the notable margin isn’t nearly notable enough.  As stated above, given China’s projected GDP growth rates, the amount of carbon that China will continue to emit into the atmosphere will continue to increase at a mind-boggling rate.  Since this proposal doesn’t actually result in any additional reductions of carbon over and above what China is currently doing (although there are no guarantees it would continue with the same energy intensity goals, for instance, post-2010), it is hard to see how this announcement does much for projected atmospheric carbon levels.

The McKinsey study China’s Green Revolution estimates that if China continues to grow at an annual GDP growth rate of 7.8%,

  • AND continues to meet its aggressive energy intensity reduction goals,
  • AND installs all the renewable energy called for its current medium- & long-term renewable energy plan,
  • AND otherwise achieves a 4.8% annual growth rate in carbon efficiency, (which is significantly higher than the annualized amount of the target China just announced),

then it will more than double its 2005 carbon emissions by 2030.  That doesn’t sound good.

In addition, China has taken pains to make it clear that this is a purely “domestic” target.  That means that China’s opening position is that it will not enshrine these goals in the context of an international climate change agreement.  You may be confused having read that China agreed with the US to “stand behind” its carbon reduction commitments.  Whatever the term “stand behind” meant, it did not mean fully measurable, reportable, and verifiable (MRV).  I don’t think China is reneging on any deals here because I don’t think there were any deals on MRV in the first place.  If these commitments are not MRV, they will not go very far in closing the gap with the US in terms of a deal at Copenhagen or beyond.

I think this is a lowball bid, but if there is to be significant improvement in the intensity improvement percentage, China is going to expect the developed countries to pay up.  All in all, good concept, disappointing initial proposal, but room for improvement; it certainly doesn’t make a Copenhagen deal any less likely.

→ No CommentsTags: US-China relations · carbon emissions · climate change

China vs. US: Who’s the climate change solutions leader?

November 25th, 2009 · No Comments

[Reprinted in full from The Economist, Economist Debate: "This house believes that China is showing more leadership than America in the fight against climate change" Please read and vote your conscience which will no doubt be in perfect harmony with the position expressed below]

China and the United States can and should do more to lead the world on climate change. They are the first and second largest emitters of greenhouse gases today. The United States is by far the largest cumulative emitter given its early industrialisation and large economy, but China, at current growth rates, could easily assume the cumulative emissions crown before we are halfway through this century. Despite being primarily responsible for creating the problem, neither country has shown the pluck to solve it that will get them cited as models of leadership.

Fortunately, we are not asked to make the case that either country is the Churchill of climate change solutions, but simply to demonstrate that one has shown more leadership than the other. In this comparative matchup, the case is pretty clear; China has shown more leadership than the United States.

China signed the Kyoto Protocol, but as a developing country it was not bound to take any quantified actions to reduce its carbon emissions. For the next several years it hunkered down and its roaring economy powered by coal-fired thermal plants started to generate carbon emissions at an alarming rate. The rate was so alarming that China soon realised that it would no longer be able to hide behind the developing country label or count on a free pass at Copenhagen. It therefore launched a concerted effort to stake out a national position on climate change, developed and compiled a set of actions which could be deemed carbon emission mitigation efforts, and generally tried to establish its climate change good faith. At the same time, as a leader of the developing-country negotiating bloc, it continued to forcefully demand significant carbon reductions, financial assistance and technology transfers from developed countries.

China published a National Plan for Coping with Climate Change in June 2007 and a White Paper on Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change in October 2008. The White Paper concludes with this statement:

The whole world, without exception, faces the challenge of climate change. The solution demands the joint efforts of all countries and the entire international community. China will work unremittingly for global sustainable development with other countries and continuously make new contributions to the protection of the climate system which is the common wealth of mankind.

China had already undertaken a number of actions to promote energy security and improve industrial efficiency, such as increasing the amount of renewable energy in its generation mix and reducing the amount of energy required to produce a given unit of GDP. It repackaged these efforts and deemed them part of its climate change mitigation strategy. The latest instalment in China’s continuous efforts to make “new contributions to the protection of the climate system” was rolled out in President Hu’s speech to the UN in September in which he committed to reducing China’s carbon intensity by a “notable margin”.

China has succeeded in deflecting attention from how much carbon it has emitted and will continue to emit to how much carbon it has prevented from being emitted. There is no question that China has run a slick public relations campaign, but it’s not all smoke and mirrors. China’s efforts to improve energy security and industrial efficiency do have the effect of reducing the rate of growth of its carbon emissions.

While China settles in to a prominent seat at the climate change negotiating table, like other guests it casts a not so furtive glance at its watch as it waits for the United States to arrive at the venue. The opponent of this motion would have us believe that the United States’ absence is an act of leadership. But if it is hosting an alternative dinner, so far it is eating alone.

The United States has not only failed to take significant, concrete national actions to mitigate carbon emissions, it has failed to stake out a coherent public position on climate change. If I were inclined to follow the United States, where exactly would it lead me? As the other side notes, China’s efforts are cited by some to spur US actions. In contrast, no one is touting what America is doing to drive change in China (or anywhere else for that matter). Lots of good intentions have been on display over the past year in America, and a decent piece of climate legislation may be passed next year, but the United States is not leading on this issue.

The historic failure of the United States to come to grips with its energy challenges bolsters the impression that it is struggling to manage its own internal factionalism, which touches on questions of what really powers its economy. The call for the United States to increase its energy independence has resonated in American political discourse for nearly 40 years. During these 40 years, while the United States has seen its national wealth and the blood of its soldiers drained away it has failed to enact a comprehensive strategy to wean itself from foreign oil. What leadership is there to be seen in the perpetuation of this status quo?

China faces the same concerns. While it continues to attempt to secure foreign sources of oil, it has also taken concrete actions to decrease its reliance on oil. Chinese national fuel economy standards are tougher than those in the United States; national taxes encourage the purchase of cars with smaller engines; thousands of miles of subway are being constructed; and between the major population hubs, a web of high-speed rail lines is being laid. China has promulgated national goals for increasing percentages of its electric power to be generated through renewable sources, and electric vehicle R&D has received large government subsidies. All of these efforts will help China reduce its dependence on foreign oil and lower its carbon emissions.

China undoubtedly leads all other developing countries and the United States in the absolute amount of carbon emissions it has prevented from entering the atmosphere as a result of government actions and policies developed over the last several years. That it can and should do more does not invalidate the fact that it has provided more leadership on climate change than the United States. If America hasn’t been able to cure its own addiction to foreign oil over the last 40 years, why would I look to it to save the world from its carbon binge?

→ No CommentsTags: US-China relations · carbon emissions · climate change · miscellany

Guangzhou Environmental Protest

November 23rd, 2009 · No Comments

As I write, a protest is taking place in Guangzhou, against plans to build a waste incineration plant.  I don’t know much about the facts of the case, such as where is it in the planning process, has an Environmental Impact Assessment been performed, was the public consulted, were there hearings, etc.  But the demonstration is interesting for several reasons.

There are lots of environmental protests in China.  Most occur in rural locales; these rural protests can be violent.  They are usually motivated by people’s concern with threats to their own health or the health of their children posed by a polluting factory. They spill over when no one in power seems to care.  The protesters are left with no choice but to riot. They have reached the state of freedom where they have nothing left to lose, but their protests receive little publicity and are so issue- specific they have little chance of galvanizing action elsewhere.

The Guangzhou protest, like the PX protests in Xiamen and stroll in Chengdu, is more a NIMBY type protest.  It is organized by a relatively sophisticated middle class, and directly challenges the government’s decision making process, not some polluting plant’s operations (as in the usual rural protest.)  Moreover, this protest is getting lots of publicity.  The local press came to film the event (whether any footage is actually aired someone will have to tell me) and the event is being tweeted (this despite the fact Twitter is blocked in China) live.  I assume it is also being discussed on the domestic equivalents of Twitter.  Some people are simply passing on what they have heard from others, but some are definitely at the scene because they have submitted pictures.  Search hashtag #pylj for the stream and check out @ellachou and @mranti or check here for some translations.

It’s easy to get caught up in exciting events like this and overestimate their importance.  This protest won’t change China; it probably won’t even change Guangzhou too much, but it will change it a little.  These protests could possibly be avoided if the authorities complied with the laws that do give the people some voice in how decisions affecting the well-being of their environment are made.  It appears that those in power here simply assumed the plant would be built where they said it would be built, before it had completed all its necessary environmental reviews.  The genie is out of the bottle.  These protesters in Guangzhou are showing that local officials ignore the newly emboldened middle class at their peril.

Photo: @LEMONed

→ No CommentsTags: public protests

Thin Gruel

November 19th, 2009 · No Comments

I just finished reviewing the US-China Joint Clean Energy Agreements, and I barely have the motivation to type.  I know how much effort people of goodwill put into the work of securing substantive agreements in these areas.  The Chinese side while not positively obstructionist was, for the most part, not very interested in engaging in discussions.  This was a rational response; prior US-China joint ventures in the energy arena foisted on the Chinese have not, on the whole, yielded much progress.  Through sheer perseverance, however, groups like the US-China Clean Energy Forum (CEF) have developed a credible and ambitious agenda for joint cooperation between China and the US with buy ins from both sides.  Perhaps this buy-in was not from the right governmental players (because what we were handed on Tuesday were mere shadows of the CEF agreements), but if anyone is to blame for that it the US administration who failed to provide the necessary support for this effort which was generously endorsed and promoted by Senators Cantwell and Kerry.

The Tuesday agreements (billed by some as substantial progress) are basically agreements to agree to reach agreements to share information.  They are vague proto-agreements.  Think I exaggerate?  Here are two of the four provisions from the U.S.-China Electric Vehicles (EV) Initiative:

Joint demonstrations. The Initiative will link more than a dozen cities with electric vehicle demonstration programs in both countries. Paired cities will collect and share data on charging patterns, driving experiences, grid integration, consumer preferences and other topics. The demonstrations will help facilitate large-scale introduction of this technology.

Joint technical roadmap. A U.S.-China task force will create a multi-year roadmap to identify R&D needs as well as issues related to the manufacture, introduction and use of electric vehicles. The roadmap will be made widely available to assist not just U.S. and Chinese developers, but also the global automotive industry. It will be updated regularly to reflect advances in technology and the evolution of the marketplace.

The final provision of this initiative, I kid you not, calls for developing brochures to boost “public understanding of electric vehicle technologies,” and holding an EV conference once a year.  The remaining provision could have some practical impact, it commits the countries to “explore development of joint product and testing standards for electric vehicles.”

All of the agreements display a similar lack of ambition and urgency.

Compare the above provisions with this one from the proposed CEF initiatives: “aggressively roll out infrastructure for several cities in each country to accommodate PHEVs and EVs. Set an ambitious goal of at least 100,000 vehicles for each city by 2015.”

Let’s return to the Tuesday agreement’s EV “technical roadmap.”  If the history of US-China joint agreements is our guide, here’s how work on it will progress: it will take at least six months for each side to put together their panels of experts who will discuss how such a roadmap should be formulated; the panels will need at least another six months to meet and discuss this matter jointly, then another six months to write up their separate findings; after that they will exchange proposals, and it will take another six months. . . . well, you get the picture.

We don’t have the time these agreements contemplate to come to grips with this problem.  If China has not significantly ratcheted up its carbon mitigation efforts within the next five years, the costs of reducing its carbon emissions to necessary levels sky rocket, as the McKinsey study and China’s own calculations demonstrate.

The private sector is to be congratulated.  They have filled the gap left by the governments, and have started their own collaborative efforts with Chinese counterparts.  The good old EPA also deserves a round of applause.  They have been working tirelessly in their quiet way on things that really make an impact in China.  It is their agreement to help build carbon emission measurement capacity that is perhaps the most significant of those announced on Tuesday.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a copy of it.  The Washington Post has reported on it, however.

The mere fact that these agreements were issued separately by individual US administrative agencies indicates a business as usual approach to this issue.  We need one master agreement called the China-US Climate Change Initiative that covers all these items.  We need the Vice President in charge of the efforts for the US and Vice President or Vice Premier Li in charge of the effort for China.  Let’s stop congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come, and dedicate ourselves to closing the substantial implementation gap that remains.

→ No CommentsTags: US-China relations · carbon emissions · climate change

A day late, and a dollar short . . .

November 18th, 2009 · 2 Comments

The climate portion of Obama’s China visit has come and gone.  In its wake it left several separate MOUs which are, quite frankly, a little flimsier than I had hoped, but represent progress nonetheless.  I’ll address them later.  For those who bothered to read to the end of the US-China Joint Statement, there was also section addressing “climate change, energy and environment.”  It is, for the most part, filled with the “time-honored talking points,” Todd Stern warned us about in headier days.  Only a pathological optimist would find much solace in the language of this joint statement since most of it could have come directly from a formal Chinese submission to the UNFCCC.

The points attracting the most attention are:

1. China agrees to take “significant mitigation action.”  China has always agreed to take “significant mitigation action.”  China’s point, which I do not see has changed, was that the actions it undertook would be characterized as Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), that are not measurable, reportable, and verifiable unless supported by financial or technological support from developed countries.  The big question is how “significant” will China’s actions be, and we still don’t have an answer to that one.

2. The two sides “resolve to stand behind these commitments.”  Come on folks, these are weasel words.  I’m sure Bernie Madoff told investors he stood behind every investment he made.  Does this mean full third-party measuring and verification?  No, at best it means you get your money back if you aren’t satisfied with the product.  Next. . . .

3. The outcome at Copenhagen should “provide for full transparency with respect to the implementation of mitigation measures.”  I won’t even touch China’s history of living up to “transparency” commitments, but will simply note that given the comma placement this clause is combined with this one: “and provision of financial, technology and capacity building support.”  In other words, you give us money and technology and we will be transparent as to how we deploy it.  Again, this is entirely consistent with China’s previous submissions to the UNFCCC.

After reading the statement I came away with the sense that US negotiators had simply been worn down by Chinese intransigence.  I can sympathize completely, but it’s not a reason to celebrate.  We still have a long, long way to go, and the pace of progress remains (pre-climate change) glacial.

→ 2 CommentsTags: climate change

Coming Through Loud & Clear?

November 17th, 2009 · No Comments

President Barack Obama has backed a plan by the host of next month’s climate change talks in Copenhagen to seek a political deal and leave legally binding decisions for later, a U.S. official said on Sunday.

Obama backs two-step plan to reach climate deal, Reuters (Nov. 14).

Obama says the goal at the Copenhagen meeting should be an agreement that has “immediate operational affect,” not just a political declaration. As the world’s two largest consumers and producers of energy, Obama says the United States and China must play a key role in negotiating an agreement.

Obama: US, China want climate change deal, Associated Press (Nov. 17).

Can we please get serious about this?

→ No CommentsTags: miscellany

Poisoning the Pearl

November 17th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Greenpeace issued a report several weeks ago, during my hiatus, that I have just had an opportunity to review.  Poisoning the Pearl is based on the results of wastewater samples conducted by Greenpeace investigators of several facilities operating in the Pearl River Delta.  The results were discouraging, but predictable.

  • All the facilities sampled were found to be discharging wastewater containing chemicals with proven or suspected hazardous properties
  • For three of the five facilities, samples of discharged wastewater contained concentrations of chemicals which exceeded the limits set by Guangdong provincial effluent standards
  • A number of the facilities were found to be discharging various types of organic chemicals, many of them hazardous, which are not currently being monitored or regulated under Guangdong effluent standards

The report is among the first I am aware of where a third-party has obtained samples of effluent from industrial discharges in China and had them analyzed fro a whole suite of pollutants.  As the report notes “academic studies of hazardous chemical contamination in the area rarely involve direct sampling from industrial sources, so they fail to identify the individual culprits responsible for it. There is also a policy gap regarding the amount of attention the government pays to curbing the discharge of hazardous chemicals into water systems.”

Greenpeace recommends that the culprits be required to conduct clean production audits pursuant to Article 28 of China’s Clean Production Law.  This is good advice, and I encourage Greenpeace to keep the pressure on Guangdong Province to include these companies on their annual mandatory clean production audit list.

The Chinese press has not covered these results extensively, and when they have they have tended to focus on the fact that most of the companies found in violation were foreign.  “Foreign” in this case means Hong Kong and the companies are probably just fronts for recycled Mainland money anyway.  The “victim” card is one of the most unhelpful that China’s environmental commentators play.  If a foreign company is violating China’s environmental laws fine it, and, if it doesn’t correct its violations, shut it down.  It’s really that simple.  So try this approach: more action, less whining.

In any event, congratulations to Greenpeace which is slowly but surely ratcheting up the level of its engagement with China on environmental issues.

→ 2 CommentsTags: enforcement · environmental enforcement · greenpeace · heavy metals · miscellany · water pollution

山非山, 水非水

November 16th, 2009 · 2 Comments

This may be old news, but I just came across a site that has the artwork I saw featured in the Shanghai People’s Square metro station several weeks ago.  They were produced for the China Environmental Protection Foundation.

They are definitely worth closer inspection, and made a tremendous impact when they were featured on the subway station’s huge backlit advertising screens normally reserved for Haibao and product roll-out campaigns.

→ 2 CommentsTags: miscellany

Manwan Dam: Prosperity or Poverty?

November 13th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Several weeks ago the China Environment News (CEN) ran a story about the human impacts of a dam built on the on the Lancang River in Manwan, Yunnan province in 1986.  The article claims that in contrast to the promises of the dam developers, the Yunnan Huaneng Lancang River Hydropower Development Co., Ltd., that living standards would improve after dam construction, many residents, particularly those relocated as part of the project, actually fell in status from “peasant” to “unemployed.” Some have even lapsed into poverty including, the CEN reporter says, the family pictured below:

In a poignant vignette the reporter describes how this family lives in a house with a linoleum roof, and how the mother must work year round in Shenzhen just to provide them with the bare necessities of life.  The mother happened to have returned home for a visit on the day the reporter arrived, and the family asked the photographer to take this “family portrait.”  The father in the picture was 19 years old when the construction of the dam was in full swing and excited about the prospects of a better future.  But now, 20 years later, even though neither he nor his wife mind doing dirty and odd jobs, providing enough food and clothing for his family has become a problem.

The CEN article prompted a sharp rebuttal from someone whose affiliation is not clear, but is obviously connected in some way with the pro-dam movement.  He contends that CEN got the facts all wrong, and was obviously bent on slandering hydropower construction in China.  Incomes went up in the area after the construction of the dam, but some people’s incomes may not have gone up as fast as others leading to resentments, and what’s more there are a lot of minority groups in the area (and we all know what that means).  He suggests that the CEN reporter was too gullible and had been hoodwinked by local malcontents.  In fact, he says relocated families made out so well they incited the envy of those whose land had not been taken.

Who really knows what’s going on in Manwan, but I think it is very encouraging to see this kind of back and forth about an important social issue in a Chinese newspaper.

I want to leave you with one question: would the pictured family strike Chinese viewers as an impoverished one?  The pro-dam writer claims they are not.  He says they receive at least the minimum living allowance in the area, plus a 600 yuan per year resettlement subsidy.  He says they are better off than many residents, and offers his opinion that it doesn’t look like they have any problems paying for nice clothes for the children.

I’m not really interested in whether they are “poor” under an economic definition, but rather, would they look like a “poor” family to readers of CEN?  Reading this picture from a US perspective, I would say they were poor because of the chicken.  In the iconography of American photojournalism, a free-ranging chicken signals poverty.  The ramshackle house doesn’t convey a sense of prosperity, but I just don’t know how this scene registers with Chinese viewers.  Any thoughts?

→ 4 CommentsTags: miscellany