Environment & the World

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Religion & Environment in China

Filed under: China — Cathy @ 11:07 am

One often-mentioned phenomenon is the recent rise of the environmental evangelical movement in the United States.  Everyone probably remembers the classic “What would Jesus drive?” campaign, and just this February, 86 evangelical leaders signed a statement calling on their followers to fight climate change.  The environmental community has slowly begun to realize that the religious community is a potentially powerful ally.

That’s why I was particularly interested to read an article on the influence of religion on the environment in China.  Obviously the religious scene is very different here – Buddhism is the dominant religion in China, but after the cultural revolution, many people (especially in major cities like Beijing) have abandoned religion.  Nevertheless, according to this article,the Daoists and Buddhists have managed to make significant efforts towards environmental conservation.  Specifically, sacred mountain sites have managed to survive with a more intact environment than other mountains.  Mountains with active religious communities still on them have been particularly well preserved because the monks protect them against illegal logging and poaching.

The Buddhist and Daoist communities are also becoming environmentally active outside of protecting their traditional spiritual sites.  The government has enlisted their help in educating the public about environmental problems:

“in April this year, the Buddhist Association of China, in conjunction with the Chinese government, held a unique gathering of Buddhists from all over the Chinese world on the theme of social issues, and the environment was one of the key topics. Arising from this is a new range of projects and commitments by Buddhists across China to address issues such as deforestation, urban sprawl, waste, energy and moral values related to the environment.” 

The fact that the Chinese government is asking for help from religion in addressing China’s environmental crisis is quite remarkable, especially for a country which did its best to stamp out religion 50 years ago.  I cannot see this ever happening in the United States, nor do I necessarily think it should, given the controversy that always surfaces whenever church and state mix too closely.  But it could perhaps be seen as symptomatic of how seriously the Chinese government is taking its environmental crisis.  One could argue that China’s environmental crisis – and the world’s – cannot be solved without fundamentally changing the way in which people value material consumption and enlisting the help of religion in re-thinking how we satisfy our spiritual needs.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

ExxonMobil Rolls in Dough

Filed under: Economics, Energy, Oil — amirj @ 3:14 pm

I’ve known for a while that ExxonMobil was making big bucks, but I was completely astonished when I learned about the magnitude of their profits. This summer I had one of those jaw-dropping, I-can’t-believe-it-and-I-don’t-know-what-to-say moments when ExxonMobil reported its second quarter profits for 2006.  The massive corporation raked in $10.36 billion dollars in profits in three short months. This landed ExxonMobil the second largest quarterly profit in U.S. history. Not that it makes too much of a difference considering they bumped themselves out of second place (previously held by ExxonMobil’s $9.9 billion 3rd-quarter profits for 2005); and it probably doesn’t make too much of a difference considering they also hold the highest quarterly profit ever in U.S. history thanks to their unbelievable $10.71 billion dollar profits in the fourth quarter of 2005.

History sort of repeated itself today when ExxonMobil announced its 3rd-quarter profits for this year. Guess what happened? They reported an astounding $10.49 billion profit, once again bumping themselves out of second place for the highest quarterly profits in U.S. history. As you can see on the table in the same USATODAY article, ExxonMobil now holds the four highest quarterly profits in U.S. history–all from 2005 and 2006. What could the fact that these records were set in the last two years imply about the society we live in? Something about these numbers becomes mind-numbing when you start to think about how U.S. debt has exploded during the same time-period.

ExxonMobil is such a massive, complicated and mind-boggling corporation that it’s difficult to say anything very significant or penetrating about it in one short blog post. For the sake of a little reflection, though, let’s consider its charitable giving. One would hope that such a driven and rich corporation would, at the very least, give back almost as generously as they take from consumers at the pump. ExxonMobil reports its 2005 global contributions at $132.8 million. Their website breaks down that number into the many sectors they support: higher education, civic and community, disaster relief, arts, environment, etc.

Nearly $133 million is a handsome sum indeed. Because that number is so large, here’s a little attempt to put it into perspective. If you break down ExxonMobil’s profits as USATODAY did, you’ll discover that $133 million is roughly one day and 4 hours worth of its net income in the second quarter of 2006. If you take ExxonMobil’s 2005 annual net income of $36.1 billion, then their respective 2005 annual giving of $133 million amounts to about 0.37% of that year’s profits.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Big Problems = Small Solutions?

Filed under: Air Pollution, China, Development, Water — Cathy @ 9:32 pm

Once again, as I ponder China’s environmental and social problems, I am confronted by questions of scale.  It’s fairly well-established that China’s problems – from oil imports to air pollution to water shortages – are huge, and the government’s reaction has often been to support huge solutions: the 3 Gorges Dam, the South-North Water Diversion project, etc.  These are also the sorts of projects that get most often reported in the press.  It seems to me that less attention is paid, in the press and probably in the government as well, to smaller scale and simpler technologies that could ultimately play a large role in solving some of China’s problems. 

For example, yesterday I learned about a company that produces biomass pellets for rural energy use.  Previously biomass (chiefly the crop residues left over after harvesting crops) were the primary energy source in rural areas for heating and cooking. But as rural incomes have increased, people have moved towards purchasing coal briquettes which are cleaner-burning and more convenient than collecting residues.  Then the crop residues are simply burned in the field to get rid of them, creating serious air pollution problems in some provinces.  Clearly it would make much more sense to find a way to make biomass a more attractive fuel, rather than distributing small amounts of coal over a large area and wasting the biomass.  This pelletizing technology does exactly that – it is a village-scale machine that produces small biomass pellets which are much more convenient for home use than loose biomass and burn even more cleanly than coal.  Scaling up this technology across China could help improve living conditions and reduce air pollution in rural areas.

Another example of a small-scale technology is rainwater and snow harvesting.  This has been implemented in a big way in some southern Indian cities, such as Madras, but it has not really taken hold in Beijing despite the severe water crisis.  There are about 50 pilot rainwater harvesting projects in the city, but nothing on the commercial scale.  One problem is that Beijing gets almost all of its rain during the summer months, so that there would have to be significant investment in water storage infrastructure.  However, if the alternative is to divert water from rivers in southern China, I suspect that this cost would pale in comparison.  According to Forum for the Future’s “Greening the Dragon” report, rainwater harvesting in Beijing has the potential to supply about 230 million cubic meters of water each year.  This is quite significant relative to the 300 million cubic meters which are currently overdrawn from Beijing’s aquifer each year.  Proper pricing for water (Beijing’s water rates are absurdly low for a city so short on water) would also help alleviate the shortage.  In short, just because China’s problems are on such a large-scale, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the technical solutions need to be similarly mind-boggling.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Greening the Dragon

Filed under: Air Pollution, China, Development, Energy — Cathy @ 1:37 pm

Forum for the Future (a UK group) just released a very interesting report on China’s environmental problems. “Greening the Dragon” is online at http://www.forumforthefuture.org.uk/news/china_page431.aspx and includes articles on energy, water, sustainable cities, grassroots activism, and other facets of environmentalism in China. The report includes the usual litany of impossible-sounding statistics, like the following:

– 1,000 new cars are introduced every day on the streets of Beijing.

– in 2005, China added new power generation capacity approximately equal to the total UK power capacity.

Yet at the same time, the paper raises the hope that China could perhaps be a testing ground and a leader for environmental policy solutions. In some ways, it seems to me that the economic attitude of Chinese people, despite living in a communist country, is closer to the prevailing attitude in the U.S. than to Europe. Consumerism is rampant, personal wealth is a high priority, and environmental protection is not high on most people’s radar screens. However, because of the obvious pressure on the country’s water and energy resources, policies that would never fly in the United States – green taxes, for example – have already been implemented in China. China has introduced fuel taxes to discourage the purchase of SUVs and other gas-guzzlers and a 5% tax on wooden disposable chopsticks (which consume 25 million trees each year). China’s new national renewable energy law requires 15% of China’s energy to be generated from renewables (unfortunately including large hydro) by 2020, a goal which rivals those of many U.S. states. Here the demand for renewables is driven not just by climate change and desire for energy independence, but also by the terrible air quality. China, which will have to build housing for about 300 million people in the next ten years, is literally building new cities – including a carbon-neutral city that will ultimately house half a million people. The Chinese government is also developing a “green GDP” national accounting measure that will account for the social and environmental costs of its economic boom.

Granted, some of the measures that China is taking that would never fly in the U.S. probably shouldn’t be flying in China either – such as the massive South-North water diversion project that I mentioned in a previous post. But in many cases, it seems that the sheer scale of the problem here has pushed the government to the realization that innovative and ambitious environmental policy solutions are necessary. So the big question with China is, as always, will it be enough?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Intro for a new blogger

Filed under: Uncategorized — kwolfgan @ 1:52 pm

Helllllo, blogosphere! Karen Wolfgang reporting for duty. I have to admit that I harbor a bit of resentment toward blogging: I was told several years ago that I should avoid this activity at all costs, because I would probably put too much time into it, and while I would end up with reams and reams of e-paper to my credit, the impact might not be worth the hassle. For that reason among others (including sloth and writer’s block) I have avoided posting here since I was invited to do so some number of months past. But now, against some odds, here I am.

Despite the aforementioned “issues,” I am eager to share my experiences with a host of anonymous readers (and hopefully some not-so-anonymous ones). I’ll start, then, with an introduction: my name is Karen. I live in Portland, Oregon, where my mom and dad raised me and my younger brother, Kurt, who is 21 and a junior at the University of Utah. I graduated from Princeton University in June with a degree in anthropology, and shortly after moving home to PDX joined the Leadership in Ecology, Culture, and Learning (LECL) program at Portland State University (http://www.piiecl.pdx.edu/); if all goes well, I will receive a Masters degree in sustainability education in about two years. I have a graduate assistant-ship administering a Metro (regional government agency) Nature in Neighborhoods watershed restoration grant at a local elementary school, and I work/volunteer at least one day a week at the Learning Gardens Laboratory, my program’s signature project, letting middle-schoolers teach me. I live with my partner, Isabel, in the basement apartment of her grandmother’s house. Although I bike and ride the bus to most of the places I need to go, I stubbornly hang on to my ailing 1989 Isuzu Trooper; she’s in the shop right now. I will be writing these entries on my new Dell laptop, whose name is Bubba (don’t ask).

Now that you know a little bit about me, you should know something about what I intend to post here. So… I love to read. I love it love it love it. I have too many books, and I like it that way. It makes me happy to think that I can pull a book off the shelf and address any question I might have. I don’t expect answers, mind you—just different perspectives on what I personally have seen and done and felt. School, which I was highly anxious to leave in the dust after graduation (something that turned out to be harder to do than I thought it would), frequently manages to inspire me to buy more books, and occasionally read them. So, I suspect that most of what I write here will be philosophical-theoretical (and hopefully practical, based on my experiences in the actual world), rather than newsy; I might even take a turn toward the spiritual if I get the urge.

In any case, I want to make sure that my entries are not perceived to be too far off the mark: this blog is called Environment and the World, not Life of Karen. But if there’s anything I learned at Princeton (you’ll see that phrase again!), I learned that a person’s background informs the way (s)he sees the world. I don’t want to give readers a single chance to think that I see the world objectively. No one does. And I do not want you to believe I am writing about the environment as some thing out there that desperately needs monitoring or saving. Each of us has an environment, and we are in relationship to it and each other. Each of us—including the non-human peoples of the world—deserves a healthy environment, and (do not forget this!) plays a crucial part in bringing it into being. I will be sharing here my encounters with my environment, for what it’s worth. Thank you for reading. Here ends the first Environment and the World (as seen through the eyes of Karen) blog entry.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

2006 Gas Mileage: U.S. Still Fails

Filed under: Oil, Politics, Transportation — amirj @ 2:16 pm

The EPA and Dept. of Energy yesterday released gas mileage stats for 2007 model vehicles, giving us yet another opportunity to reflect upon the sad state of our nation’s fuel economy. Before delving into the depressing details, here’s the better side of things: the EPA’s top 10 Fuel Economy leaders for 2007.

Rank          Manufacturer/Model                MPG
                                                             city/highway

1              Toyota Prius (hybrid-electric)      60/51
2              Honda Civic Hybrid                      49/51
3              Toyota Camry Hybrid                  40/38
4              Ford Escape Hybrid FWD             36/31
5              Toyota Yaris (manual)                34/40
6              Toyota Yaris (automatic)            34/39
7              Honda Fit (manual)                    33/38
8              Toyota Corolla (manual)             32/41
9              Hyundai Accent (manual)            32/35    
                Kia Rio (manual)                          32/35 
10            Ford Escape Hybrid 4WD              32/29
                Mercury Mariner Hybrid 4WD      32/29

Source: http://www.epa.gov/fueleconomy/overall-high.htm

While some of us would probably prefer to walk, bike, or take public transportation over driving all the time, we realize that the former are not always possible and therefore applaud Toyota and Honda for bringing to the market cars that can surpass 50 miles per gallon. The rest of the cars in the top 10 also deserve credit, even though the list leaves something to be desired. In an age of complicated petropolitics, rising gas prices, and increasing oil scarcity shouldn’t the top 10 most fuel efficient cars, at the very least, all top 40 miles per gallon? And shouldn’t the best of the best start to approach 100 mpg?

This past July the EPA released a report on fuel economy trends since 1975 which wasn’t exactly full of good news. The estimated national average gas mileage for 2006 was an unimpressive 21.0mpg. Mind you, “This average is the same as last year and in the middle of the 20.6 to 21.4 mpg range that has occurred for the past fifteen years, and five percent below the 1987 to 1988 peak of 22.1 mpg.”

Despite all the technological advances, 20 years have passed since the US reached peak fuel economy, and we can’t even match that level. Shame on us! We now have hybrids, cars that can run on biodiesel and ethanol, and BMW will soon introduce a hydrogen car, but as a nation we’re still guzzling more gas and doing so less efficiently than we did in 1987. For a nation that is bemoaning higher gas prices and whose gas money has financed (and still does) nations that are overtly hostile to it, our behavior is extremely hypocritical.

Aside from financially and politically hurting ourselves, we have also failed to meet our own standards. In 1975 Congress passed legislation that created the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The goal was to double car fuel economy by 1985. That goal was 27.5 mpg. Not only did we fail to reach it in 1985 (remember, peak fuel economy was reached in 1987 at 22.1mpg), more than 30 years after the passage of that legislation and 20 years after our own missed deadline we have still failed ourselves.

Breaking down the 2006 21.0 mpg statistic into its components, we can see what the real culprits are. From the EPA report, “For model year 2006, cars are estimated to average 24.6 mpg, vans 20.6 mpg, SUVs 18.5 mpg, and pickups 17.0 mpg. The increased market share of light trucks, which in recent years have averaged more than six mpg less than cars, accounted for much of the decline in fuel economy of the overall new light-duty vehicle fleet from the peak that occurred in 1987-88.”

We can only blame SUVs, vans, and pickups so much though. Today, thirty years after CAFE, at 24.6 mpg our smaller, lighter, and more fuel-efficient cars have still failed to reach our own gas mileage standards.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Indonesian Mud Volcano

Filed under: Environmental Justice, Geology, Natural Disasters — Cathy @ 12:16 pm

I’m taking a break from my China updates today because I ran across a really fascinating article in Der Spiegel this weekend: “Eruptions Displace Thousands in Indonesia”.  This is not, as I had initially expected from the headline, about a volcanic eruption.  Rather the article describes a mud volcano which formed back in May of this year and has been spewing hot mud ever since at an unbelievable rate – it started at 5,000 cubic meters a day and is now up to 125,000 cubic meters a day (“enough to transform a soccer field into a pool of mud 17 meters deep”).  The volcano has already grown to be almost 50 feet tall.

“So far the mud has claimed 20 factories, 15 mosques, a cemetery and 18 schools. It has closed a section of the main road to Bali and is only a few meters away from flooding an important rail line. Authorities have already declared eight villages partly or completely uninhabitable. More than 12,000 people have been evacuated. But this is only the beginning.”

This is an unusually dramatic illustration of the environmental and human rights disasters that all-too-often occur when multinational companies are given rights to extract resources in developing countries.  Although it hasn’t been conclusively proven, many people are laying the blame for the mud volcano on Lapindo Brantas, an oil and gas exploration company.  The company constructed a drilling rig only 500 meters from a residential area and then proceeded to drill down to almost 9,500 feet.  It seems that this may have released the pressure in a huge underground pool of mud, forcing it up through the surface to form the world’s largest mud volcano.  Some experts accuse Lapindo of failing to use standard industry safety equipment.  Under pressure from the Indonesian government, Lapindo has accepted responsibility and agreed to pay all damages, estimated at more than $250 million.

 Once again, I am also surprised by the failure of U.S. media, even environmental media, to pick up on this. 

Friday, October 13, 2006

Farms and Food Safety

Filed under: Agriculture, Food — amirj @ 1:23 am

 Tom Philpott wrote a great article at Grist that is particularly relevant in light of the recent E.coli spinach contamination and other concerns over food safety. Philpott describes how federal attempts to protect the food we eat essentially create bureaucracies that put small-scale, community farmers at a disadvantage.

 As Philpott argues, there are many reasons to support and encourage people to buy from small-scale, local farms. For one, in an age of expensive oil, eating local saves on long-distance transportation costs. Another benefit is that if a contamination does occur, it will remain local and be much easier to identify–this our save us national hysteria, and while one community might have to be wary of a certain crop for a while the rest of the nation could continue to eat without qualms. Other benefits? Freshness, taste, supporting local jobs…

Indeed, Philpott suggests buying local and getting to know local farmers. He also recommends planting in your yard or in a pot. This is something I’ve been getting better at for the last couple years and also highly recommend. There’s something extremely satisfying about watching your food grow from plant to flower to vegetable, and there’s nothing like aroma of fresh herbs and eating the delicious food that you grew… and it’s really not that complicated. A little water, sun, and warmth usually does the trick.

 By doing these things, Philpott tells us, “You’ll be taking a measure of control over — and responsibility for — food production in a society of passive food consumers. And you’ll be gaining food-growing knowledge in a system predicated on consumer ignorance.”

 Empowerment.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Beijing: A Thirsty City in the Desert

Filed under: China, Water — Cathy @ 4:42 pm

Last month, the 5th “World Water Congress” was hosted by Beijing – a fitting place to discuss the sustainable use of water resources.  A city of 15 million people in a desert is a sure recipe for water shortages and severe ecological problems.  Already Beijing’s per capita water supply is around 300 cubic meters; the international cut-off for declaring a region to be experiencing a water shortage is 1000 cubic meters per capita.  And Beijing’s groundwater table is significantly overdrawn each year.  The same groundwater table serves both Beijing and Tianjin (another huge city nearby); according to the World Watch Institute, this water table has an annual rechargeable supply of 7.1 billion cubic meters, yet it has been used to meet an annual demand of 12.1 billion cubic meters – a demand which is projected to increase in the future. (see http://www.worldwatch.org/node/4407)

But the Chinese government is dealing with this problem – in its typical larger-than-life style.  A few years ago, China announced that it would build the world’s largest water diversion project to take water from the Yangtze River to northern China.  This project involves the construction of 3 canals, totaling more than 3,000 km (1800 miles), and is expected to be completed around 2050 at a projected cost of more than US$60 billion.  Construction has already started on part of one of the canals, in order to divert water to Beijing from reservoirs in the neighboring province of Hebei in time for the 2008 Olympics, according to a recent article in the China Daily (http://www1.china.org.cn/english/environment/171889.htm).

I am struck by the similarity to proposals several decades ago in the United States to divert water from the Yukon to the thirsty and growing desert southwest (as described in Marc Reisner’s classic book “Cadillac Desert”).  When I read about this, the concept seemed so absurd, uneconomical, and environmentally disastrous that I couldn’t imagine it ever happening.  But once again, China has proven to me that if you take the United States’ environmental problems and blow them up to an even greater scale, the absurd suddenly becomes reality.

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Smoggy Skies

Filed under: Air Pollution, China — Cathy @ 10:28 am

Beijing smogThe following 2 pictures are views from my building on a smoggy day and a (relatively) clear day here in Beijing.  I’ve only been here since September, and I’ve heard that the smog is even worse in the summer.  (Beijing also gets bad dust storms in early spring, due to dust from increasing desertification in Inner Mongolia blowing through the city, but that’s a different story).

According to someone who has lived in Beijing for the last several years, Beijing’s air qualiBeijing no smogty has actually improved over the last several years.  This is largely a result of the local government banning the burning of coal within the city (previously coal was a common heating and cooking fuel among less affluent residents of the city – I’m not sure what they’re using now).  Although that was a major step, car ownership, traffic, and traffic jams have only been increasing lately and are likely to continue to do so unless the city makes a serious push towards encouraging public transportation, as discussed in my last post.  Fortunately, Beijing has an incentive to do so with the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics here; presumably they don’t want their athletes to all collapse from asthma, nor do they want to televise to the world a sporting event where blue skies are nowhere to be seen.  Considering that summer is the worst season for smog, Beijing clearly has a lot of work to do in a very short time.

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