Environment & the World

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?

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.

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11: An Environmental Disaster

Filed under: Air Pollution — amirj @ 12:19 pm

Not only did 9/11 represent a national tragedy, it was also an environmental nightmare. While almost 3,000 people died in the day’s events, many survivors have died in the five years since and thousands of NYC residents and rescue, demolition, and clean-up workers have suffered (or still do suffer) from diseases as a result of the toxic environment in the aftermath.

 The Natural Resources Defense Council compiled data about the extent of the environmental damage that resulted from the collapse of the World Trade Center. Consider this piece that appeared in an article in the Spring 2002 edition of their OnEarth magazine:

“The collapse of the World Trade Center towers led to the release of as much as 300 to 400 tons of asbestos from the north tower and the destruction of two electrical substations underneath World Trade Center 7 that contained 130,000 gallons of transformer oil contaminated with PCBs. In fine-particle samples taken near the site in October, the UC-Davis team found lead, sulfuric acid, and silicon; some levels of these metals were the highest ever recorded in air in the United States.” [Emphasis added]

 As if the thought of several major skyscrapers collapsing isn’t horrific enough, think about all the material contained in them that would normally be removed before any demolition: computers, wires, flourescent lights, furniture, plastics, phones, etc. Read pages 3 and 4 of the NRDC’s preliminary assessment (pdf) of the environmental impacts of the World Trade Center attacks to get a vivid idea of all the pollution this created. With mercury, lead, and other heavy metals as well as dioxins, PCBs, and VOCs spewed into the air, the day ushered in a toxic who’s who of air pollutants.

Back in 2002 the NRDC estimated that some 10,000 people suffered from exposure to the toxic environment in the aftermath of 9/11. Now, five years later, the Mount Sinai Medical Center has released its study of health effects on WTC responders.

The results come from medical examinations that Mount Sinai provided to 12,000 WTC responders, 9,500 of which agreed to be in the study, in a 21-month period between 2002 and 2004. Among the findings, “The report found that a high proportion of those examined became sick as a result of their World Trade Center work. It found also that illnesses have persisted in the years since September 11 in a high proportion of the workers.” Furthermore:

  • “Almost 70 percent of World Trade Center responders had a new or worsened respiratory symptom that developed during or after their time working at the WTC
  • Among the responders who were asymptomatic before 9/11, 61 percent developed respiratory symptoms while working at the WTC”

Unfortunately, this report focuses on respiratory diseases that resulted from the aftermath of the WTC collapse and therefore it might not even provide the full picture of the harmful effects 9/11 responders are still living with. In a segment I saw yesterday on CNN I vaguely recall the mention of many (thousands?) of responders who have now developed various cancers, likely as a result of their exposure to the highly toxic air that resulted from the 9/11 attacks.

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