Environment & the World

Friday, February 23, 2007

Mining Tibet

Filed under: China, Development, Environmental Justice — Cathy @ 1:11 pm

Last weekend I had a conversation with a Chinese friend of mine in which we wondered what long-term impact of the new Tibetan railway (completed in 2006) would have on Tibetan lifestyle and culture. We were both concerned that the closer link between Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) and the central government would lead to increased pressure for Tibet to develop along Western lines, possibly at the expense of their environment and cultural traditions.

An article in yesterday’s Time Magazine suggests that our fears are not unfounded. The article reports on a recent announcement by the Chinese government of the discovery of large mineral deposits, including 1 billion tons of iron ore, 40 million tons of copper, and 40 million tons of lead. The findings represent a doubling of China’s copper, zinc, and lead reserves. Unfortunately, “the potential reserves, with an estimated value of $128 billion, are spread over more than 600 sites on the Tibetan plateau.” The article goes on to say that, without the Tibetan Railway, it would not be affordable to transport the minerals back east.

The Tibetan government-in-exile and environmental groups are opposed to mining, which would be very damaging to the fragile alpine environment. The Tibetan government further fears that the profits from mining would all go east with the minerals, leaving little benefit to the Tibetan people.

It appears that the Chinese government is now facing its first major test of its professed commitment to sustainable development in Tibet. In previous posts I have touched on the increasing friendship and trade between China and Africa, which sometimes comes at the expense of human rights and true development assistance. Let’s see if the Chinese government can do any better within its own country.


Monday, February 5, 2007

President Hu’s African tour

Filed under: China, Development, Politics — Cathy @ 12:13 pm

Chinese President Hu Jintao is currently in Sudan, as part of an 8-nation tour of Africa.  Hu’s visit to Africa follows quickly on the heels of November’s China-Africa Summit in Beijing, emphasizing China’s growing role in the region.

China, which purchases 60% of Sudan’s oil exports, has a huge influence in the region and has been widely criticized for blocking the UN Security Council from taking a more active role against the Sudanese government actions in Darfur.  For the last several months, it has been unclear whether Sudan will be willing to allow 20,000 UN peacekeepers into Darfur.  It is too soon to say what will come of Hu’s visit to Sudan this weekend, but some are optimistic that the Chinese will use their influence to promote an end to the violence and closer cooperation with the UN (largely due to increasing international pressure on China).  Hu reportedly urged the Sudanese president to bring more rebels into the peace process (http://www.wilmingtonstar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070203/NEWS/702030347/-1/State).  However, Hu made no reference to Darfur in the statement he released after meeting with Sudan’s president.  (http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/26864.html)

Before Sudan, President Hu visited Zambia where, according to the Chinese newspaper The People’s Daily, he announced an aid package that includes some debt relief, increasing the number of zero-tariff Zambian exports to China, and money for a stadium, hospital, and two schools (http://english.people.com.cn/200702/04/eng20070204_347422.html).  However, western papers are quick to point out that not all Zambians are appreciative of this aid.  According to the Economist, African governments like China because China’s aid money (which Hu has promised to double over the next 3 years) comes without any “political conditions”, i.e. insistence on reducing corruption or improving human rights improvements.  But the Economist further points out that anti-Chinese sentiment is rising among the general populace:

“In Zambia, where China has big copper-mining interests, a candidate in last year’s presidential election promised, if elected, to chase out Chinese investors after lethal riots at a Chinese-controlled mine. In Nigeria, Chinese oil workers and engineers have joined Western counterparts in being kidnapped and ransomed by insurgents in the country’s Niger Delta region. And there have been protests in South Africa and Zimbabwe against cheap clothing imported from China.” (http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8649776)

Indeed, Zambia’s chief opposition party was prevented from attending any events associated with President Hu’s visit; the party has made no secret of its displeasure at increasing Chinese involvement in Zambia (http://somalinet.com/news/world/Africa/7201). 

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tracking water polluters in China

Filed under: China, Water — Cathy @ 6:44 pm

The Beijing Review (http://www.bjreview.com.cn/nation/txt/2007-01/10/content_53158.htm) ran an interesting article today about Ma Jun, a leading Chinese environmental activist and recently named China’s “Green Person of the Year.”  Ma’s work is primarily related to water pollution and his 1999 book “China’s Water Crisis” has been compared to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” for the impact it has had on the Chinese environmental movement and government policy.  His decision to write the book was based on a trip to the Yellow River:

“During one of Ma’s field trips to the Yellow River, the second longest river in China, in the mid-1990s, he found to his surprise that the river, which went dry seasonally in its lower reaches for the first time in 1972, ran dry for stretches of up to 700 km for a record breaking 226 days in 1997, due to increased demands on the river for irrigation use.

Even more shocking for Ma was the comments of experts on such a phenomenon. “I heard some mainstream water experts rejoicing over this tragedy, saying that not only was the river no longer overflowing its banks, but not a single drop of the river water is wasted in the sea, ” said Ma. He made the decision to write his book after finding out that the Yellow River irrigation model, regarded as a success, would be copied on other major rivers.”

Now Ma’s work focuses on mapping water pollution levels and the locations of companies who are discharging illegal levels of water pollution.  Already the database contains over 3000 companies – including 33 multinational companies and 5 Fortune 500 companies.  In Ma’s words, “They have repeatedly stressed their commitment to environmental protection and good corporate citizenship to Chinese consumers. It is regrettable that they even failed to meet the environmental standards of the local government even if they have the capacity, capital and techniques to do so.” Indeed, not only have these companies failed to live up to Chinese water pollution laws, but they have even tried to pressure Ma to withdraw their names from his map; thus far, he has refused to do so.

According to http://www.probeinternational.org/tgp/index.cfm?DSP=content&ContentID=16545, the Fortune 500 companies include “a subsidiary of Panasonic, Changchun Pepsico, and Nestle Sources Shanghai.”

Friday, January 19, 2007

“Cancer Villages” in China

Filed under: China, Development, Economics, Environmental Justice — Cathy @ 10:01 am

The BBC recently ran an article about the so-called “cancer villages” in south China, the victims of China’s rapid industrialization and poor pollution controls.  The drinking and irrigation water for these villages in Guangdong Province are being polluted by mining waste upstream.  In the village of Shangba, scientists have found high levels of poisonous heavy metals in the water.  According to the article, “250 people from the village’s population of 3,000 have died of cancer since 1987, although statistics in China are often unreliable.”  In the broader picture, “some 320 million people drink polluted water every day” in China.

This is but one manifestation of the incredible gap between rich and poor in China (and in most other developing nations).  The gap in per capita income between urban and rural residents in China increased by more than a factor of 6 between 1990 and 2003, according to the UNDP (http://www.undp.org.cn/downloads/nhdr2005/06chapter2.pdf).  Living in Beijing, I might as well be in a completely different country.  Of course Beijing has its own share of serious environmental and public health problems, notably its air pollution, but these problems are much more similar (albeit more extreme) to those that would be faced in urban areas in developed nations.  With most of the external costs of China’s mining and heavy industries borne by the rural areas, it is no wonder that urbanization is occurring so rapidly in China. 

China has a long way to go to solve such problems.  Despite the Chinese government’s goal of a “harmonious society” it is failing at implementing regulations regarding mine safety and environmental controls, and it is also failing at improving energy efficiency of heavy industries.  Corruption is a serious problem in improving mine safety and pollution controls; because many local officials own stock in the coal mines, they tend to look the other way when mines try to cut costs.  The government is aware of this problem and is working to punish corrupt local officials; as of the end of 2005, it was estimated that “some 3200 of the estimated 4578 officials who had shares in coal mines(totaling some … US$80.5 million) had retracted these stakes” (http://www.worldwatch.org/node/58).  Despite this, China still faces the larger problem of having a rapidly growing economy based in large part on the inefficient use of coal.  This month it was revealed that China failed to meet its stated goal in the 11th Five Year Plan to reduce energy intensity by 4% in 2006; instead, energy intensity continued to increase.  (http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,459155,00.html)    Without a more concerted effort to control pollution and regulate industry (perhaps even at the expense of economic growth!) I don’t see any possibility for the rural and urban areas to form a “harmonious society.”

Monday, December 25, 2006

Ecological Restoration in China

Filed under: Agriculture, China, Development — Cathy @ 12:59 am

Last weekend I managed to get outside of Beijing and visit Shanxi Province, about 7 hours west by train.  I visited the city of Datong, famed for its coal mining industry.  The surrounding countryside, however, is a poor farming area, dominated by terrace farming.  Shanxi is located on the Loess Plateau, an area larger than France, with some of the poorest soil in China.

The Loess Plateau, which contains the Yellow River, is considered the cradle of China’s first civilization.  However, as with the other once-fertile areas that gave rise to ancient civilizations, hundreds of years of cultivation have taken a severe toll on the land.  More recently, increased population pressures, deforestation, and overgrazing have also contributed to the soil erosion.  The Loess Plateau now has the dubious distinction of being “the most eroded place on earth”, according to a recent report by Forum for the Future (http://www.greenfutures.org.uk/supplements.aspx?id=27)

However, it is also home to a recent success story in ecological restoration.  In Shaanxi Province (just west of Shanxi), also located on the Loess Plateau, a 7 year restoration project has lifted hundreds of thousands of farmers out of poverty.  It also appears to be one of the relatively few examples of the World Bank successfully contributing to its goal of a “world free of poverty.”  The World Bank-financed Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project focused
on about 2% of the Plateau’s land area containing some of the poorest of counties in China.  In order to reduce soil erosion and restore soils, the project emphasized replanting slopes with trees and grasses and restricting grazing.  Locals were employed to replant the hillsides, while also creating terraced fields for agriculture so that crops were no longer planted on hillsides.  According to the World Bank, “the population living under the poverty line in the poverty
area has dropped from 59% in 1993 to 27% in 2001.” (http://info.worldbank.org/etools/reducingpoverty/docs/newpdfs/case-summ-China-Loess-Plateau.pdf)

A key reason for the success of the Shaanxi was the involvement of local people in planning and carrying out the restoration.  Similar ecological restoration is desperately needed in other areas in China. South China also boasts severe soil erosion as a result of deforestation.  In northern China, overgrazing is rapidly turning grassland into desert.  As with the former situation in Shaanxi, these areas seem hopeless because as the environment degrades the poor people in the region have no other option but to continue to sustain their pressure on the region in order to survive.  But the example of the Loess Plateau project suggests that this seemingly hopeless cycle can be broken by well-planned government and/or international

Saturday, December 2, 2006

China’s “development aid” to Africa

Filed under: China, Development, Environmental Justice — Cathy @ 5:26 pm

I want to follow up on my earlier post discussing China’s increasing involvement in Africa’s extractive industries.  At November’s China-Africa summit, Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jinbao made a number of promises for increasing aid to Africa, including doubling China’s aid money to Africa by 2009, giving debt relief to impoverished nations with diplomatic relations with China, and setting up a US$5 billion fund to encourage Chinese companies to invest in Africa (http://english.people.com.cn/200611/04/eng20061104_318372.html).

However, this does not guarantee that any of the problems I discussed in my previous post regarding the environmental and human rights violations from extractive industries will be resolved.  Many African newspapers are less than enthusiastic about China’s increasing role in their continent, citing concerns over human rights abuses and a lack of commitment on the part of Chinese companies to sustainable development.  A recent article discussing China’s business dealings in Zambia is a case in point.  As part of the new aid package for China, Zambia would receive debt relief and would be the site of a new economic zone for China.  However,

“locals have become less enthusiastic about China’s embrace, largely because of poor labor practices … Ministry of Labour and Social Security permanent secretary, Ngosa Chisupa, said ‘about 80 percent of foreign investors in Zambia do not remit anything to the pensions board for employees, they don’t give employees any benefits upon termination, and the employees are made to work without any signed contracts on the conditions of service.’” 

Last year, 51 Zambian miners were killed in an explosion at China’s biggest mine in Zambia.  Foreign investors can get away with ignoring Zambia’s labor laws thanks to corruption on the part of Zambian government officials. 

So, despite the promises of increased aid money to Africa, there is no guarantee that Chinese corporations will start acting more responsibly.  And, given China’s own lax labor standards, it seems unlikely that the Chinese government will exert any serious influence on its companies’ business dealings in Africa.  It seems clear that the only way around this impasse is the development of international laws government multinational corporations; a report by the UK charity Christian Aid (http://www.christian-aid.org.uk/indepth/0401csr/index.htm) argues quite powerfully for such international laws requiring corporate social and environmental responsibility.  As the report says “when a company’s primary legal obligation is to make profit for its shareholders, its human rights and environmental responsibilities must also be legally binding.”  Because so many multinational corporations have separate branches operating in different countries to limit their liabilities, it is difficult for national laws to be applied.  The report argues that the EU and international financial institutions like the World Bank should play a large role in developing and implementing such regulations; certainly, a commitment by the World Bank to only finance projects run by companies satisfying social responsibility criteria would go a long way towards solving this problem.  Of course, given the Bank’s historical lack of interest in environmental concerns, this would basically be a revolution in the Bank’s lending practices.  It seems to me that the pressure to develop and enforce such international laws would have to come from outside.   In short, it is likely going to be up to concerned citizens and NGOs in the developed world to make sure that the investments that China and other countries make in African development will truly contribute to improved living conditions in the region.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

China’s Takeover of Africa

Filed under: China, Development, Environmental Justice — Cathy @ 2:17 pm

One thing that is sometimes overlooked when people (like Bono) talk about ending poverty in Africa is the huge role that multinational corporations play in extractive industries in Africa.  And more and more of those raw materials are now going straight to China.  According to a recent article, Angola is now China’s largest single oil provider.  China also gets ore and platinum from South Africa, copper and cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, and timber from Cameroon and Congo Brazzaville.  The article states, “from a US$3 billion mark in 1995, trade between China and Africa last year stood at US$32 billion. Projections are that the figures will hit US$50 billion by the end of this year and will triple by 2015, the UN’s target year to halve poverty worldwide.”

The key question is: how will this rapidly growing trade impact the UN’s poverty alleviation goals? Certainly extractive industries in Africa do not have a good track record.  One need only look at the Niger Delta as a case in point. After about 40 years and more than $350 billion dollars worth of oil development, the people of the Delta are poorer than they were before.  The money has chiefly gone to the multinational corporations and to prop up a corrupt government, perpetuating a host of human rights abuses, including the murder of human rights and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. (see, eg, http://www.remembersarowiwa.com/delta.htm)

Is there any way to improve this situation?  Certainly it appears that the extractive industries are not going to leave Africa any time soon, if the above projections regarding China are even remotely accurate.  But large infrastructure or resource extraction projects are inherently not conducive to poverty alleviation.  For starters, the scale of the solutions to poverty issues are often orders of magnitude smaller than the scale of investment and profits from resource extraction.  Successful micro-credit poverty alleviation programs like the Grameen Bank (winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize) are based on the idea of distributing small amounts of money to large numbers of people and allowing them to develop their own small businesses; large resource extraction projects, which typically give a large amount of money to a very few people, are almost diametrically opposite to this idea. 

There is no easy solution to this problem.  Multi-national corporations in principle could insist on fair compensation for people displaced by their projects and make a sustained commitment to micro-credit and other small-scale projects.  But they have no incentive to do so.  I think it will ultimately depend on the activists in developed nations demanding that multi-national corporations make a serious commitment to appropriate technology development in Africa – instead of the usual model of throwing money at large dams and road projects, all the while propping up corrupt governments, and calling it development.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Alternatives to Environmental Economics?

Filed under: China, Economics — Cathy @ 2:01 pm

This post is a bit of a follow-on to some previous posts on environmental economics.  I generally agree with Amir’s previous post that the idea of assigning a dollar value to nature is not very meaningful because some things simply cannot be measured in money. Yes, there are plenty of assumptions that one can make and that are made, but ultimately things like the value of human and non-human life cannot be quantified.  Moreover, I also tend to agree that trying to assign a dollar value to such things perpetuates a rather narrow-minded worldview.

On the other hand, I am having trouble thinking of a viable alternative that would force people to pay attention in a similar way.  Having followed some of the fall-out from the Stern report (which I wrote about a couple weeks ago), I was impressed by how seriously it was taken by the business and investment communities in certain countries.  Granted, as mentioned above and in my previous post, quantifying the projected damage of various climate change scenarios
is a very uncertain business, but the ultimate conclusion that acting to stabilize carbon concentrations at a reasonable level would cost 1% of GDP while doing nothing would cost more like 10% is pretty powerful; even if 10% really means more like 5%-15%, the conclusion is
still the same.

In the long term, maybe we don’t want to live in a world where environmental decisions and plans are made on the basis of this sort of analysis.  But what would that world look like and how would we get there?  I have no idea. Living in China, I am not particularly inspired by their alternative.  Having a centrally planned economy is not exactly good for the environment unless the central planners have uncommon foresight.  (Which, given Chairman Mao’s ardent belief in dam building and in “growing grain everywhere”, he clearly did not).  It seems unlikely to me that we will ever find anything better than a market-oriented economy, and if that is the case, we will always be plagued by this question of assigning dollar values to nature.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Coal Here to Stay?

Filed under: China, Energy — Cathy @ 12:46 pm

Working in the energy sector in China, even focusing on renewable energy as I am, one can hardly be unaware of the incredible importance of coal.  For better or for worse, China has a huge amount of coal reserves, and it is bent on making use of them.  Indeed, I was shocked to learn that coal production approximately doubled in China between 2000 and 2005.  (I am still unable to grasp the speed at which things change in this country …)

Coal is a fairly unpleasant industry on virtually every level – from mining operations that ruin the landscape and miners’ health to the ultimate production of carbon dioxide that is destabilizing the climate.  In China, the statistics for coal mining deaths are particularly staggering: 20 mine deaths per day in 2005.  As most environmentalists do, I have long hoped that we will be able to quickly turn away from this dirty energy source to renewables and energy efficiency.  How likely is that to happen in the near future though? 

I was recently looking at an interesting report analyzing recent trends in renewable energy markets and policies (see http://www.martinot.info/Martinot_Environment.pdf).  The report points out some facts that were news to me and probably to many other people: for example, the installed capacity of renewable energy (excluding large hydropower) is nearly half that of nuclear power (although it only generates about one-fifth of the electricity of nuclear because it is more intermittent); or, “30 percent of all gasoline sold in the United States has ethanol blended with it.”  Indeed, it seems that the renewable energy industry, unbeknownst to many policymakers who still view it as prohibitively expensive, is making significant progress.  The report concludes that optimistic scenarios of getting 40-50% of our energy from renewable sources by 2050 are looking more and more plausible.

But, while this is good news, we also have to remember that energy consumption will also likely increase drastically during this period.  A growth rate in energy consumption of 1.4% (less than the current rate of 1.5%) would lead to a doubling of energy consumption by 2050.  Currently, we get 77% of our energy from fossil fuels, 6% from nuclear, and 17% from renewables (including large hydropower).  So if we assume that nuclear energy remains constant over the next fifty years, even if renewables account for 50% of total energy by 2050, we will still require about a 25% increase in fossil fuel consumption.

The above – very, very rough – analysis suggests that if we want to make a serious dent in coal consumption, we will need a broader social transformation than a conversion of our primary energy supply to more renewables.  Energy efficiency clearly has a huge role to play.  And by energy efficiency, I don’t mean just improving fuel economy standards or power plant efficiencies, but also lifestyle changes – improved public transport, better designed cities, and more locally-based economies.

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.

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