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.


Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Natural Capitalism, Ch. 5

Filed under: Development, Reading Group — Cathy @ 12:42 pm

This chapter is all about green buildings.  Again H&L emphasize a recurring theme in this book – that the whole is different from just the sum of its parts.  A design framework in which each engineer or architect individually optimizes his own component of the building doesn’t necessarily result in the optimum building.  This is one of the greatest challenges of good green design.  If it were merely about putting the right technologies together in the right way, that would be a fairly simple task; the real challenge is to implement a new framework with which to approach building design.  H&L emphasize the need to “have the architects, engineers, landscapers, hydrologists, artists, builders, commissioners (specialists who get the building working properly between construction and occupancy), occupants, maintenance staff, and others who have a stake in a particular building all design the building together.”

H&L emphasize that, in contrast to conventional wisdom, green buildings, if done right, can have lower capital costs than traditional construction – largely by saving on infrastructure and by using passive heating and cooling techniques.  Companies can also get surprisingly large returns from increased worker productivity.  But these savings for green buildings don’t just apply to commercial buildings – green homes can also be much more efficient at no net additional cost.  In their most impressive example, H&L write:

“A Pacific Gas and Electric Company experiment eliminated cooling equipment in two normal-looking tract houses. The first, in Davis, California, where peak temperatures can reach 113°F, was a mid-range ($249,500), 1,656-square-foot speculative home, completed in 1993. During three-day, 104°-plus heat storms, the indoor temperature didn’t top 82°, and the neighbors came into the house with no air conditioner to take refuge from their own inefficient houses, whose big air conditioners couldn’t cope. Yet if routinely built, rather than as a one-off experiment, the Davis house would cost about $1,800 less to build, and $1,600 less to maintain over its life than a comparable but normally inefficient home, because it had no heating or cooling equipment to buy or maintain.” 

In addition to energy savings, natural resource savings can be achieved by retrofitting existing buildings or reusing materials from prior structures.  H&L note that internet markets are appearing for trading construction materials / waste. 

H&L also discuss the need to correct the incentive structure that governs building design.  That is, the contractors and designers can get away with installing cheap and inefficient equipment because they’re not the ones paying the electricity and heating bills.  (Also, at least in some countries, the way the building is initially designed and the way it is finally built are not necessarily the same, as contractors try to cut costs.  A recent report by the Chinese Ministry of Construction found that in 2005, 75% of new buildings in Beijing were designed to follow the energy efficiency code … but only 5% were actually built that way!)  For example, designers and contractors who design a more efficiency building could be allowed to recoup a portion of the yearly savings.  Leases could stipulate a sharing of the energy efficiency savings between landlords and tenants to encourage both to be more efficient, both in purchasing and using the appliances.

H&L conclude the chapter by discussing the larger context – building green buildings in mixed-use, non-sprawling developments.  They note that these “new urbanist” models are often more popular than traditional suburban developments: “the opportunities they create for ‘negacars’ and ‘negatrips’, for convivial communities, and for safer and better places to raise children can be welcome … to developers’ bottom lines.”

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). 

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.”

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Major Dam Project Completed in India

Filed under: Development, Energy, Environmental Justice, Water — Cathy @ 12:51 pm

2007 is shaping up to be an interesting year for the tens of thousands of people who will be displaced by the recent completion of the highly controversial Sardar Sarovar dam in India.  The Sardar Sarovar is the largest of a series of 30 large dams proposed for the Narmada River, India’s fifth largest river.  The project was started in 1987 but was delayed for many years by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (“Save the Narmada”) movement and its supporters, as well as by conflicts between various Indian states over how to divide the benefits of the dam.  The NBA is a grassroots movement to defend the rights of the 320,000 people who have been or will be displaced by the project.  According to the Friends of the River Narmada (http://www.narmada.org/sardarsarovar.html), the NBA managed to convince the World Bank, which was at one time funding $450 million for dam construction, to commission an independent review of the project; the review report supported the NBA’s main concerns ultimately caused the bank to withdraw its support. 

The Indian government claims that the dam will irrigate 1.8 million hectares of farmland, provide drinking water for 20 million people, and generate 1,450 MW of peak power (http://www.dailyindia.com/show/99695.php/Controversial-Sardar-Sarovar-Dam-against-tribal-interests:-Medha-Patkar).   Whether or not these benefits will actually be realized is also highly controversial, but there is certainly no denying that the states that would benefit from irrigation and drinking water from the dam are extremely dry and in need of additional water supplies.  Even so, it does not follow that a mega-dam is the best way to meet those needs.  Rainwater harvesting, including bringing back traditional rural methods of rainwater catchment, has proven to work well in these drought-prone areas, providing enough water to meet rural needs without drawing down the water table. (http://www.goodnewsindia.com/Pages/content/conservation/drought.htm).

As of the beginning of 2006, the dam had already been constructed to a height of 111 meters; Dec 31, 2006 marked the completion of the project, at a final height of 122 meters.  This additional 11 meter height increase is estimated to displace 35,000 families, according to the United Nations (http://www.narmada.org/misc/unhcr.html).   In 2000, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that further height increases would not be allowed until the government had proved that previously displaced people had been compensated.  However, according to the UN, this has not occurred; many of the people who were previously displaced, largely indigenous people and farmers, have yet to receive adequate rehabilitation and arable land.

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.

Friday, November 3, 2006

The Price of Nature?

Filed under: Development, Economics — amirj @ 12:43 pm

Environmentalists have for a long time taken issue with the economic concept of externalities. From Wikipedia:

“In economics, an externality is an effect from one activity which has consequences for another activity but is not reflected in market prices. Externalities can be either positive, when an external benefit is generated, or negative, when an external cost is generated from a market transaction.

An externality occurs when a decision causes costs or benefits to stakeholders other than the person making the decision, often, though not necessarily, from the use of common goods (for example, a decision which results in pollution of the atmosphere would involve an externality).”

As the Wikipedia entry suggests in the last sentence, the environment often bears a negative brunt from economic transactions that take place without fully considering negative side effects. Air pollution is a big externality because those who generate it are not always held responsible. The scarring of our landscape from mountaintop removal mining and subsequent toxic runoff is external to the costs of mining. The loss of coastal wetlands and their importance as a natural buffer is usual external to coastal development.

Because the concept of externalities enables people who make decisions in an economistic framework to shrug off environmentally destructive consequences of their decisions, we often hear a call to reform of sorts: internalize the externalities. Internalizing external costs would entail reflecting the cost of environmental damage in the market transaction. So the price of coal would be more expensive than it is now if its price included externalities from the process of mining coal like the costs in health to the miners, the cost of mountaintop removal, etc. when appropriate.

The useful in this approach is that when consumers pay for something, they pay a price that is reflective of the good and the bad that goes into creating a product. Ideally, the products that can be manufactured with the least amount of negative effects would be cheaper. In this scenario the market would indeed favor more ethical and responsible business.

Unfortunately, assigning a price tag to externalities is not always simple. How would you price air pollution? Disease? Biodiversity? Coastal wetlands? One can think creatively to come up with a numerical value to these things, but it certainly is neither straightforward nor obvious.

As arbitrary and fickle as it seems to put numbers to these natural “services,” serious research into this problem is here.

“Researcher Kai Chan of the University of British Columbia said the model will help estimate the dollar value to people of such “ecosystem services” as mangroves and wetlands.

Such modeling could allow decision-makers to include the costs and benefits of nature conservation when planning developments such as housing, agriculture zones or hydroelectric dams.”

One impulse is to laud this research because we may now have a way to internalize the externalities in economic terms. This is supposed to be a good thing that would make the costs of environmental damage explicit.

Yet, when I read the article, I couldn’t help but feeling queasy. A model that will estimate dollar values to nature?!? Why do we need such a model to tell us that nature conservation is good and worthwhile when planning development projects? The researcher concedes the arbitrary element to this project, “Chan said that until now there has been no way to effectively measure the value of nature to people, although he noted in some ways its value is “infinite” because without nature people cannot survive.”

Just like the MasterCard commercial, some things in life are priceless. I used to think that protecting a swath of land and enjoying the great outdoors were one of them.

While providing an explicit dollar value to nature may discourage some grossly destructive practices, it by no means guarantees preservation or sustainable development. What if, for example, we find a more “cost effective way” to protect coastal towns than protecting coastal wetlands? Or what if we decide it’s simply more “cost effective” to pollute the air as opposed to cleaning it up and holding big polluters accountable?

The intentions of these researchers probably are in the right place, but I still worry. Do they realize that the primary outcome of their research may not be to breathe new life into the “value” of nature, but rather to strengthen a way of thinking about the world that has gotten us to the complicated and destructive state we’re in?

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.

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