Chip’s Q&A in the South China Morning Post: “How the US and the West Contributed to China’s Addiction to Dirty Development”

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Los Angeles-based author Chip Jacobs became well known in China for his book, Smogtown, about  
pollution in the Californian metropolis, which he co-authored with William Kelly. The pair have now turned their attention to China’s struggle with pollution in their book, The People’s Republic of Chemicals. Jacobs spoke to LI JING

What are the root causes of China’s pollution problems?

I think it’s connected with China’s tragic history – whether with the foreign occupation, the Opium Wars, the Japanese invasion or the cold war. All those historical events in some way encouraged China to continue using coal to fuel its industry, warm its homes and maintain development. For years, China was stuck in old-fashioned coal dependence.

In the 1990s, the US was eager to bring China into the world of nations. The cold war had ended and the Soviet Union had dissolved, but China remained a mystery. The US leadership of Bill Clinton and Al Gore wanted China to be involved in the global economy, but they made a fundamental mistake that led to a fight with Washington. Gore wanted any deal that brought China into the World Trade Organisation to include controls on China using dirty coal, which increased global warming and created air pollution. But he lost his fight.

Record pollution levels in Beijing regularly blot out sunlight during the daytime. Image: SCMP

China went on to become a gigantic export powerhouse. At that time the central leadership was looking for an edge, to make China competitive. It was a perfect storm for China to have a very dirty industrial revolution. The US had a very dirty industrial revolution at the dawn of the last century – and a lot of people died. It’s as if the lessons were never remembered.

China was so hungry to pump up its economy and to export its products, which it produced at a cost that did not fully reflect their true environmental cost. Americans, through buying a huge amount of those goods, only encouraged China to manufacture in a dirty way. I realised that was the byproduct of globalisation – a story that no-one had really told.

Severe pollution and haze chokes Beijing. Image: Simon Song/SCMP

Could tougher rules have avoided China’s environmental crisis?

Yes, the US helped create this environmental Frankenstein. On the one hand, we brought China into the WTO – on the other, we feverishly bought its cheap, non-environmentally friendly products. When Barack Obama visited China last November he said that he wouldn’t let his daughters breath Beijing’s polluted air. I wish he had said that the US bore some of the blame here. I don’t think he was telling the full story. Within a few years of joining the WTO, China’s greenhouse gas emissions were exploding.

But didn’t China willingly choose that path of development?

I think China’s leadership faced a great dilemma. It had elevated between 300 to 400 million people out of poverty, but at the same time a respected study – [whose findings were released this year by Berkeley university] showed that that about 4,000 Chinese were dying every day from its air pollution. The Communist Party must have felt it had made a pact with the devil, because China doesn’t have many energy resources other than coal .

Where I do think the Chinese government needs to change is how it disseminates information. Only recently did it officially acknowledge the existence of cancer villages [that have abnormally high rates of the disease, linked to pollution].

What I don’t get about China is why such a powerful country cannot accept valid criticism. Whenever people demonstrate about a polluting factory, state censors block blogs, track down those writing them and crack down on electronic communication.

I think that creates a lot of resentment and suspicion [towards the government]. I just hope China’s leadership will feel more confident to allow people to become informed, without worrying about whether it would cause social unrest.

Industrial pollution in China. Image: SCMP

Do you think mounting public pressure will force real change?

I believe China is getting on the right path. The leadership pledged big funds for a cleanup, even though China still lacks a national air quality plan that everybody can understand, or an air pollution inventory.

But things are getting better. Besides promises of more funds, and making firm plans such as peaking coal consumption in 2030, China’s anti-corruption campaign has arrested “tigers and flies” in the energy sector. To me, it’s the Communist Party’s way of tackling the head of the problem, because some of the big state [energy] companies were blocking reform.

I do believe that the more China’s becomes a middle-class society, the less its leadership can get away with stifling information. And I think they’re realising that they can no longer play the same game – getting mad at people who are victims, or passing responsibility for problems to the lower-ranking officials.

News and Notes from a Broiling Planet

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* 2015 Likely to Be Hottest Year Ever RecordedThe New York Times

China Confronts the Pain of Kicking its Coal AddictionWashington Post 

Atmospheric chemistry: China’s choking cocktailNature

Apple Announces Factory Upgrades In Plan To Help China Reduce Air PollutionHuffington Post

New Megalopolis a Fresh Chance to Clean China’s Skies, Report SaysWall Street Journal

IBM’s Watson Could Hold The Key To Fighting Beijing’s Brutal PollutionGizmodo 

How Angelenos Beat Back SmogZocalo Public Square 

Los Angeles, Beijing agree on plan to promote clean air as part of Obama-Xi dealLos Angeles Times

* India Announces Plan to Lower Rate of Greenhouse Gas EmissionsThe New York Times

 

 

May Pollution Showers – Provocative links from the authors of PRC & Smogtown

Thank you John Oliver. You are our hero. Your fulmination against sweatshops can apply to Western blind spots when it comes to how are “Made-in-China” products are manufactured. We are not worthy! 


 

* CHINESE POLLUTION *

– Beijing’s Air is Now a Little Less ToxicGrist –  

– Here’s What China Closing Coal-Power Plants Means for EmissionsBloomberg Business

–  Why is this City the Worst Air Polluter?CNN –  Himalayas Fail as Pollutants BarrierScientific American 


* CHINESE MONEY *

– The Environmental Impact of China’s Investment in AfricaInternational Policy Digest

– Chinese Developer Leads Transformation of L.A.’ SkylineLos Angeles Times   * CHINA AND COAL V 2.0 *  – Miners of HuaibeiChinaFile

– China’s National Coal Cap Policy Could Save Nearly 50,000 Lives and $6.2 Billion Every Year by 2020Huffington Post


* MADE-IN-AMERICA SMOG * 

– Four in 10 Americans Are Breathing Unhealthy, Polluted Air. Are you? – NBC News

– The Hidden Benefits of Cutting Coal Pollution, and Why They MatterThe Washington Post


* HEALTH * 

 

“Under the Dome,” Censorship, Class Divides, California Lessons, Nuke plants, Coal and Metal

“Under the Dome” with English subtitles

* “China Blocks Web Access to ‘Under the Dome’ Documentary on Pollution” – The New York Times:  “Under the Dome,” a searing documentary about China’s catastrophic air pollution, had hundreds of millions of views on Chinese websites within days of its release one week ago. The country’s new environment minister compared it to “Silent Spring,” the landmark 1962 book that energized the environmental movement in the United States. Domestic and foreign journalists clamored to interview the filmmaker, a famous former television reporter, though she remained silent. Then on Friday afternoon, the momentum over the video came to an abrupt halt, as major Chinese video websites deleted it under orders from the Communist Party’s central propaganda department. The startling phenomenon of the video, the national debate it set off and the official attempts to quash it reflect the deep political sensitivities in the struggle within the Chinese bureaucracy to reverse China’s environmental degradation, among the worst in the world. The drama over the video has ignited speculation over which political groups were its supporters and which sought to kill it, and whether party leaders will tolerate the civic conversation and grass-roots activism that in other countries have been necessary to curbing rampant pollution. “It’s been spirited away by gremlins,” said Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism and media studies in Beijing …

* “China’s Real Inconvenient Truth: It’s Class Divide” – Foreign Policy: China is talking about its pollution problem, but its equally serious class problem remains obscured behind the haze. Smog leapt to the forefront of Chinese national discourse after the Feb. 28 release of Under the Dome, a 103-minute-long documentary quickly hailed as China’s version of the Inconvenient Truth. In the film, which immediately went viral on social media and garnered 150 million online views within days before being censored, investigative reporter Chai Jing explained the root causes of air pollution that has ravaged so much of China in the past few years. But there’s a sharp class angle to the pollution question that Chai’s documentary did not engage. While smog is the most visible problem afflicting the middle class in mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai, China’s other half — the rural and poor population — often suffer a nasty pollution paradox: They face health risks from their air and water, but also depend on polluting industries for their livelihoods …

* California, China Join Forces to Tackle Climate Change” – The Desert Sun: World leaders fighting to limit climate change should look to the partnership between California and China for inspiration, according to a new report co-authored by the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage. The report, released Wednesday at a San Francisco event attended by Gov. Jerry Brown, says California has “helped create something of a state model for subnational international cooperation on climate change and energy issues.” The New York-based Asia Society wrote the report with help from the Annenberg Foundation Trust, which operates the famed Sunnylands estate. “Both California and China are reaping benefits from their collaborations,” Geoffrey Cowan, president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust, said in a statement. “Not only are these partnerships uncovering solutions to protect the air, water, and ecosystems within each country, but they are also catalyzing increased trade and investment in clean technology in both countries.” The Sunnylands Center and Gardens — as the estate of the late diplomats and philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg is formally known — has proved fertile ground for launching climate-related collaborations between the United States and China. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a summit there in June 2013, reaching an agreement to reduce the production of one type of greenhouse gas, hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs …

* “Watch This Haunting Seven-Minute Film About China’s Insane Air Pollution” – TIME:  Greenpeace East Asia today released a seven-minute film by director Jia Zhangke about China’s toxic air. The impressionistic piece, Smog Journeys, follows two families — one rural, one urban — as they live, play, and work in the country’s polluted northeast. “When it comes to smog, no matter what jobs we do, it is still a problem we all face,” says Jia in an interview released online. Jia is one of China’s most renowned filmmakers. His work is famously gritty, filled with tales of alienation and strife, and shot in shades of brown and gray. His last feature, A Touch of Sin (2013), was a critical hit abroad, but was considered too politically sensitive to be shown on the Chinese mainland …

*”China’s Nuclear Plant Plans Get New Momentum“- China Daily USA: China’s nuclear energy development plans got a fresh impetus on Wednesday after the State Council gave the green light for new reactors at the Hongyan River nuclear power plant. According to industry sources, units 5 and 6 of the Hongyan River nuclear plant in the northeastern Liaoning province got construction approval from the State Council before the Lunar New Year. “It is a big step forward for China to revive the industry and more nuclear projects are expected to start construction this year. However, the official documents are yet to be finalized,” a source in a State-owned nuclear company told China Daily …

* “China to Reduce Coal Consumption to Lessen Pollution” – Newsmax: China will reduce coal consumption and boost energy efficiency as part of efforts to lessen air pollution, according to an action plan released by the government on Friday. The world’s top consumer will cut coal consumption by over 80 million tons by 2017 and more than 160 million tons by 2020 through efficiency measures, under the 2015-2020 plan from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. China’s annual coal consumption, at about 3.7 billion tons, accounts for roughly 66 percent of the country’s energy demand. The coal-dominated energy mix in China has been identified as a major cause of the hazardous smog that frequently shrouds cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, as well as a significant source of climate-warming greenhouse gases. China aims for a reduction of dust emissions by 500,000 tons and sulfur dioxide by 600,000 tons by 2017, according to the plan. China is trying to strike a balance between improving its environment and restructuring away from an economy dominated by energy-intensive industries such as steel production. Premier Li Keqiang told the annual session of Parliament that the government planned to cut the country’s energy intensity, the amount of energy used per unit of GDP growth, by 3.1 percent in 2015, compared with a 4.8 percent fall in 2014. Li made fighting pollution a priority and is striving for zero growth in coal consumption in key areas of the country. By 2020, emissions of dust would be cut by 1 million tons and sulfur dioxide by 1.2 million tons, the ministry said …

* Our book, The People’s Republic of Chemicals takes silver at the Pacific Rim Book Festival

 

 

What do you get after 2 years of work? A book review round-Up, of course

In spreading our message connecting toxic air, climate change, hyper capitalism and free trade, we often feel like this. Below are some of the first critiques of our book. Stayed tuned for more! 

FOREWORD REVIEWS (5 hearts): The rapid industrialization of the world’s most populous nation has far-reaching effects for the world’s environment and economy, and in The People’s Republic of Chemicals, journalists William J. Kelly and Chip Jacobs detail how extreme China’s pollution problem has become. The authors do a nice job of mixing firsthand journalism with history and using a reporting style that thoroughly explains an important but potentially wonkish in a way that should make it accessible and interesting to a large audience. Kelly and Jacobs trace China’s current situation back centuries, from the East–West connections formed during Marco Polo’s journeys there, through the growth of China’s coal industry, up through the export-driven economy that has grown in recent decades—and the constant increase in new factories to feed that demand. While industrialization has exploded, it has also created a series of crises in public health, with millions of Chinese adults dying prematurely due to air pollutants … (They) help tell this story by introducing readers to people directly impacted, from villagers dying from illness to activists trying to get accurate information about China’s smog to citizens. … Kelly and Jacobs don’t skimp on either the hard science or the policy analysis. They detail how the smog got so bad, using previous smog disasters in California and Japan for context … Similarly, the pair do an outstanding job of showing the causes and effects of the interdependency between American consumers and Chinese manufacturers. The result is a well-rounded portrait …”

BOOKLIST (starred review) : The Smogtown (2008) authors return with a look at China’s air pollution problem, and it is a doozy. Combining a crash-course history lesson that includes everyone from Confucius to Chairman Mao with a withering rant about the country’s nonexistent environmental policies, Kelly and Jacobs give readers everything they need to know about why China is ground zero for the planet’s future, including its coal bases serving as “global warming daggers.” There is a lot to take in here, and the narrative’s power is as much due to its style as substance. The prose is sharp, vivid, and direct, leading readers through hard-hitting chapters about the Beijing Olympics, America’s Walmart, made-in-China addiction, and the casual way in which ecostatistics are manipulated. Kelly and Jacobs pillory the actions of as many American politicians as Chinese, noting policy missteps and political weakness with a take-no-prisoners attitude that readers will find refreshingly candid. While the tone can sometimes seem a bit glib, its bracing nature will likely be a tonic to those seeking a straightforward take on this urgent subject while also making for a surprisingly enjoyable read. — Colleen Mondor 

KIRKUSA scathing denunciation of how America outsourced its industrial capacity to China, a package that included catastrophic pollution. Investigative journalists Kelly and Jacobs again team up in a hard-hitting follow-up to their 2008 environmental page-turner Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.As “self-deputized gumshoes” covering the environmental beat, the authors felt they could not ignore the ugly reality in China. As the air in LA improved, in China, a “nauseating, gray-brown cloud from an oversaturated sky” was darkening the landscape. … China’s adoption of an open-door policy for American manufacturers was a devil’s bargain. The authors have harsh words for the “Clinton-Gore pairing,” which allowed American industry to get out from under environmental regulation and benefit from cheap Chinese labor …  A powerful warning that “a growing cloud of toxins aloft [are] swirling in the winds around the world and recirculating the pollution we hoped to shed.”

* CHINADIALOGUE.NET: “… Authors William J. Kelly and Chip Jacobs joined forces once before … to write their climate classic, Smogtown: the Lung Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, a remarkable 2008 exposé and memoir about air quality, politics and health in Southern California’s smog belt. This time, the duo … (goes) farther afield to investigate air pollution that threatens to put a chokehold on the Pacific Rim … The writers do know their stuff. Kelly and Jacobs delve behind the headlines and grim statistics of coal emissions and cancer village mortality to focus on the latest struggles to prevent thousands of needless deaths per day from China’s poisoned environment. The authors insist that this dismayingly high death toll …  could have been avoided. They argue that these deaths should be counted as casualties of China’s overly rapid economic revival. And the multinational corporations who have outsourced manufacturing jobs on such a vast scale must be considered complicit … “A nation breathes its choices,” the authors warn, while admitting that “when it involves the People’s Republic and coal, it’s more than complicated. It’s ancient.” … (V)ivid imagery, highlights quirky personalities and hidden motives in the unfolding saga of climate change. Politics loom large. The book is simultaneously entertaining and alarming, and doesn’t spare officials from criticism … “In post-W.T.O. China, something biologically creepy was only a factory pipe away,” the authors observe. They … urge President Xi Jinping “to make eco-restoration as much his legacy as ridding the party of the endemic graft … “

Luminous review & Chip talks Emissions Frankenstein of a Microwaved Planet As the PRC Finally Gets Ready to Roll

Booklist awards “The People’s Republic of Chemicals” a starred review. Breathe it in while you can.

November 15th, 2014 · No Comments

Riots cops with shields at Qidong protest agailnst industrial waste pipeline

BOOKLIST magazine awards our sequel to SmogtownThe People’s Republic of Chemicals, a starred review!: The Smogtown (2008) authors return with a look at China’s air pollution problem, and it is a doozy. Combining a crash-course history lesson that includes everyone from Confucius to Chairman Mao with a withering rant about the country’s nonexistent environmental policies, Kelly and Jacobs give readers everything they need to know about why China is ground zero for the planet’s future, including its coal bases serving as “global warming daggers.” There is a lot to take in here, and the narrative’s power is as much due to its style as substance. The prose is sharp, vivid, and direct, leading readers through hard-hitting chapters about the Beijing Olympics, America’s Walmart, made-in-China addiction, and the casual way in which ecostatistics are manipulated. Kelly and Jacobs pillory the actions of as many American politicians as Chinese, noting policy missteps and political weakness with a take-no-prisoners attitude that readers will find refreshingly candid. While the tone can sometimes seem a bit glib, its bracing nature will likely be a tonic to those seeking a straightforward take on this urgent subject while also making for a surprisingly enjoyable read. — Colleen Mondor

* Back from the Big Apple book tour, Part I. Here are the links where I talk Frankenstein of emissions on The StreetAOL-Huff Post Live & Brainstormin’

As the countdown goes on, Kirkus gets our message in terrific review

Kirkus banner“A scathing denunciation of how America outsourced its industrial capacity to China, a package that included catastrophic pollution.

Investigative journalists Kelly and Jacobs again team up in a hard-hitting follow-up to their 2008 environmental page-turner Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles. As “self-deputized gumshoes” covering the environmental beat, the authors felt they could not ignore the ugly reality in China. As the air in LA improved, in China, a “nauseating, gray-brown cloud from an oversaturated sky” was darkening the landscape. China’s reliance on coal to fuel its industrial machine depends on coal imports from the U.S., creating a new market for the American mining industry. In 2013, Kelly traveled to China to examine the situation, while Jacobs constructed a dossier on the real story of how the U.S. created cleaner air on the homefront by turning manufacturing plants into shopping malls that sold cheap merchandise produced in China. One of their examples is a “$200 million-plus shopping mall called the Burbank Empire Center [that] rests on the land where Lockheed’s B-1 plant used to be.” China’s adoption of an open-door policy for American manufacturers was a devil’s bargain. The authors have harsh words for the “Clinton-Gore pairing,” which allowed American industry to get out from under environmental regulation and benefit from cheap Chinese labor. Despite Gore’s prescient warnings, they write, they “failed to construct any backstop of ‘ecological accountability,’ especially in the world’s fastest-growing economy.” Kelly provides an on-the-ground report on the new China, which combines an across-the-board improvement in the standard of living with a quality of life made miserable by unbreathable air, polluted water and more. He finds increasing popular unrest with the situation and a central government hamstrung by corruption, struggling to deal it.

 A powerful warning that “a growing cloud of toxins aloft [are] swirling in the winds around the world” and recirculating the pollution we hoped to shed.”

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