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


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.

Coal, Cement, Mercury, Lawsuits and Thanks: Hot Links from the The People’s Republic of Chemicals


* CHINA’S COAL USE AND ESTIMATED CO2 EMISSIONS FELL IN 2014 Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog: “Good news! China’s coal consumption fell by 2.9 percent in 2014, the first drop in 14 years, according to official Chinese energy statistics released yesterday. Glen Peters of the Global Carbon Project calculates that China’s COemissions have also fallen, by 0.7 percent, for the first time this century. So contrary to grumbling in the U.S. Congress about the strength, or even existence, of China’s climate commitments, it’s clear that China’s efforts to cut its coal consumption and carbon emissions are not only real, but are already producing results. Here are three reasons why China is acting on climate change and air pollution: …”

* CHINA BRAINSTORMS TO CONTROL POLLUTION – UPI: “It is no secret China has a serious air pollution problem, but less known are proposed solutions, the results of brainstorming in the press. Residents are encouraged to think of resolutions, and some require less technology than others. Ideas are encouraged, and some are evidence to observers that China is not ready to resolve its smog issues. The city of Los Angeles was similarly swamped with silver-bullet approaches to its smog issues in the 1950s.  “We’re seeing the exact same thing in China that we saw in L.A. — crazy ideas coming out of the woodwork,” says Chip Jacobs, co-author of a book about the history of smog in Los Angeles. The city of Wuhan, China, is pondering skyscrapers painted with a smog-eating substance. A giant vacuuming device has been proposed for Beijing, as well as an “urban wind passage” accomplished by regulating building heights to create an airflow. Beijing could also a 100-mile canal to the Pacific Ocean to be used as a fresh-air corridor … “

* HOW CHINA USED MORE CEMENT IN 3 YEARS THAN THE U.S. DID IN THE ENTIRE 20TH CENTURY The Washington Post: “China used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the U.S. used in the entire 20th Century. It’s a statistic so mind-blowing that it stunned Bill Gates and inspired haiku. But can it be true, and, if so, how? Yes, China’s economy has grown at an extraordinary rate, and it has more than four times as many people as the United States. But the 1900s were America’s great period of expansion, the century in which the U.S. built almost all of its roads and bridges, the Interstate system, the Hoover Dam, and many of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. And China and the U.S. are roughly the same size in terms of geographic area, ranking third and fourth in the world, respectively …”

* CHINA COURT TO HEAR NGO LAWSUIT TARGETING POLLUTER’S PROFITS ChineFile: An environmental group has filed a lawsuit for 30 million yuan (U.S.$4.8 million) to seek compensation from a Shandong chemical company for pumping out harmful substances—a legal action thought to be the first public interest litigation for air pollution under China’s new environmental law. On Wednesday, the Intermediate People’s Court in the Shandong city of Dezhou agreed to hear a lawsuit requesting compensation for air pollution from Dezhou Jinghua, which makes chemicals for use in the glass industry. Victims of the smog that plagues many industrialized parts of China are unable to sue those responsible, due to the difficulty of calculating the amount of financial damages from air pollution. The All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF), which brought the lawsuit, is basing the potential amount of damages on the offending company’s operating costs, in the hope this will provide a route to successful public interest litigation. Ma Yong, deputy head of ACEF’s Environmental Legal Services Center, explained that such cases are indeed rare, due to difficulties in gathering evidence and assessing damages. “Companies such as this, which refuse to change despite repeated warnings, can only be dealt with through the courts,” Ma said. If awarded, the compensation would be paid to the Dezhou city government and earmarked for dealing with air pollution …”

* BEIJING TO SHUT ALL MAJOR COAL POWER PLANTS TO CUT POLLUTION Bloomberg: “Beijing, where pollution averaged more than twice China’s national standard last year, will close the last of its four major coal-fired power plants next year. The capital city will shutter China Huaneng Group Corp.’s 845-megawatt power plant in 2016, after last week closing plants owned by Guohua Electric Power Corp. and Beijing Energy Investment Holding Co., according to a statement Monday on the website of the city’s economic planning agency. A fourth major power plant, owned by China Datang Corp., was shut last year.  The facilities will be replaced by four gas-fired stations with capacity to supply 2.6 times more electricity than the coal plants. The closures are part of a broader trend in China, which is the world’s biggest carbon emitter. Facing pressure at home and abroad, policy makers are racing to address the environmental damage seen as a byproduct of breakneck economic growth. Beijing plans to cut annual coal consumption by 13 million metric tons by 2017 from the 2012 level in a bid to slash the concentration of pollutants …”

* JOE MATHEWS: WITHOUT A BOOST FROM CHINA, WHERE WOULD CALIFORNIA BE? The Sacramento Bee: “Dear President Xi Jinping: This is a thank-you note from California. Thank you, first, for sustaining our neighborhoods through these last difficult years. Thank you for keeping wealthy Chinese so nervous about your purges of political opponents – oops, I mean your anti-corruption campaigns – that they are buying real estate all over California.  More than half of all U.S. home purchases by Chinese buyers are in the Golden State. In the San Gabriel Valley, where I live, Chinese arrivals have provided the housing market with much of its ballast and our communities with a disproportionate share of their new energy. But we have so much more to thank you for than housing. Thank you for all you’ve done for California business. Thank you for all the Chinese vacationers and medical tourists who fill our hotels and our hospitals. Thank you for all the wealthy Chinese who shop here – and keep our high-end stores in business.  Please give my thanks to your friends at Alibaba for keeping Yahoo afloat; until the struggling Sunnyvale company spun off its $35 billion stake recently, the Chinese e-commerce company accounted for 85 percent of Yahoo’s market value …”

  * ACHIEVING CALIFORNIA’S GOAL OF SUSTAINABLE ENERGY FUTURE The Sacramento Bee: “Not so long ago, the idea that renewable energy could be relied upon to power our electric grid was considered far-fetched and too expensive. But having spent 40 years involved in the field, first as a legislative staffer and later as a lobbyist and consultant for environmental causes, I have witnessed a remarkable journey. Yes, air pollution remains a problem, particularly in the Central Valley. But the air is far better than it once was. And in the past 10 years, renewable sources have gone from being a slice of green on the dirty fossil fuel grid to being cost competitive and more reliable than nuclear energy and coal, and catching up with natural gas. The cost of wind and solar power has fallen, and performance has improved. Technology exists to store electricity and modulate the grid to coincide with demand. All of it opens a path to reliable, affordable, low-carbon energy with less vulnerability to imported fuel price spikes. All this opens the possibility to more jobs and tax revenue for the state …”

* INVISIBLE SOLAR CELLS THAT COULD POWER SKYSCRAPERS – Bloomberg: “Silicon Valley startup Ubiquitous Energy is making the world’s first transparent solar cells, a technology that could greatly expand the reach of solar power. Their technology is an invisible film that can go on any surface and generate power, which could lead to cell phones and tablets that never run out of batteries — or skyscrapers that can use their massive banks of windows as solar panels.” 

* HOW BRAIN-DAMAGING MERCURY PUTS ARCTIC KIDS AT RISK – National Geographic: “In the frozen far north, in Arctic Quebec, the Inuit have relied on the same nutritious foods culled from the oceans for centuries: beluga whale, fish, seal, and walrus. But some of these traditional foods have become so contaminated with brain-damaging mercury that the IQs of schoolchildren in remote Arctic villages are abnormally low. Inuit kids with the highest exposures to mercury in the womb are four times more likely than less-exposed Inuit kids to have low IQs and require remedial education, according to new findings by a team of researchers in Canada and the United States. The children scored on average almost five points lower on IQ tests. “This study adds to a wealth of evidence that mercury from seafood can damage brain development in children,” said Philippe Grandjean, a Harvard University neuroscientist who co-authored landmark research on the effects of mercury on children in the North Atlantic’s Faroe Islands …”



“Outstanding … accessible … a well-rounded portrait” – 5 heart (or stars)

UnknownThe 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. (Link)

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. The pollution has obvious implications for climate change worldwide and for health in other nations in the region, and how China deals with the problem will clearly impact the future of international trade and energy policy.

The reporters 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. A good deal of their reporting involves the 2008 Beijing Olympics, during which many observers got to witness the true extent of Chinese air pollution for the first time, from athletes skipping events due to breathing problems to the visible smog televised around the world. They capture citizen voices by covering large-scale protests, including both marches and social media campaigns. And they report on how industrialization is forcing a country once dominated by agriculture to abandon that for bigger cities and more industry, and therefore more pollution with more dangerous consequences.

Using these kinds of examples effectively depicts the human costs of the problem, but 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, while explaining why this disaster presents a greater challenge. 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 of China’s current crisis, how it stretches far beyond its geographic borders, and how crucial it is to solve.

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’

Climate Change & The New Silk Road

-Chinese President Xi Jinping discusses the new Silk Road with German officials.

As America heads to the mid-term elections next month, coming efforts to address global warming hang in the balance.

Will President Obama be able to implement his own ban on future coal power plants in the U.S. next year?

Will the next Congress act to put a price on carbon, which environmentalists and economists insist is necessary to head off runaway warming?

Finally, will the U.S., the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, be able to join with China, the biggest emitter, at the 2015 Paris climate talks to lead toward an effective solution to what many scientists call the biggest challenge of our time?

One thing is clear. China will be watching the election closely and already is hedging its bets.

Since last summer, Chinese officials have been discussing placing a national cap on carbon emissions and carbon pricing in the next five-year plan, which is to be in place by 2016. Already, China is testing carbon pricing in five separate subnational markets.

In another sign of moving to become less tied to the U.S., China’s President Xi Jinping is pursuing a Eurasian economic block, which he outlined in his visit to India last month. In The Hindu, he advocated a new “Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” to create “sustainable growth of the Asian economy.”

Pepe Escobar explains the geopolitical implications of a new Silk Road in Tom Dispatch, in which he envisions how the growing economic alliance between Beijing and Moscow, including the big natural gas supply deal signed earlier this year, ultimately could draw in Berlin as it becomes more independent of the U.S. amid its substantial economic ties with Moscow, as highlighted by the Ukrainian crisis.
Escobar writes:

“In this sense, though you wouldn’t know it if you only followed the American media or “debates” in Washington, we’re potentially entering a new world. Once upon a time not so long ago, Beijing’s leadership was flirting with the idea of rewriting the geopolitical/economic game side by side with the U.S., while Putin’s Moscow hinted at the possibility of someday joining NATO. No longer. Today, the part of the West that both countries are interested in is a possible future Germany no longer dominated by American power and Washington’s wishes.”

This may be only natural given the 200-year plus history of relations between China and the imperialist Anglo-American alliance, in which the British unleased canons and gunboats on the Chinese to block its efforts to ban sale of opium brought by English merchants. China’s leadership, note Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell in a 2012 Foreign Affairs article that now seems prescient, sees that:

“The United States uses soothing words; casts its actions as a search for peace, human rights, and a level playing field; and sometimes offers China genuine assistance. But the United States is two-faced. It intends to remain the global hegemon and prevent China from growing strong enough to challenge it. In a 2011 interview with Liaowang, a state-run Chinese newsmagazine, Ni Feng, the deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of American Studies, summed up this view. “On the one hand, the United States realizes that it needs China’s help on many regional and global issues,” he said. “On the other hand, the United States is worried about a more powerful China and uses multiple means to delay its development and to remake China with U.S. values.”

They continue:

“In the eyes of many Chinese analysts, since the end of the Cold War the United States has revealed itself to be a revisionist power that tries to reshape the global environment even further in its favor. They see evidence of this reality everywhere: in the expansion of NATO; the U.S. interventions in Panama, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo; the Gulf War; the war in Afghanistan; and the invasion of Iraq. In the economic realm, the United States has tried to enhance its advantages by pushing for free trade, running down the value of the dollar while forcing other countries to use it as a reserve currency, and trying to make developing countries bear an unfair share of the cost of mitigating global climate change. And perhaps most disturbing to the Chinese, the United States has shown its aggressive designs by promoting so-called color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.” [Now we can add Ukraine.]

The implication for the upcoming climate talks in Paris could be that they will mark a turning point in which China goes its own way on climate change. If that happens, depending upon the outcome of the U.S. election next month, China could soon outpace the U.S. when it comes to cutting emissions.


Australia Fears China’s Clean Air Policies


Clive Palmer, leader of Australia’s United Party.


In a positive development, coal production in China has declined and the price of the dirtiest of fuels has gone up as a result.

Bloomberg’s Sarah Chen reported September 29 that the price of coal rose for the first time in China since June under the government’s policy to trim output by 5 percent, boosting the price from 475 to 480 yuan. That’s $78.20 a ton, compared to $56.50 for Appalachian coal and just $10.87 a ton for Western coal in the U.S. Some market analysts expect coal in China to hit 555 yuan ($89.59) by year’s end, particularly as winter demand picks up.

Coal mining companies that violate the government’s limitation on output face fines of up to 2 million yuan (about $376,000).

Business Week reports the cutback in China threatens coal production in Australia, which has China as its chief export market. China buys 25 percent of Australia’s coal exports, or some 50 million tons a year.

But it doesn’t stop there. China is seeking to cut coal imports 15 percent, which also could hit Indonesia and the U.S. where export tonnage to Asia in the first half of 2014 fell 2.3 percent, according to EIA.

In Australia, China’s policy to cut coal use is causing a political backlash, prompting Clive Palmer, leader of Australia’s United Party, to rail on TV that “Chinese mongrels . . . want to take over our ports and get our resources for free.”

While Palmer later apologized for his impolitic remark against his nation’s biggest trading partner, the incident demonstrates how policies to clean up the air can have far reaching effects.

End of Summer Summation … The People’s Republic of Chemicals Will Roll This Fall

chipbook * With less than three months to go until the launch of The People’s Republic of Chemicals,” here’s some leg-teasing, early reviews. Many ones pending.

– Five star from Clare O’Beara: the book “should make you think more about where your electronic and other goods come from, and I hope you will feel moved to contact companies through their social media sites, or by writing, and ask them about their policy on pollution.”

– Five star from Pam Thomas: “An exceptional book and a brilliant read. I learnt so much about air pollution and the collateral damage …”

– Goodreads recommendation love: Introducing China and Third World Medicine

Meantime, around the warming planet, here are a few of the stories we think are worthy:

* People’s misconceptions about water usage. From the Los Angeles Times:

– Americans use twice the amount of water they think they do, and appear to be particularly oblivious about how much H2O they flush down the toilet on a daily basis, according to new research. In a paper published online Monday in the journal PNAS, a researcher concluded that Americans underestimated their water use by a factor of 2, and were only slightly aware of how much water goes into growing the food they eat. “In general, people tend to underestimate water by a very large magnitude,” said study author Shahzeen Attari, an assistant professor in the Department of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. The study’s conclusions were based on an Internet survey of 1,020 people, and comes amid a national drought that extends from the Pacific Coast to portions of the Mississippi Valley, with the most severe conditions in California. “Most Americans assume that water supply is both reliable and plentiful,” Attari wrote. “However, research has shown that with climate change water supply will become more variable due to salinization of ground water and increased variability in precipitation.” …

* Just in case you figured you’d be ducking the effects of global warming in your lifetime, better start buying shorts and taking boating lessons, among other steps. From the “Native Intelligence” writers at the  LA Observed blog:

–  Sea level rise from global warming is likely to lead to unprecedented coastal, bay, and inland tidal flooding in California within the next several decades. And never before seen floods are likely to begin occurring annually within the lifetimes of Californians now under 40 years old, according to new research from Climate Central, an independent nonprofit organization of journalists and scientists based at Princeton University. This is no longer an abstract, distant threat or a scene from a Hollywood movie. Real people alive today will experience these floods in California. A new interactive map developed in a collaboration among Climate CentralStamen Design, and New America Media–in which I participated–shows the who, what, where, when, and why of these “surging seas.” …

* Speaking of climate change, the West is going to be thirsty, dry and hot for the foreseeable future, and that’s no green-mongering exaggeration. From the Washington Post:

– When the winter rains failed to arrive in this Sacramento Valley town for the third straight year, farmers tightened their belts and looked to the reservoirs in the nearby hills to keep them in water through the growing season. When those faltered, some switched on their well pumps, drawing up thousands of gallons from underground aquifers to prevent their walnut trees and alfalfa crops from drying up. Until the wells, too, began to fail. Now, across California’s vital agricultural belt, nervousness over the state’s epic drought has given way to alarm. Streams and lakes have long since shriveled up in many parts of the state, and now the aquifers — always a backup source during the region’s periodic droughts — are being pumped away at rates that scientists say are both historic and unsustainable …

– If the drought could take disturbing selfless, here’s what it’d show (courtesy of 

* The forgotten trash that well doom us all. From 

… Plastic doesn’t readily biodegrade, of course. That is one of its great anti-microbial virtues, as well as its curse. It can persist for centuries in landfills, and longer in the sea, scientists believe. Plastic does photodegrade, however. Exposed to sunlight, it loses its useful qualities, its plasticity—becomes stiff and brittle and breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. Meanwhile, as a typical 2-liter soda bottle made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) circles the drain, eventually breaking up into bits, it acts as a molecular sponge for whatever poisons it encounters, absorbing “persistent organic pollutants” like PCBs—which are known to cause cancer in lab animals and are probable human carcinogens linked to increased incidence of melanomas, liver cancer, and gall bladder and brain cancer. Many POPs are “lipophilic,” that is, attracted to fatty tissues, but also oily substances such as petroleum-based plastics. Hideshige Takada, a Japanese scientist studying plastic particles from the Western Pacific Garbage Patch, found them to be one million times more toxic than the ambient seawater in which they floated …  A Greenpeace study estimated that it would take 68 ships trawling 24 hours a day an entire year to cover 1 percent of the Pacific. They would burn up a tremendous amount of fuel and do more harm than good …

* So far, the damage mankind has inflicted on Mother Earth is far outpacing man’s effort to reverse it. And the clock is ticking on our emissions-reduction sweepstakes. Only everything is swinging on it. From The New York Times:

– Runaway growth in the emission of greenhouse gases is swamping all political efforts to deal with the problem, raising the risk of “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts” over the coming decades, according to a draft of a major new United Nations report. Global warming is already cutting grain production by several percentage points, the report found, and that could grow much worse if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, devastating heat waves, torrential rain and other climate extremes are also being felt around the world as a result of human-produced emissions, the draft report said, and those problems are likely to intensify unless the gases are brought under control. The world may already be nearing a temperature at which the loss of the vast ice sheet covering Greenland would become inevitable, the report said. The actual melting would then take centuries, but it would be unstoppable and could result in a sea level rise of 23 feet, with additional increases from other sources like melting Antarctic ice, potentially flooding the world’s major cities …

Detroit East

Sometimes a graph is worth a thousand words.

Worldwatch Institute this week reported that China is undisputedly the world’s top auto manufacturing nation, producing twice as many vehicles as the U.S.

Automakers from around the world have moved into that nation big-time to supply the growing ranks of the well-to-do with sport utility vehicles and sedans.

Traveling in China recently, I couldn’t help but notice that gas-guzzling Mercedes, Audis, and other luxury models seemed to be the cars of choice.

Worldwatch further noted that worldwide auto production reached a new record in 2013 of 84.7 million cars, up from 81.5 million in 2012. China made almost a fourth of those cars—more than 20 million vehicles—compared to more than 10 million made in the U.S.

Record production last year brought the total number of vehicles in the world to more than 1 billion, Worldwatch said. That’s about one car for every seven people on earth.

Little wonder that greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.CarProduction


China’s Coal Use Declining?

Is coal use declining in China under various policy pronouncements by the Xi Jinping Administration to cap and curtail use of the mineral that marveled Marco Polo when traveling about Cathay and replace it with natural gas? Bloomberg News dwelled on that idea in its report on the fossil fuel giant BP’s annual statistical release this week.

“In China, coal accounted for 67.5 percent of the total energy demand, the lowest on record because of new measures to combat pollution,” wrote Bloomberg reporter Nidaa Bakhsh. That’s down from 70 percent just a few years ago and would seem to mark progress toward reducing the cloud of filth that frequently drapes China, not to mention the nation’s torrent of greenhouse gases.

But dig into the tables in BP’s report—often cited by energy insiders as the Bible of data on fossil fuel reserves, production, and consumption—and the story is . . . well, a bit different.

Turning to page 33 of the BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy shows that China’s coal use grew by 4 percent in 2013. So how could coal then decline in terms of the total amount of energy it supplies the world’s most populous nation?

It turns out that coal is just one growing slice of a growing fossil fuel energy pie. China’s natural gas consumption grew by 10.8 percent in 2013, according to BP. Oil consumption increased 3.8 percent. This means that when the International Energy Agency eventually releases its estimates of greenhouse gas emissions for 2013, we’ll surely see that China’s emissions, already the highest in the world, continued to rise last year despite the green pronouncements.

Meanwhile, presenting themselves as saviors to the growing legions suffering droughts, storms, and heat waves climate scientists call a consequence of global warming, are the folks from the natural gas industry. In Russia they spell their name Gazprom. In the U.S. they advertise themselves simply as “America’s Natural Gas” on the evening news. Remember, that China signed a 30-year, $400 billion gas supply deal with Gazprom last month when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Beijing. China also purchases liquefied natural gas brought in refrigerator ships from overseas. In hopes of tapping that market, federal officials in the U.S. this week okayed another liquefied natural gas export terminal to relieve U.S. producers of a surfeit of the fuel produced using much touted hydrofracturing technology, usually just referred to as “fracking.”

The merchants of gas call it a bridge fuel until renewable energy is possible (as if the solar panels on my roof which power the computer I write on is but a concept). They say burning more gas will hold the line on the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere that’s causing a feverish climate, plus clean up air pollution in cities of China and across the globe. Natural gas, says America’s Natural Gas Alliance, is used to make power, fuel vehicles, and provide energy and feedstocks for manufacturers. “Through each of these uses, natural gas is reducing emissions.” Really?

david freeman

S. David Freeman, retired public power executive.

Not so, says S. David Freeman, who spent a lifetime buying and burning natural gas to make power as head of several public utilities. In a recent radio interview on Background Briefing hosted by Ian Masters, Freeman pointed out that natural gas is methane, and methane is a more powerful agent of global warming than the carbon dioxide you get when you burn it.

The problem, he points out, is leakage during drilling, production, treatment, and transportation in pipelines, etc. To top that off, the International Panel on Climate Change—a team of scientists organized by the United Nations to study the causes and effects of global warming—says it’s 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, as opposed to 21 times more powerful, as originally thought. Joe Romm, former assistant secretary of energy at the U.S. DOE, points that out in Climate Progress.

But industry still hasn’t accepted the latest science and continues to rely on natural gas being just 21 times more powerful as a warming agent when it claims its product cuts greenhouse gases. And that drives Freeman wild, who concludes, “We’re going to substitute Marlboros for Camels, natural gas for coal.” No offense to big tobacco and little help to Chinese breathers or the world’s atmosphere.

How Chinese Solar Energy Can Eclipse Chinese Coal

On a positive note, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reported in The Telegraph May 30 that China’s Wuxi Suntech Power projects that by 2016 it will be able to match the price of coal power with its photovoltaic panels. He writes:

“The company’s chief executive, Eric Luo, told RenewEconomy that grid parity is at hand, even in competing with the cheapest and dirtiest form of fossil fuels.

“We are sure that by 2016 – or at the latest 2017 – the levellised cost of solar PV will be the same as coal-fired generation. It is going to completely transform the energy market in China,” he said.”

Evans-Pritchard goes on to note that while the cost of solar is coming down, the cost of mining coal is going up. That points to a potential turning point in energy economics in China, where coal provides about 70 percent of the nation’s primary energy and where coal consumption has been inexorably rising.

But another important piece of the unfolding story involves storing energy from the sun to use at night and during cloudy weather. The Achilles heel of renewable energy so far has been its intermittent nature compared to coal, which burns brightly to provide power 24-7-365.

Now, another Chinese entrepreneur, Winston Chung, believes he may have that covered. In a little known move earlier this month, several public agencies in Riverside, California, switched on a solar system that includes a huge battery storage bank, using lithium-yttrium batteries developed by Chung’s company, Winston Battery Manufacturing Ltd.

The system consists of solar panels that can generate up to 4 MW when producing at peak capacity on a bright sunny afternoon. The California Energy Commission says that’s enough to power about 5,500 homes. However, in this case, the project being managed by the University of California at Riverside will instead send power to 27 electric vehicle charging stations in various locations on campus and in the city of Riverside, plus charge an electric trolley used by the Riverside Transit Agency.


Chung’s battery bank will be used to store energy from the sun and then feed to the bus and electric cars that plug into the charging stations.

Driving down both the price of solar panels and the price of energy storage batteries is the ability to achieve economies of scale, something China’s manufacturers have mastered.

Lower-priced solar panels, coupled with storage, could well be the game changer China needs to turn away from coal. And that would both clean up its foul air and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to stave off catastrophic climate change.

It’s a fascinating and important potential turn of events. Stay tuned here as it all unfolds.