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.

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

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* 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 …”

 

 

Reviews, a top ten literary list and some news and notes from under the dome

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* BOOKLIST names The People’s Republic of  Chemicals one of the ten best books on sustainability for the year!

ASIAN BOOK REVIEW “… The authors’ message is to remind us that we’re in serious trouble and that the situation is getting worse. China’s many announcements about increased environmental protection and its impressive accomplishments in installing solar and wind power should not obscure the reality that the environmental situation continues to deteriorate. An obsession with growth continues to triumph over the environment. We may look back and see that the  severe air pollution in Beijing in recent winters, which on bad days has been like breathing the air in a forest fire, marked a turning point. For now, Kelly and Jacobs are understandably sceptical that environmental progress in China is for real.”

* PASADENA WEEKLY  ” … More than a biting critique of China’s economic choices, which have led to the country’s current environmental crises, the book is also call to the Chinese government to curb its pollution and do the right thing, not only for itself, but the rest of the planet … Cancer villages, peasant uprisings, corruption at every level of society and tales of human struggle are interwoven with a gripping narrative. This truly impressive treatise of investigative reporting is a searing indictment of humanity’s disregard for itself. Every page leaves readers shaking their heads in disbelief, with every fact and figure illuminated by ornate prose and evocative passages. Through advocacy journalism, environmental activism, smog analysis, case studies and human stories, the book provides historical context that is absolutely critical to understanding why the Chinese so unashamedly abandoned their health in exchange for American currency …”

 

* LINKS OF INTEREST 

*  “U.S. Embassies to Monitor Air Quality” – Voice of America: “How bad is the air in your city? The U.S. embassy may soon have the answer. The State Department has announced plans to install air quality monitors at diplomatic posts and make the data publicly available. The program will begin in India, Vietnam and Mongolia. The aim is to provide important health information for U.S. government employees overseas, as well as for locals. And U.S. officials said, it may help inspire citizens to call for change. When an air quality monitor at the U.S. embassy in Beijing began reporting toxic pollution levels several years ago, “our hosts didn’t like it particularly,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. In fact, China’s vice environmental minister called it an illegal and unacceptable interference in the country’s internal affairs. But the information is available online, and after seeing how bad the problem is, Kerry said, Chinese “citizens are increasingly demanding action.” Speaking at a ceremony in Washington Wednesday, Kerry noted that the Chinese government is responding. Last year Chinese Premier Li Keqiang “declared war” on pollution. “That’s a quote,” Kerry said. Outdoor air pollution is responsible for 3.7 million annual deaths globally, according to the World Health Organization …”

China Must Cut Pollution by Half Before Environment Improves: Official” – Reuters: “China needs to slash emission levels by as much as half before any obvious improvements are made to its environment, a senior government official said on Friday, underscoring the challenges facing the country after three decades of breakneck growth. Zhai Qing, China’s deputy minister of environmental protection, told a briefing that pollutants had been cut by just “a few percentage points” since 2006 and had to drop much further if any progress is to be made. “According to expert assessments, emissions will have to fall another 30-50 percent below current levels if we are to see noticeable changes in environmental quality,” he said …”

* “London, L.A., Beijing, Delhi, Nairobi… Is Smog an Inevitable Urban Growing Pain?” – The New York Times: “… Prosperity enables environmental concern, and environmental concern becomes a political and social force. I made the point in 2013 when Beijing had an epic smog episode, noting how London, a half century earlier, had its killer smog …”

Pollution in China May Alter Weather in United States, Research Shows” – Weather Channel: Humans across the globe are connected now more than ever before; actions taken on one continent can affect people on another. Now, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and the California Institute of Technology (CIT) are showing this is true even for weather. New research out of JPL and CIT reveals that during our cold-weather season, pollution in China is altering weather patterns in the United States and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Jonathan H. Jiang, a JPL research scientist, explained to weather.com what this means. “During the wintertime, human-induced pollution such as coal burning in many Asian cities can create smog that lasts for weeks,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Under favorable wind conditions, pollution particles can be transported downwind across the North Pacific, where winter storms are prevalent.” In other words, those particles hitch a ride on the jet stream, notes Chris Dolce, a digital meteorologist with weather.com. “Once these pollutants enter the atmosphere in Asia, they can follow the jet stream, which waves its way from west to east through the Northern Hemisphere.” Then those particles can act as a “cloud nucleus,” according to Jiang, helping clouds to form and as such, changing storm prevalence and strength. For the past three decades, storms in the northwest Pacific have gained some strength and clouds have grown deeper, NASA reports. (According to Dolce, that means clouds growing taller and bigger to allow to them to produce precipitation.) Also during that time, China and other Asian countries experienced an economic surge — a fact that prompted Jiang and colleague Yuan Wang to explore whether one affected the other …

Beijing smog makes city unliveable, says mayor” – The Guardian: Beijing’s mayor, Wang Anshun, has called the city “unliveable” because of its noxious smog, according to state media. “To establish a first-tier, international, liveable and harmonious city, it is very important to establish a system of standards, and Beijing is currently doing this,” he said last Friday, according to the China Youth Daily newspaper. At the present time, however, Beijing is not a liveable city.” Anshun’s speech came days before the market research company Euromonitor International announced, in its findings on the global tourism market in 2013, that tourism to Beijing had declined by 10% from the year before due to pollution and a countrywide economic slowdown. The company’s top 100 city destination rankings, released on Tuesday, ranked Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok in its top three spots, followed by London and Paris. Beijing ranked 34th, in between Johannesburg and Sofia, Bulgaria. Wang, a former official in the state-controlled petroleum sector and in north-west China’s Gansu province, said the pollution was caused by its distribution of polluting factories and skyrocketing ownership of motor vehicles. In his speech, he demanded that Beijing’s polluting factories shut down entirely rather than “irresponsibly relocate” to neighboring areas of Hebei and Tianjin. In 2014, Beijing authorities closed 392 companies for causing pollution and took 476,000 old vehicles off the roads, Wang said. He added that despite the choking pollution, Beijing’s biggest problem was population control, claiming the influx of migrant labour put strains on the city’s infrastructure. The city has 21.5 million residents and is growing at a rate of more than 350,000 a year. In September 2013, China’s cabinet introduced a sweeping anti-pollution plan, which included prohibiting the construction of new coal-fired power plants in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the country’s three most important cities …”

* “Most China cities fail to meet air quality standardsBBC News: “Only eight out of China’s 74 biggest cities passed the government’s basic air quality standards in 2014, the environment ministry has said. The most polluted cities were in north-eastern Hebei, the province that surrounds the capital Beijing. Beijing and Shanghai both failed the assessment, which was based on measurements of major pollutants. China is attempting to cut pollution but the country still relies heavily on coal for its energy needs. The government shut more than 8,000 coal-burning factories in Hebei last year. But the BBC’s Celia Hatton in Beijing says like many places in China, the authorities are struggling to balance factory closures with the demands of the country’s slowing economy. The environment ministry’s statement published on its website (in Chinese) noted that the 2014 result was an improvement over the previous year, where only three cities met the standards. But it added that “presently, the country’s air pollution situation remains serious …”