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.

The People’s Republic of Chemicals Named a 2014 IndieFab Awards Book of the Year Finalist!

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Thank you Forewords, and best of luck to all the finalists. Ecology & Environment competition – the Authors

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 … “

“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’

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

 

Gas, Solar, & Hot Air

The massive gas deal between China and Russia last month— touted as a possible turning point toward cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions in China—appeared to overshadow a significant development in the U.S.-Chinese relationship regarding renewable energy and its clean air potential. While many argue that the shale gas revolution in America and the big gas deal between the two Eurasian giants hold the keys to cleaner air and cutting greenhouse gases (we’ll examine that here later), there’s no question that with a need to cut greenhouse gases by more than 80 percent to head off runaway global warming renewable energy remains the holy grail.

Cutting to the chase, BBC News reported June 3 that the U.S. Commerce Department has decided to up tariffs on Chinese solar cells and panels because of unfair subsidies by Beijing to its own national manufacturers. BBC reported:

“The Department of Commerce said it plans to impose duties of between 18.56% to 35.21%. That is much higher than the tariffs announced in 2012. The duties will be levied on solar panels and the cells used to make them. Previously they covered just the cells. The US has said that import duties will help offset the subsidies given by China to solar panel makers. “

But is the U.S. doing somebody else’s bidding?

It seems BBC left out one important fact, astutely noted here June 4 by CNBC’s Everett Rosenfeld. He reported that:

“The new duties were in response to a petition from SolarWorld, a German solar manufacturer with major operations in the U.S., which sought to eliminate a loophole whereby Beijing-subsidized solar manufacturers avoided previous U.S. rulings by making key parts in Taiwan. SolarWorld argued that those subsidies significantly hurt the U.S. solar manufacturing sector.”

First, let’s be precise about the phrase “major operations.” Here’s what SolarWorld’s website says verbatim about its U.S. operations:

“SolarWorld has two major locations in the United States. The sales location in Camarillo, California, produced solar modules since 1977, whilst the site in Hillsboro, Oregon, has been bringing new expertise in monocrystalline modules to the solar group since 2008. Today, SolarWorld is operating the United States’ first fully integrated solar production at this site.”

It then goes on to show that most of the company’s operations are in Europe, but also in Singapore, Japan, and other nations around the world.

Now, let’s step back and look at the bigger picture of the U.S. Solar industry presented earlier this year in the National Solar Jobs Census 2013, released by the Solar Foundation in January 2014. The census shows that in the U.S. the majority of jobs—particularly the better paying ones— are in solar system installation, which pays workers an hourly average of $23.65 compared to U.S. solar manufacturing workers, who make $15 (the new minimum wage in Seattle) to $18.23 per hour. Here’s a 2013 breakdown of solar jobs in the U.S. from the report: installation 69,658 jobs, manufacturing 29,851, sales & distribution 19,771, project design & development 12,169, and other 11,248

Small wonder that the U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association—which represents the broad array of companies involved in the industry, from installers to manufacturers and ancillary equipment makers that build solar mounting racks, inverters, and provide other components and services needed to flip the switch of a solar power system—denounced the Commerce Department’s decision. Here’s what association president Rhone Resch had to say:

“These damaging tariffs will increase costs for U.S. solar consumers and, in turn, slow the adoption of solar within the United States. Ironically, the tariffs may provide little to no direct benefit to the sole petitioner SolarWorld, as we saw in the 2012 investigations. It’s time to end this needless litigation with a negotiated solution that addresses SolarWorld’s trade allegations while ensuring the continued growth of the U.S. solar market.”

The fact is that solar manufacturing is a global industry, dominated by multinational companies that set up highly automated production plants that employ few workers in the places that are the most economical in order to serve their markets.

Here’s a list of the top ten solar manufacturers in the world from Solarbuzz:

Top Solar Makers

Note that the only company headquartered in the U.S. on the list is First Solar and it manufactures in Malaysia, as well as the U.S. Number three Sharp, based in Japan, manufactures in the U.S., Japan, Italy, and other locations.

Indeed, solar manufacturing is following the same pattern as manufacturers of clothing, cell phones, computers, televisions, household appliances, cars, and other goods. It’s chasing the lowest operational costs and doing what’s needed in locating plants to access markets. Manufacturing has been doing that under free trade agreements backed by both Republicans and Democrats and largely cemented into place during the 1990s by President Bill Clinton, as detailed in our forthcoming book The People’s Republic of Chemicals.

So where does the broad public interest lie? Surely not in trade complaint cases brought by German companies in the U.S. against China. The broader interest lies in advancing solar and other forms of renewable energy to provide a variety of jobs around the world—from the U.S. to China—in the name of environmental improvement. Doing that requires bringing down the cost of solar energy, which at this point entails massive subsidies not only in Beijing, but in the U.S., where solar homeowners (and I am one, with panels produced by Canadian Solar) recently get about 50 percent of the cost of a system covered by subsidies from Washington and in my case the state of California, not to mention subsidies directed to manufacturers.

The subsidies are paying off too, having helped reduce the real cost of installed solar systems—which provide emissions-free power—by about two-thirds since 1998 in the U.S. , according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

So what’s that old adage? People who live in glass houses . . .