China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

China's green progress leaves US red-faced

China's green progress leaves US red-faced

China pushes ahead with an emissions trading scheme, while American initiatives remain sunk in Congressional quicksand

China GDP slowdown
A power plant in Pinghu, China. A cap-and-trade system would help China to reduce carbon emissions by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

When it comes to responding to climate change, the contrast between China and the United States is stark.

It has been clear for some time that the Asian powerhouse is moving more rapidly on renewable technologies. A recent report by Pew Charitable Trusts shows China led the world last year with a $54.4bn investment in clean technology, about 40% higher than third-placed America.

More surprisingly, the Communist government in Beijing is also showing a greater willingness to adopt market-based approaches that were once considered preferable only by capitalist economies.

On Monday, a senior Chinese official said mandatory emissions trading systems will be rolled out in six of the country's most advanced regions by 2013. After the pilot schemes in Guangdong, Hubei, Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing, the government has promised to ramp up the use of carbon-based financial instruments to a nationwide level by 2015.

It is a sign that China is both desperate and ambitious enough to try almost anything. The widely trailed move towards a cap-and-trade system will provide an extra tool for China to achieve its Copenhagen commitment to reduce carbon emissions relative to economic growth by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020.

Cap-and-trade initiatives in Washington started much earlier, but have sunk in Congressional quicksand. The first US experiment in emissions trading came to an end four months ago with the closure of the Chicago Climate Exchange, though California's scheme (the world's second largest) is reportedly in talks to expand by joining with Europe's.

Critics of emissions trading will undoubtedly say the US is better off without it. Europe currently has the world's biggest carbon market, which has channelled billions of dollars towards projects in developing nations that are designed to reduce emissions. China has been a major beneficiary, accounting for about 60% of the world's carbon credits.

But the United Nations mechanism for evaluating credits has been plagued by allegations of fraud and misallocation of resources. In the latest scandal, Chinese officials denied this week that the country's factories were manipulating production of hydrofluorocarbon-23 - a powerful greenhouse gas - to qualify for huge quantities of carbon credits. The European Union is unimpressed and will ban such credits when its new emissions trading system starts in 2013.

Existing schemes are clearly flawed. But by opting out, the US is losing its ability to influence reform, just as China begins to establish what could become a rival trading system. Beijing has positioned itself cleverly.

In the years ahead, its influence will grow in both renewable technology and climate finance. This has prompted the analyst Søren Lütken to talk of an emerging Grand Chinese Climate Scheme.

It is far from certain that this will be successful. Corruption, imprecision and inexperience are major hurdles that China has yet to overcome in establishing a cap-and-trade scheme. Lobby groups could water down plans that will cost industry money. As in the US, the economy will remain dependent on fossil fuels for many decades.

Yet compared to the US, China seems to have a clearer sense of direction, greater flexibility and a willingness to move.

In a testimony last month to a congressional energy committee, Deborah Seligsohn, the Beijing-based representative of the World Resources Institute, spelled out the long-game that is underway:

"Chinese economic strategists recognise that China was late to the industrial revolution and even late to the IT revolution, but it believes it can be a leader in a green revolution."

Frustration among US environmental groups has been building up for some time, evident in these blog comments last year from Jake Schmidt of the National Resources Defence Council:

"The signals today on clean energy coming from China and the US are pointing in complete opposite directions - one country on hold and the other moving forward. Sad but true."

Expect more of the same in the coming years. The world's red and green lights are not where they used to be.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Importing Coal, China Burns It as Others Stop

Even as developed countries close or limit the construction of coal-fired power plants out of concern over pollution and climate-warming emissions, coal has found a rapidly expanding market elsewhere: Asia, particularly China.

At ports in Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Colombia and South Africa, ships are lining up to load coal for furnaces in China, which has evolved virtually overnight from a coal exporter to one of the world's leading purchasers.

The United States now ships coal to China via Canada, but coal companies are scouting for new loading ports in Washington State. New mines are being planned for the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, some of the world's more environmentally progressive regions are nascent epicenters of the new coal export trade, creating political tensions between business and environmental goals.

Traditionally, coal is burned near where it is mined — particularly so-called thermal or steaming coal, used for heat and electricity. But in the last few years, long-distance international coal exports have been surging because of China's galloping economy, which now burns half of the six billion tons of coal used globally each year.

As a result, not only are the pollutants that developed countries have tried to reduce finding their way into the atmosphere anyway, but ships chugging halfway around the globe are spewing still more.

And the rush to feed this new Asian market has helped double the price of coal over the past five years, leading to a renaissance of mining and exploration in many parts of the world.

"This is a worst-case scenario," said David Graham-Caso, spokesman for the Sierra Club, which estimates that its "Beyond Coal" campaign has helped to block 139 proposed coal plants in the United States over the last few years. "We don't want this coal burned here, but we don't want it burned at all. This is undermining everything we've accomplished."

In Australia, environmental groups have repeatedly halted trainloads of coal headed to the export docks at Newcastle this fall, and flotillas of kayaking protesters have delayed cargo pickups by Asia-bound coal ships.

Julia Gillard, Australia's newly elected prime minister, promised during her campaign to "put a price on carbon" — in other words, make companies pay in some way for excessive carbon dioxide emissions. But environmentalists say that such laws will be meaningless if the country continues its nascent coal rush and "exports global warming to the world," as one group, Rising Tide Australia, puts it.

This summer an Australian company signed a $60 billion contract with a state enterprise, China Power International Development, to supply coal to Chinese power stations beginning in 2013 from a vast complex of mines, called China First, to be built in the Australian outback. It was Australia's largest export contract ever, the company said.

The deal points to the love-hate relationship many wealthier countries have with coal: while environmental laws have made it progressively harder to build new coal-fired power plants, they do not restrict coal mining to the same extent.

That is partly because emissions accounting standards focus on where a fuel is burned, not where it is dug up; because the coal trade is a lucrative business; and because the labor-intensive mining industry creates jobs.

Such benefits are particularly hard to forgo in the midst of a recession. In the last two years, "There has been an awful lot of mining development, and much of it is based on the potential of these new markets," said David Price, director of the global steam coal advisory service at IHS-Cera, a global energy consultancy.

Vic Svec, senior vice president of Peabody Energy, the world's largest private coal company, said it was "planning to send larger and larger amounts of coal" to China.

"Coal is the fastest-growing fuel in the world and will continue to be largely driven by the enormous appetite for energy in Asia," he said.

The conflict between environmental and trade concerns is gaining momentum in the United States and Canada as well as Australia.

Last year, the United States exported only 2,714 tons of coal to China, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. Yet that figure soared to 2.9 million tons in the first six months of this year alone — huge growth, though still a minuscule fraction of China's coal imports.

New mines are planned to expand the market further. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, is suing to block the lease of state-owned land in Otter Creek, Mont., to Arch Coal for mining to serve demand in Asia and elsewhere. Likewise, Peabody Energy and Australia's Ambre Energy have been separately expanding mines and exploring the idea of opening loading ports in the Pacific Northwest.

In Washington State, the city of Tacoma decided Friday that it would not host a proposed coal loading plant, citing "a multitude of business and community factors." This week officials in Cowlitz County are expected to decide whether to grant a permit for a proposed coal port in Longview, on the border with Oregon.

Environmental groups will be there to oppose the port, noting that policies in both states effectively block new coal-fired plants and that both have plans to close the few that remain. "It's one step forward, 10 steps back if we allow coal export in our region," said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper.

Likewise, environmentalists in British Columbia, which enacted the first tax on carbon dioxide emissions in North America two years ago, are incensed that Vancouver has blossomed into a major coal loading location. "It's just hypocritical," said Ben West, a spokesman for the Wilderness Committee, a Canadian conservation group.

This summer, Jim Prentice, who was then Canada's environment minister, announced a national phase-out of dirty coal-fired plants. But mines are primarily regulated by the provinces, said Henry Lau, a spokesman for the ministry. The Canadian government adds that while it is committed to its target of reducing emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, it has to balance "environmental and economic benefits for its citizens."

The growth and shifts in coal exports to China are impressive, flowering even during the recession. Seaborne trade in thermal coal rose to about 690 million tons this year, up from 385 million in 2001.

The price rose to $60 from $40 a ton five years ago to a high of $200 in 2008. Coal delivered to southern China currently sells for $114 per ton.

China, which was a perennial coal exporter until 2009, the first year that it imported more than it sent out, is expected to import up to 150 million tons this year.

The lucrative export trade with China is expected to continue, said Ian Cronshaw, head of the energy diversification division at the International Energy Agency.

Although it has plentiful domestic supplies, China imports coal because much of its own is low grade and contains impurities. Coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming tends to be low in sulfur, for example, allowing power plants to burn more without exceeding local pollution limits.

Additionally, much of China's coal is inland while the factories are on the coast; it is often easier to ship coal from North America, Australia or even South America.

Another emerging customer is India, whose coal imports rose from 36 million tons in 2008 to 60 million tons in 2009, the last full year for which data is available.

In Europe and the United States, coal seems past its prime, with consumption generally down from five years ago because of the recession, environmental laws and a greater reliance on natural gas and renewable energy.

For some economies, China has been a lifesaver. Although Colombia's coal exports collapsed in 2008 when demand in America and Europe plummeted, they revived this year, with 10 million tons going to Asia.

For Australia, coal exports to China grew to $5.6 billion from $508 million between 2008 and 2009, government statistics show. While it still sends more coal to its longtime customers Japan and Korea, that balance could shift as Australian coal giants sink billions into new projects like China First.

"They are betting that there will be great markets for coal in China," Mr. Cronshaw said.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Amid Trade Tensions, U.S. Creates More Clean Tech Research Partnerships With China

The number of clean energy partnerships between the United States and China reached a new peak when the U.S. Energy Department announced two new consortia aimed at tackling clean vehicles and 'clean' coal technology earlier this month.

Along with a substantial funding pool totaling $100 million, split evenly among the two countries, the new consortia have put universities arm-in-arm with car companies, national laboratories, electric utilities and think tanks.

Dennis Assanis, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan and lead investigator for the clean vehicles consortia said these partnerships were not simply born out of President Obama's trip to Beijing last November, where he and Chinese president Hu Jintao first announced the endeavor. Instead, the new consortia network many researchers already looking to pool their resources into a coordinated national effort.

"When this was announced, it was simply music to our ears," said Assanis, who with several colleagues had discussed such a partnership for about three years. "Finally, what we've been dreaming and working on kind of quietly to establish," he said, had come to fruition.

"This new consortium is allowing us to knit together a web of partners -- and the partners of the partners," said Assanis.

The new consortium for clean coal development and deployment is headed by Jerry Fletcher, professor of energy, environmental and natural resource economics at West Virginia University. Fletcher is also director of WVU's U.S.-China Energy Center, established in 2007 with a focus on coal research.

U.S. industry welcomes team approach

China and United States lead the world in the emission of greenhouse gases -- a race that continues to be fueled by China's expanding consumption of coal.

The United States has the largest car market on the planet, representing about 30 percent of automobiles, worldwide, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, while China's is rapidly growing.

Cutting carbon emissions on a global scale is an ever more challenging task as U.S. and international discussions on regulating greenhouse gases have often fallen short. A tactic that has become more commonplace is the pursuit of technology that will make the emissions reductions in creative, market-satisfying ways.

Just last month, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that DOE would invest $1 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to resurrect part of the FutureGen project, an experimental zero-emissions coal plant in Illinois.

"The resources and the money that you need to do these kinds of things is mindboggling," said Assanis. But such funds are necessary to "do justice" to the issue of climate change, he said, and collaborations like these are "really the only option we have to deal with the energy challenges on a global scale."

Each consortium has a long list of well-known participants. On just the vehicle side, Michigan is joined by Ohio State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two national labs, four car companies, utilities such as American Electric Power Co. Inc., and still seven other partners.

Yet, in the week that followed the announcement of the new consortia, a story in the New York Times asserted that China has unfairly subsidized its clean energy sector. A day later, United Steelworkers, the largest American industrial union, filed a 5,800-page complaint with the U.S. Trade Representative saying that China was using trade-illegal moves to "advance its domination" of the clean energy sector.

China has quickly become a powerful force in both the solar and wind renewable energy industries. But when it comes to electric vehicles and carbon capture and sequestration technology, industry says, fear not.

Joint effort needed to accelerate solutions

"It's not surprising that there are partnerships going on," said Brian Wynne, president of Electric Drive Transportation Association, which advocates for electric vehicles, related technologies and supporting industries.

Actually, Wynne said, most of EDTA's membership was already partnered with Chinese companies on some level. "What's going on in these government-sponsored bilateral programs will actually accelerate what's already gotten started."

The mining industry suggested similar feeling on U.S.-China partnerships.

"It seems to make perfectly good sense for there to be collaboration between some of the biggest coal users with the deepest pockets," said Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association. Given the financial and regulatory barriers to carbon capture technology, he said, the industry is willing to work with a partner that will use a "technology-centric solution to address climate change rather than a regulatory one."

In terms of the potential for unfair competition, said Popovich, "I don't think that this mirrors the concerns that people might rightly have in certain high-tech industry or the defense industry."

Wynne argued that the competition violations that resemble the complaint filed by the United Steelworkers last week are "not particularly relevant right now" for electric vehicles. Most collaborations revolve around precompetitive research and development, like the two new consortia. "That's not to say that we don't need to watch out for that in the future when things get more competitive."

Right now, he said, the Chinese electric vehicle industry is addressing the same kinds of concerns as its American counterparts. "We all have an interest in trying to harmonize on the answers. And if we can harmonize on the answers, we can get to scale faster."

"Electric drive will land differently in that market [China] than it will in this one," Wynne said. Different enough, Wynne believes, that competition will be tough but reasonable.

"Primarily, the Chinese have a cost advantage on labor." This advantage, Wynne said, largely goes away when you're dealing with advanced batteries because the precision and consistency required to properly make them precludes building them by hand.

There will be competition, to be sure, said Wynne, but "that typical thing that we think about that the Chinese are going to take our technology and essentially overrun our market with it, I don't think that applies here."

"I think there will be massive demand in their own market for their own batteries," Wynne said. "We need to be able to meet our own demand."

An additional $12.5 million will be will be awarded this fall toward the creation of a third consortium focused on building energy efficiency. The Chinese partners of the consortia will be announced in the next few months.

Copyright 2010 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

China environmentalist alleges brutal jail treatment

BEIJING — A top Chinese environmentalist said Tuesday he was beaten and suffered brutal treatment while serving a three-year jail term imposed after he spoke out about rampant pollution in a major lake.

Wu Lihong also told AFP that authorities tried to force him to confess to bogus extortion charges. He defiantly vowed to clear his name.

"I am innocent, it's obvious that the authorities have sought to harm me. I will continue to appeal the conviction and seek to clear my name," Wu, 42, told AFP by phone from his home in Yixing city in the eastern province of Jiangsu.

Wu was arrested in April 2007 and sentenced to three years on extortion charges after campaigning for years against pollution in Taihu lake, one of China's biggest freshwater lakes and once famed for its beauty.

Wu, who was released on April 12, said he was repeatedly beaten in jail, kept in solitary confinement and denied telephone contact and visits with family and friends.

"They used tree branches to whip my head, burned my hands with cigarettes and kicked and beat me until my arms and legs were swollen and my head was spinning," Wu said.

"In July 2007, Yixing's (Communist) party secretary and the police chief told me, 'If you confess in writing, we will let you go. If you don't cooperate, then we will fabricate evidence to make you a criminal.'"

Wu was once given an environmental award by the government for his efforts to clean up Taihu and shame the lake's major industrial polluters.

But he was detained temporarily in 2002. Wu has said Yixing officials feared his activism would cause economic losses to the region's industry.

After his arrest in 2007, his wife and colleagues clamoured for his release and accused the local government and police of seeking to torture a confession out of him.

A toxic algae bloom in Taihu lake in May that year contaminated water supplies for more than 2.3 million people in Wuxi city, which sits across the lake from Yixing, bringing nationwide attention to the issue.

Wu was finally convicted in August 2007 after repeated delays in his public trial, which his relatives said at the time were ordered by local authorities so that Wang could heal from his prison beatings.

Wu alleged other humiliating treatment in jail, including even tight restrictions on eating.

"When (guards) said 'start', I could eat. When they said 'stop', I had to stop no matter whether I had finished eating or not," he said.

He also said he was forced to run in circles outside after meals "until I was mentally exhausted," and was kept in a windowless cell. The only contact he was allowed was with two prison guards.

Monday, April 26, 2010

All the tees in China: Golf boom threatens rainforest

With its 1,000-year-old trees, Hainan was a rare conservation success. But now fairways stretch as far as the eye can see, Friday 23 April 2010 17.44 BST
Link to this video

The jungles of the Diaolou Mountains do not, at first sight, appear a very inviting location for a golf resort. Leeches and spiders drop through the Jeep windows as we jolt along an overgrown logger's track to reach this remote corner of Hainan, the tropical island that marks the south-eastern extremity of China.

On one side lies a pristine tropical rainforest with 1,000-year-old trees; on the other, a thick tangle of bamboo, cedar and palm has reclaimed an abandoned betel nut plantation.

Until now, this national park has been a rare conservation success story in China. Clouded leopards and black gibbons are among the 300 endangered species listed in this sanctuary.

But while the jungle has been allowed to grow back, the park's managers have been forced to watch with frustration as neighbouring communities cash in on one of the biggest, fastest surges in property prices in the world.

The value of land in Hainan has increased by between 50% and 100% since the start of the year, boosted by a government drive to turn the island into an upscale tourist resort.

For the park's managers, the temptation is now too great to resist. "We are sitting on a goldmine," says Zhong Guanghao, the deputy director of the forest bureau, as he exhales a plume of cigarette smoke. "Within five years, we'll have at least two five-star hotels, dozens of town houses, a conference centre and a 36-hole golf club."

His colleague Lu Yongquan takes me to the proposed site in a four-wheel drive that judders across mountain streams, heading so deep inside the forest that there is no mobile phone signal.

"This terrain is very suitable for golf. The environment is quite beautiful," says Lu, who is head of the wildlife department, as we stop to survey the thick forest where his boss wants to build a club covering 300 hectares – the size of about 300 football pitches.

On the park's map, the course is inside the core conservation zone, which is supposed to be off-limits to human activity. But Lu said the government permitted experimental development areas to generate funds for wildlife protection.

"There will be no impact on the eco-system," he insisted. "Only the elite will be able to come. It is not for the masses."

The plan looks certain to stir up controversy.

"You would have to be greedy and heartless to build a golf course in that area," said Yang Xiaobo, a doctor of ecology at Hainan University.

"The biodiversity here is not just important for this island, but for the entire country. There are few rainforests like this in the world."

If the plan for a resort sounds like the thin end of the wedge, it is not alone in Hainan, where golf is increasingly a tool for shifting land-usage rights towards an international jet set, often regardless of the environmental impact.

A quarter of a century ago, China had just one golf course. Today, Hainan alone has almost 30 and senior officials say they want to expand that to 100 and then on to 300.

This runs contrary to central government restrictions on golf development, which is seen as a threat to food security because it often eats up arable land. But Hainan claims an exemption because, officials and local businessmen argue, the island needs golf to become the Hawaii of east Asia.

This is not the only motive. "Golf is a real-estate driven activity primarily in China," said Shane Templeton, course consultant at Sanya Yalong Bay Golf Club. "It is just a vehicle to sell property. You're not supposed to be displacing farmers.

"Now, obviously, there are projects that have bent the rules a little bit, but that is up to the government to control."

The environmental impact goes beyond land acquisition. Established 10 years ago, Sanya Yalong is one of the oldest and best-run clubs on the island, but it still needs to fight a chemical war against Japanese cockchafers, ground pearl and other invasive pests that have been brought in with the imported soil for the greens and fairways.

Golf's supporters say the amount of pesticide needed for courses is less than that applied by farmers on their crops. Groundsmen also lay plastic under the soil to ease risks of water supply contamination. But this too can cause problems if huge areas of land are covered.

"When there are several golf courses in close proximity, we have to be very careful about the impact on ground water … That changes the run-off," someone involved in environmental impact assessments told the Guardian. "There are violations but I can't talk about them … Some projects start construction before they have gone through an environmental impact assessment."

At the centre of such concerns is Mission Hills, the biggest golf development in Hainan, covering an area the size of a city. The management company already runs the biggest golf course in the world at nearby Shenzhen. Initial reports suggested the new development in Hainan would be far bigger: as many as 22 courses are talked of.

After an outcry, executives are now downplaying their ambitious. They talk only of "at least six courses", which are already either finished or under construction. But banners displayed around the club still boast it will be "Number One in the World".

It is an astonishing sight. From the terrace of the newly built clubhouse, bunkers and greens appear to stretch endlessly towards the horizon on all sides. Executives claims it is one of the world's most eco-friendly courses because it is built on volcanic scratch land at great cost.

"What we are doing could be the future of golf, because we are using deserted land rather than arable fields," said Jiaqi Li, the executive director. "Not one family had to be moved for any of our six courses."

But her claims are questioned by local people.

In Changyong village on the edge of the course, residents said they have been flooded for the past two years by water than runs off of plastic sheeting under the huge course.

"It's had a huge impact," said Deng Zhenhe. "We never had flooding in the past. Now it comes three months every year. The water comes up to our waists sometimes. Cars can't get through."

At Bopian village, a crowd gathers to express their grievances. "The golf club has cut down many big trees and the lychee and longan trees we used to farm. Our sheep and cows have nowhere to graze," said a man who gave only the surname Wu. "I was cheated of some of my land."

Mission Hills insists the correct procedures were followed. "The environmental impact assessment has been completed and all the experts have put their signatures to the approval," said Li.

But the Guardian has learned that concerns have been raised by inspectors about the risk to biodiversity and water systems. During the environmental impact assessment for Missions Hills, they found several rare plant species, including Ottelia cordata and Aportea sinuate, that are not found anywhere else on Hainan. In addition, they warned of a potential risk of flooding and contamination of groundwater supplies for the nearby city of Haikou.

"We have not finished the paperwork because of these problems," said the source involved with assessment. "We have offered advice on the scale of the course and how to reduce pollution. The matter is still very sensitive."

Local government officials acknowledged concerns about groundwater, but appeared to be in the dark about the scale of the golf club's expansion.

"Mission Hills has completed environmental assessment and received proper permission for only one course," said Cai Qiao, director of the Haikou tourism development committee. "I'm sure they have completed only one course, not three."

As he spoke, golfers were putting and driving on the finished courses and bulldozers were clearing the way for three more. Hollywood stars are lined up for a celebrity tournament for the opening in October and, by next autumn, the club expects to host the World Cup of golf. Permission is taken for granted.

Golf in China: the hole story

• A game similar to golf was played in China more than 500 years before the sport in its modern form was started in Scotland.

Jade-and-gold clubs were used in "chuwan", according to sketches and writings dating back to the Tang dynasty (960-1279).

• The first recorded golf club on the mainland was established in Shanghai by British expatriates in 1896. The nine-hole course sat on what is now People's Square. Players from Shanghai often competed against rivals from Hong Kong.

• After Mao Zedong's Communists came to power in 1949, golf was condemned as a bourgeois imperialist sport and the few courses closed.

• In the modern era of opening and reform, the first course was constructed in 1984. This was followed by such a rash of golf development that the government grew concerned about the loss of arable land and tried to impose restrictions.

• Today, there are an estimated 600 courses in China, many of which dodge the regulations by claiming to be landscaping projects or vaguely defined property developments.

With golf due to become an Olympic sport by 2016, its popularity is expected to grow. Last year, Jack Nicklaus reportedly claimed the country was planning to build 1,400 public courses over the next five years.