China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Friday, September 25, 2009

Has China Really Gotten Serious About Climate Change?

A thick smog settles over Beijing.
A thick smog settles over Beijing.
Paula Bronstein / Getty

To get a sense of how far the Chinese leadership has come on the issue of climate change in a relatively short period, consider a conference held two years ago on the tropical island of Hainan, where, every year, China invites the high and mighty from around the world to address the weighty issues of the day at a plush resort. The theme of the conference was "Green China," and if there was a single underlying idea, it was that China, having just become the world's largest emitter of CO2 gases, was going to jump wholeheartedly on the global bandwagon to combat climate change. But on the conference's final day, during the main event and keynote address, President Hu Jintao talked about China's commitment to economic reform, to maintaining its extraordinary pace of economic growth, to opening China's market further to foreign investment and products — but only the barest nod in the direction of climate change. A confused American environmental consultant left the speech sputtering. "What was that about?" he asked former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was walking out with him. Powell laughed. "You know what the first thing is that Hu Jintao doesn't think about when he wakes up every morning?" Powell joked. "Climate change."

Now, however, climate change for China has become the elephant in the room — an issue the country has to manage diplomatically as well as deal with substantively (two things that are emphatically not, from the government's standpoint, the same). Western environmental scientists and activists — who had directed most of their attention (and ire) at George W. Bush's U.S. — finally began embracing reality: China, with 1.3 billion people grasping the higher living standards that industrialization and market economics have brought, had only just begun to spew CO2 into the atmosphere, and it was already the No. 1 emitter. If climate change was the great global threat that the doomsayers believed it was and if there was to be a more effective global response post Kyoto (the 1997 treaty that failed, 96-0, in the U.S. Senate), China's emissions were going to have to be dealt with. And Beijing knew it. (See pictures of the world's most polluted places.)

Diplomatically, China began laying down public markers in advance of this December's U.N. summit on climate change in Copenhagen, which activists hope will succeed where Kyoto failed: getting governments to agree on enforceable reductions in carbon emissions. Earlier this summer, Beijing said it would commit to outright reductions of its CO2 emissions more than 40 years from now — by the year 2050. That two-generation time frame, which disappointed some critics, reflects a central reality in China. A lot of its leaders (not to mention its citizens) are deeply distrustful of the extreme rhetoric coming from the West on climate change. They see the developed world as having gotten rich one way and trying to change the rules just as China is on the brink of joining the club. The Chinese, concedes a Western diplomat in Beijing, want nothing to do with "ladder-up economics." (See pictures of the new Shanghai.)

And so on Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly in New York City, Hu made a widely anticipated speech on climate change, finely calibrated for diplomatic effect. He was nothing if not cautious, saying — accurately — that China was in the process of increasing its energy efficiency, reducing the amount of energy required to produce a unit of GDP. Indeed, China's energy efficiency has improved in each of the past two years, a trend likely to continue, because a huge surge in investment in energy-intensive industries like steel and cement in the early part of this decade has run its course. New housing developments all over the country are also far more energy efficient. With that new energy efficiency, Hu said, will come a reduction in China's carbon intensity, the amount of CO2 it emits for every unit of GDP. This, too, is plausible, since enhanced energy efficiency tends to reduce carbon emissions at the same time. But the world was looking for targets — hard numbers — and all Hu would say was that China would cut, by a "notable margin," its emissions per unit of output by the year 2020. Out of such caution — standard in a country that does not want to do anything to hamstring its economic growth — it's unlikely that historic agreements will spring. (Has China become the climate-change good guy?)

While some observers were buoyed by Hu's statements, many environmental groups were disappointed. Most critics, however, have to temper their criticism. The irony is that China actually is developing renewable-energy sources faster than any other country in the world. Hu vowed yesterday that by 2020 renewable sources will account for 15% of China's total energy output — and there are industry analysts, both foreign and domestic, who believe that figure is probably conservative. The problem is that China is at the same time still investing massively in coal-fired electricity plants, the primary source of CO2 emissions, to meet its surging power demands. Overall, in 2009 China will probably add about 80 to 100 gigawatts of capacity to its electricity grid, and 75% to 80% of that will be from coal. In effect, says Gerald Page, managing director of Equinox Energy Partners in Beijing, a venture capital firm, China is adding 1 gigawatt of coal-fired capacity every five days. And that's not going to change anytime soon. (See pictures of the making of modern China.)

The message from Beijing is now unmistakable: Hu and his cohorts are no longer ignoring climate change. In fact, they're grappling with it in a way that was unthinkable just two years ago. But the Chinese have also made it clear they will deal with climate change at their own pace, with as little economic dislocation as possible. When Beijing says its carbon emissions won't begin to go down until 2050, that's not a bargaining position. That's reality, and the rest of the world has to deal with it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

E-Waste: There’s an App for That

The iPhone is coming to China -- and so is a lot of technological trash.


Before year's end, Apple and China Unicom will finally launch the iPhone in China, leaving hundreds of thousands of affluent Chinese cell-phone users with an increasingly pressing question: What should they do with their old handsets? Sure, some will pass them on to friends and relatives, and others will stash them in drawers. But for those precious few who decide that they'd like to recycle their old cell phones in an environmentally sound manner, they'll be mostly out of luck. Unlike in the United States, Apple doesn't offer to collect and recycle old cell phones for its customers in China. And the Chinese government, which has long decried the developed world's exports of e-waste to its shores, has done almost nothing to handle the growing tide of its own, homegrown e-waste, generated by its expanding middle class. In short, as China grows, consumes, and gets hooked on the iPhone, the environmental disaster that is South China's e-waste processing industry is about to become much worse.

The environmental costs of China's e-waste processing industry were first documented by activists and journalists in the early part of this decade. Then, as now, coverage generally focused on the e-waste "dumped" by the developed world. Those countries often prefer not to take the trouble and expense of processing their high-tech throwaways in an environmentally sound manner, so for decades they have simply shipped the stuff overseas. In documentaries and news stories, South China has been dubbed the West's "digital dump," where toxic chemicals are used to extract metals from old circuit boards with the leftovers tossed into streams.

Yet even as those first stories ran, the business of processing e-waste in South China was changing from one focused on imported waste to one attuned to the burgeoning Chinese middle class and its throwaways. Televisions, refrigerators, and other appliances purchased in the mid-1980s were reaching the end of their life cycles, and China -- which still lacks any environmentally sound e-waste recycling -- allowed them to flow southward into the now largely domestic digital dump.

Nobody really knows just how many computers, cell phones, and monitors the Chinese throw away every year, though estimates abound. Analysts can safely claim that China is second only to the United States in PC units sold (40 million in 2008). As for cell phones, estimates are a bit easier due to the need to purchase actual airtime: This year, China is expected to have more than 650 million cell-phone users, who will purchase in excess of 190 million handsets. China's highly fragmented retail sector, dominated by small vendors with gray-market relationships, also makes it impossible to know how many appliances are in use. In a 2007 speech, Liu Fuzhong, an official with the China Household Electrical Appliances Association, noted that Chinese consumers own 1.5 billion televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, and air-conditioning units (all of which are hazardous, to some degree, to recycle), with 120 million such appliances entering the waste stream each year. I saw what the result looks like in December during my last visit to Guiyu, the most notorious of South China's e-waste villages. Giant piles of cell phones were strewn across the yards of home-based dismantling workshops, from which the smell of acid, used to extract gold, wafted.

This outmoded processing system probably sounds a bit mad if you're among those who have read the increasing tide of studies suggesting that e-waste is a potential profit-making "gold mine." It is a bonanza -- but only if it's done in exactly this primitive, environmentally ruinous way. China's e-waste villages provide South China's burgeoning manufacturers with cheap and plentiful sources of raw materials. So profitable is the trade that, for two decades, local governments and port authorities in Guangdong province have openly flouted Beijing's customs and environmental laws, charging lower-than- mandated duties on other recyclable materials while turning their eyes away as prohibited materials -- such as old computer monitors -- moved through the borders.

Environmentally friendly processing, by contrast, is expensive, highly technical, and time-consuming. The most common method used is shredding, after which the resulting waste is subjected to a gauntlet of magnets, and other, more technologically advanced means of separating plastics and various kinds of metals. In Japan, which enforces some of the world's strictest environmental laws, these technologies are widely utilized, but only because they are heavily subsidized by the Japanese government, which in turn collects fees from consumers and manufacturers. Even in strict Japan, more than one-third of the resulting waste stream is incinerated or landfilled. And Japanese regulators concede that a large volume of the country's e-waste still flows to developing countries like China, Pakistan, and India.

China, of course, is the "beneficiary" of this profitable environmental nightmare, garnering junk from eager dumpers abroad. One notable result is that South China has some of the lowest raw-material costs in China and, hence, the country's e-waste processing industry offers some of the world's highest prices for old computers and cell phones (India is rapidly catching up, though). A few weeks ago when my Dell-manufactured laptop failed, I walked it down to my Shanghai street corner, where an independent scrap vendor offered me the equivalent of $25 for it. The reusable parts would be salvaged, she told me, and the remainder would be shipped south where metals would be extracted, refined, and sold to manufacturers. Dell's Chinese "take back" program, by contrast, offers no dividend to consumers who let the company pick up an old laptop and recycle it in a sound manner. (Dell declined my request for detailed information on who their recycling partner is, saying only that it is subject to a stringent recycling audit). In 2008, Dell's take-back program took back a mere 2,800 PCs; I saw that many Chinese PC cases just driving through the outskirts of Guiyu.

Despite the domestic consumption twist, a recurrent subtext in documentaries about South China's digital dumping grounds still concerns foreign consumers and their responsibility for the pollution their throwaways are yielding. If only Apple's consumers in California would take their old laptops to authorized recycling centers, Guiyu would cease to exist, the argument goes. But if this were a possibility in 1999, it's certainly not one now. Over the last five years, China has launched several environmentally responsible e-waste pilot projects that have failed for -- among other reasons -- their inability to compete for e-waste in China's vast, informal network of processors. Two years ago, in fact, one of these pilot projects became so desperate for e-waste that it actually asked for formal permission to import the junk from abroad (the request was denied). As it happens, due to the global economic crisis and a crackdown on scrap-metal smuggling in South China, the actual volume of imported e-waste in South China has been in decline for nearly a year. And yet, despite that optimistic development, Guiyu is just as busy as ever.

It's a sign of the times: China is simply consuming more and making more of its own trash. The items being processed down south have certainly included some of the handsets replaced by the reported 1.5 million iPhones brought (unofficially) into China over the last two years. Unlike in the United States, where Apple accepts phones for recycling from any manufacturer, in China it only accepts Apple-branded products (and requires its consumers to ship them to, of all places, Hong Kong). They have all but guaranteed that, at some point, millions of Chinese cell phones will contribute to the government-supported disaster in Guiyu as shiny new iPhones fill China's up-and-coming pockets.

Apple did not respond to repeated requests for comment in regard to its e-waste recycling operations in South China. Regardless, Apple, just like Dell, is surely aware that it won't forever be able to continue running an e-waste program that is worth more in PR value than environmental value. Last August, the Chinese government approved guidelines requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling the products they manufacture and sell in China. The details are still being worked out and it will likely be several more years before implementation, but the rules will probably include subsidies to help recyclers compete with the workshop processors and requirements for producers to take additional responsibility for the proper disposal of the products that they manufacture.

In other words, in a few years Apple might just have to clean up the post-party mess from all those iPhones it's about to make a killing on. The hangover might not be so fun.

Three river delta areas sinking, report claims

By Wang Qian (China Daily) Updated: 2009-09-23 07:40 Three river deltas in China are sinking due to global warming and excessive extraction of underground water, leaving millions of people with an increasing risk of floods, a recent scientific report showed.
Three river delta areas sinking, report claims
The Pearl, Yangtze and Yellow river deltas in China are among the 33 major deltas studied, with 24 of them found to be sinking, according to the report released by the University of Colorado. The three river deltas in China cover about 160,000 sq km and nearly 100 million people live in the areas surrounding these river deltas. "Most of the at-risk river basins are in the developing countries of Asia, but there are several in developed nations as well, including the Rhone in France and the Po in Italy," Altert Kettner from the university told British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Researchers calculate that 85 percent of major deltas have seen severe flooding in recent years. In the next four decades, the areas of land vulnerable to flooding will increase by about 50 percent. The land is sinking and sea level is rising due to climate change. The researchers took data from various space satellites, and combined it with historical records and measurements of the rise in sea levels to get a comprehensive report. "This study shows there are a host of human-induced factors that already cause deltas to sink much more rapidly than could be explained by sea level alone," he said in the BBC report. Chinese scholars don't seem surprised by the report, since the results adhere to previous domestic studies. "Besides the three river deltas mentioned above, the Liaohe and Haihe river deltas are also on our watch list. They are all facing the serious situation of land sinking and sea level rising," Han Mukang, a retired professor in Peking University who has studied the issue for decades, told China Daily. Tianjin in the Haihe River Delta is the most affected place due to over extraction of underground water and its geological structure. Climate change does not have much impact, Han said. "Yellow River Delta is not in an urgent situation," Han said. However some experts don't believe that the sinking land in the three river deltas is dangerous enough to be included in the high-risk list. Liu Shouqi, of the Shanghai-based Geological Society of China, told Chinanews that the data from satellites is not as exact as observations on the ground. Statistics show that whenever the ground of a city sinks 1 mm, the city will face economic losses of about 200 million yuan ($29.4 million), the Chinanews website reported yesterday. By the end of 2003, five areas in Beijing were sinking. About 2,815 sq km of the land sank by more than 5 cm, Chinanews reported. Some land sank by more than 72 cm. Land sinking has cost Shanghai about 280 billion yuan since the 1960s and about 95 cities have faced the risks of land sinking in the past two decades, the website reported. Experts called for a reduction on extraction of underground water and the construction of higher flood banks. In the past 30 years, sea levels in China have increased by 92 mm and the sea temperature increased by almost 1 C, according to statistics from the State Oceanic Administration. The Mekong Delta and Pearl River Delta near Hong Kong are places where floods or hurricanes are likely in future, the researchers said.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

China Emerges as the Yin and the Yang of the Global Warming Problem

The first of an occasional series on China's climate issues.

BEIJING -- Staring up at the dazzling, $32 million screen of light-emitting diodes suspended above one of this city's luxury shopping malls, it's hard to see China as a struggling "developing" country.

Sitting on a stone ledge with 34-year-old Wai Shen Ching hundreds of miles away in the remote village of Bai Bulou, it's hard to see China as anything else.

Residents of this Hebei Province grassland community have no running water. Lately, devastated by drought, the village has had little water at all. Men in straw hats and blue Mao jackets smoke the days away because, they say, farming has come to a standstill.

"There's no water, and there's no way to get water," Ching says, tugging at his gray-and-white camouflage t-shirt as two women in the distance leasd a herd of cows into a rocky pasture. "I don't think we have a future. I think it will be the same if you come back here in 10 years."

In a nutshell, China is at once the yin and the yang of the planet's climate problem. In Chinese philosophy, they are complementary opposites that describe the whole. The yin describes the inertia or the burden of getting a nation still mired in numbing poverty to change its polluting ways. The yang describes the positive force that Chinese leaders have begun to use to attack the world's largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Villages like Bai Bulou are the ones Chinese leaders have in mind when they argue the country is too poor to reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions. This plateau town reflects a stark reality in China, where according to the World Bank, 21.5 million people live below the absolute poverty line, earning about $90 per year. All told, about 800 million Chinese live in rural areas far from the Las Vegas-like shopping streets that visitors now marvel at.

Both Chinas are real. Here, the checkout line at the Calvin Klein in the glitzy Chongwenmen neighborhood snakes out the door. In Shenzhen, smiling waitresses tap lunch orders into hand-held computers. This is China with a $7.8 trillion gross domestic product, on track to grow its economy another 8 percent this year despite the global recession. It is sitting on $2.13 trillion in foreign reserves and holding more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt.

"China is kind of a developed and a developing country at the same time," State Department climate envoy Todd Stern recently explained to Congress.

Stern's problem is that the current global climate change regime doesn't allow for this kind of nuance.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations neatly sliced the world into two categories. In one, it lumped industrialized nations, like Japan, Australia, Europe and the United States (though it never became a party to Kyoto), all responsible for a history of carbon pollution, and required them to slash emissions.

In the other category: everyone else. The developing countries -- a grouping that includes China, Brazil and other fast-growing economies as well as poverty-stricken nations like Cameroon and Yemen -- were exempted from carbon-cutting obligations.

With a new treaty under consideration, the United States is demanding that the United Nations take account of a world where countries straddle easily defined classifications. In theory, others agree, but achieving a system that accomplishes that -- and treats China in a way that satisfies both Chinese leaders and members of Congress -- is one of the trickiest jobs ahead for negotiators.

"We recognize that China is not going to do the exact same thing that the U.S. is going to do, but China's got to do a lot," Stern said. Reaching a deal in Copenhagen this December, he insisted, heavily depends on entrenched U.N. interests casting away "an ideology that the likes of China and India can't do anything more than Angola."

Defining "a lot" is the key. Ultimately, whether U.S. lawmakers view China more as developed or developing may determine how much they expect the Asian economic giant to take on under a new international treaty.

On the verge of a new commitment

One question is "What will China do?" said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. And, just as importantly, he added, it's "Will Congress accept it?"

The world may get an answer to the first question tomorrow, when Chinese President Hu Jintao speaks to the U.N. General Assembly. He is expected to announce a major climate change plan, which some experts say could include a new five-year commitment to reducing the greenhouse gas content of China's economy, and may indicate when China plans to peak its emissions before lowering them.

Last year, China surpassed the United States as the world's leading greenhouse gas emitter. Though China lags far behind the United States on an emissions-per-capita basis, its government has begun to push hard on policies that will slash its carbon pollution. It is also working to gain the lead on technologies such as solar energy and the electric car that will help solve other nations solve their carbon problems.

In the Zhangbei grasslands in Inner Mongolia, wind cuts through Hui Deng's hair as he surveys the 132 windmills the China Energy Conservation Investment Corp. (CECIC) built there. When Deng, general manager at CECIC's Zhangbei wind operation, came to the region in 2004, the state-owned company had plans for 100 megawatts of generation at the site. It has since doubled that capacity and aims to create 1 gigawatt of wind generation -- enough to power about 1 million California homes.

That's just one company. With the construction of 6 gigawatts of wind generation capacity last year alone, experts say China is well on its way to exceeding its goal of increasing the country's share of renewable energy 15 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, across the country, local officials are bowing to government orders and shuttering inefficient coal-fired power plants. That and an agreement among China's 1,000 top energy-consuming industries have put the country on a path toward meeting its target of reducing energy intensity 20 percent by 2010. If that's successful -- and analysts appear confident China will meet or come close to the goal -- it means 247 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions would not enter the atmosphere.

"The U.S. needs to see and understand the degree of the Chinese commitment to energy efficiency," said Andreas Merkl, director of global initiatives for ClimateWorks in San Francisco. "If you look at what China is doing, it's pretty astonishing."

But the image of a China bursting with new green energy may not fit the emerging reality, either.

Sources say China's energy regulatory commission has begun to question whether the nation's wind resources are as strong as were initially believed, raising concerns about capacity.

Meanwhile, despite the ramp-up of renewables, China's coal-fired power plants are still coming online at a rapid pace. Most use the cleanest technology available. But analysts say that doesn't change the International Energy Agency's projection that China's coal use in the electricity sector will grow about 4.1 percent each year -- pumping about 13.8 gigawatts of fossil fuels annually into the air.

"They're not going to get to the 20 percent renewable goal," insisted Derek Scissors, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow who refers to himself as not a climate skeptic but a "China skeptic." Yet even if it did, he points out, "in that time, the projected coal energy swamps the rise in renewables. That doesn't mean the renewable goal wouldn't be useful. It's better than it would have been five years ago, but it's still bad."

Joanna Lewis, a professor at Georgetown University and a former international fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, believes China is making tremendous strides. But coal -- which makes up 80 percent of China's electricity generation -- will pose a challenge for decades to come. Many analysts believe the only short-term answer lies in developing technology to sequester and store CO2.

"There are things China can be doing to make it more efficient, but at the end of the day, that's not enough on climate change," Lewis said.

Laying the foundation for a new negotiating position

Climate envoy Stern is fond of saying that when it comes to an international emissions reduction treaty, countries are willing to do more than they are willing to agree to do.

It's a point he has made specifically about China. In testimony to Congress and elsewhere, he is constantly trying to explain the space that seems to lie between China's outward negotiating positions and what Stern describes as positive movement behind the scenes.

Publicly, China has demanded that the United States and other developed countries deliver 1 percent of their GDP to help poor nations -- a group into which China puts itself -- adapt to a low-fossil-fuel economy. Stern has called that expectation "untethered from reality." Meanwhile, in return for the financing, China promises nothing other than voluntary actions toward reducing its domestic emissions.

But just last month, China's National People's Congress introduced new laws to combat climate change, outlining a possible carbon intensity goal. While the resolution lacked specific targets and squarely noted China's right to continue developing, many environmental groups said it lays the groundwork for a new negotiating position at Copenhagen.

"China doesn't lack political will," said Qi Ye, deputy director of the Energy Foundation's sustainable energy program in Beijing. "What China does lack is capacity. That's not reflected in its foreign reserves or GDP."

Still, China's evident new wealth is what many U.S. politicians focus on when they travel there. In one recent congressional hearing, House lawmakers made a point of mentioning Beijing's Prada shop and superhighway. The implication: China can well afford to cut carbon and take care of its own technology needs.

China, of course, is partially responsible for the way U.S. lawmakers home in on the country's bounty. At every turn, Chinese leaders trumpet the story of their country's economic rise. Journalists have been jailed for writing about unemployment, and students locked up for blogging on rural poverty and corruption.

And while at U.N. climate talks China claims a seat at the table with other developing nations, it also appears keen in other international forums on flexing its muscle as the world power it is becoming. That was evident this month, when it struck back against President Obama's decision to impose trade penalties on Chinese tires.

Straddling 2 different identities

"China is walking a very fine line," said Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Michael Levi. "China is trying to have it both ways, because there really are two ways."

Jiaman Jin, executive director of China's Global Environment Institute, a nonprofit group that works closely with the Chinese central government to devise climate strategies, described her country as a recent college graduate.

"It's a little bit like if you look at a person in their 20s. They're starting to make money and develop their careers, but they're not that mature yet," she said. China, she maintained, despite its blossoming economy, is still developing its international presence and feeling out its global responsibilities.

Earlier this year, a leading Chinese think tank released a study showing how China's carbon dioxide emissions trajectory could slow, plateau and then peak in 2030. The study's release was significant, experts said, because the panel that produced it is essentially an arm of China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission. So more than just engaging in an academic exercise, leaders were floating a plan.

It's a plan that relies heavily on technology investments, and outlines how China could slow the growth of emissions after 2020 -- essentially getting dirty more slowly than it would without key energy policies -- and begin to reduce absolute emissions a decade after that.

That plan, though, could be complicated by the U.S. Senate's delay of domestic cap-and-trade legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated last week that a climate bill might have to wait until next year, raising hackles in Europe and elsewhere.

Can the U.S. lead in the negotiating dance?

Deborah Seligsohn, a Beijing consultant with the World Resources Institute's climate program, said she doesn't believe China will even start talking about targets until the United States establishes one.

"The question the Chinese are really asking the U.S. is what I'm calling the $13 trillion question," Seligsohn said. "They're saying, 'If we can see that path, then that is the path we would like to take. Show us. Don't tell us there's a low-carbon pathway in China. Show us how you do it in America.'"

Meanwhile, it isn't clear that U.S. lawmakers will accept China's plan. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) this month accused China of "taking advantage" of U.N. climate guidelines giving developing nations different responsibilities than industrialized ones to "cook the math in their favor."

If an absolute carbon cap is good for America, then it's good for China, as well, Sensenbrenner argued. As for any plan that allows China to spew more slowly and wait a decade or more before reducing emissions, he said, "That's not anything I'm willing to support, and I don't think the American people will support it."

Former Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.), president of the U.N. Foundation, disagreed. "We don't want to get hung up on saying the U.S. and China should reduce the same percentage and the same amount," he said. "We have different obligations." Lawmakers pressing for for absolutely equal responses from America and China, he argued, simply want to scuttle any chance for a climate pact.

Stern said he, too, is hopeful and optimistic that if China puts forward a solid plan, enough members of Congress will buy into it.

"If it was substantial and resulted in a major reduction in their emissions, yeah, I think they [Congress] would be OK with that."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Legal Struggles for a Cleaner Environment

An environmental group's success in court against a local government agency may lay the groundwork for legal progress. By staff reporters Qin Xudong and Luo Jieqi (Caijing Magazine) A court in southern China needed only 34 days to settle a 15-year-old environmental predicament at a nature reserve. But much more time may be needed to overcome obstacles to environmental law in China that surfaced during the recent fight to protect Baihua Lake in Guizhou Province. The case dates to 1994 when an agreement was signed to develop a state-owned, 800-square-meter plot of land on the shores of Baihua, a 58-square-kilometer lake that boasts more than 170 islets, rich vegetation and karst landscape. The lot's owner, the Qingzhen National Land Resources Bureau, leased land-use rights to a private company for 50 years. The parties agreed a cafeteria would be built within a year. If the company reneged, the bureau would retain the land rights and get anything on the lot, including buildings, for free. But the deal hit a wall. The building went unfinished for 15 years, and local residents complained in May that the deserted complex posed a potential threat to the ecosystem. The complaint was filed with the All China Environment Federation (ACEF), a government-linked agency. ACEF filed a public interest environmental lawsuit in July in Qingzhen Municipal Court, charging the land resources bureau with failing to fulfill its nondiscretionary duty. The case was accepted for a hearing the next day. At the final hearing September 1, the bureau told the court it had fulfilled its legal duty by reclaiming land use rights and properties. ACEF then dropped the case, saying the purpose of its litigation had been served. The court agreed. The Baihua Lake case has been hailed as China's first, public interest lawsuit lodged by an environmental group and accepted by a court. Observers say it has significant implications for the country's legal system. How it Works The most widely accepted interpretation of "public interest environmental litigation" among China's legal circle is that a citizen, enterprise, public institution, social group or government body -- in the interest of protecting the public -- to bring a lawsuit to court on their own when the environment is subject to ongoing or imminent danger. Here "public interest" contrasts with "private interest." The law requires a plaintiff to establish a "standing" before qualifying to file a lawsuit. That means, under civil procedures law, that the filer has a direct, causal connection to injury or interest in the case or, under criminal procedures law, a plaintiff must prove being victimized by an infringement of legal rights through a concrete administrative action. If neither condition is met, a court would likely reject the case. These rules have made it difficult for a third party to file environmental lawsuits in the public interest, except in a few cases involving a procuratorate. ACEF's Inspiration Technically, ACEF does not have a "standing" to act as a plaintiff. But the foundation is administered by the Ministry of Environment with approval from the State Council. Chairman Song Jian is a former deputy chairman of the National Political Consultative Conference, its deputy chairmen include incumbent and former environment ministers, and several honorary presidents are former government and party leaders. And although the Qingzhen case was an exception rather than the rule, it apparently inspired other advocates of environmental litigation in China. On August 20, for example, a non-profit environmental group in Sichuan Province filed a lawsuit against two hydropower companies for damage to the Jinsha River. The Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, which has no government connections, sued Yunnan Huadian Ludila Hydropower Co. Ltd. and Huaneng Longkaikou Hydropower Co. Ltd. for the negative environmental effects from their hydropower construction projects on Jinsha's middle reaches. Whether the lawsuit is accepted for review will be decided later by the Court of Maritime Law in Wuhan. But a positive indicator is that it was filed two months after the environment ministry ordered the companies to halt their projects for failing to conduct environmental impact assessments. Zhang Jingjing, deputy director of Chinese environmental law for the U.S.-based environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, called the Qingzhen case a "touchstone" for the effectiveness of China's public interest environmental litigation. Zhou Ke, director of environmental resources law at Renmin University of China, said while environmental pollution incidents are characterized foremost by their damage to public interests, the "standing" requirement narrows qualifications for plaintiffs in public litigation. On the other hand, under Chinese law, it is not easy for an individual to sue over an environmental pollution case with many victims harmed in varying ways. Moreover, an individual victim may not want to go to court if his or her damages are limited while the litigation costs are relatively high. Xia Jun, a Beijing lawyer for Green League, cited the example of a 2004 case of pollution in the Huai River after a rainstorm. Xuyi, a Jiansu Province community famous for a certain crayfish, was among the hardest hit. Xia offered legal assistance to locals who wanted to recoup losses. But none were willing to serve as a plaintiff. And Xia himself was accused by the local officials as making trouble. Without a firm system for litigation, environmental victims are unable to take to legal action. Meanwhile, experts say, pollution incidents and disputes that incite public protest have been increasing. Bie Tao, the environment ministry's deputy director of policies and regulations, supports the use of environmental litigation on behalf of the public under certain circumstances. For example, he said, lawsuits should be used in cases involving victims that are not determined, uncertain ownership of environmentally damaged property, or when a large group of victims have no single representative or are unable to pursue litigation. "The value of public welfare litigation lies not only in resolving individual cases but improving the legal system by creating a domino effect," Bie said. Bie suggested three channels for establishing a workable system. First, establish basic procedures through a special legal interpretation by the Supreme People's Court. Second, add special litigation provisions to existing laws governing air and water pollution. And third, incorporate public welfare litigation procedures within the framework of existing civil and criminal procedure laws. A 2005 directive from the State Council encouraged establishing a "civil and administrative public prosecution system for environmental issues." It also called for "a larger role by social organizations in reporting and exposing various illegal activities targeting the environment" and "promoting public welfare environment litigation." Following that directive, special courts for environmental law opened in recent years in the cities of Wuxi in Jiangsu, Guiyang in Guizhou, and Kunming in Yunnan Province. They said environmental protection authorities, procuratorates and environmental protection organizations and groups would be qualified to serve as plaintiffs. On the heels of its success in the Baihua Lake case, ACEF became the first plaintiff to file a case with the Wuxi environmental court. The filing July 6 came 14 months after the court opened for business. A hearing is pending. Ma Yong, ACEF litigation chief, told Caijing that by initiating environmental lawsuits, the agency hopes to "contribute to a better procedure" for China's legal system and build "a model" for the future.