China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Major environmental events in 2009 in China

The environment was a hot topic in China in 2009. Here is a roundup of major events that happened.

1. Corruption in water pollution treatment project

Seven provinces embezzled 403 million yuan ($59 million) from the funds for water pollution treatment project involving 13 provinces, according to a report released by the National Audit Office on November 28. Nine provinces, including municipalities and autonomous regions failed to pay 2.14 billion yuan ($313.32 million) for sewage disposal.

The project was originally launched to deal with the pollution in the Liaohe River, Haihe River, Huaihe River, Taihu Lake, Chaohu Lake and Dianchi Lake. But in the past six years with over 8,000 programs, there as been no improvement seen in the water quality of these water bodies.

2. Photographer of "Pollution in China" unveils the reality of environmental pollution

This photo was taken in Cihu Chemical Industry District, Anhui Province on June 18, 2009. An underground pipe was built to discharge wastewater into the Yangtze River. The wastewater was black, gray, dark red, or yellow.

Lu Guang, a Chinese freelance photographer won the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography with his collection of pictures entitled "Pollution in China" on November 14. His work reveals the serious problem of pollution in China and the health hazards they cause on local residents.

 3. BASF's potentially polluted program near the Three Gorges Dam

BASF, the largest chemical company in the world, received the permit from the Ministry of Environmental Protection on September 28 to start its MDI (methyl diphenylene diisocyanate) program nearby the reservoir of the Three Gorges Dam in Chongqing.

MDI, a toxic chemical can cause serious pollution to the environment once leaked, is used in most of the company's production lines.

Although BASF publicly claimed that all the equipment meet the strictest security standards and the program will be based on BASF's 10-year experience, technology and abundant capital, Ren Majun, director of Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, still believed that once the program is expanded, it is hard to guarantee "zero pollution" in this area.

4. 600 children near smelting company tested with high levels of lead in NW China

More than 600 children living nearby a smelting company in northwest China's Shaanxi Province showed abnormally high blood lead levels.

Dongling Group should take primary responsibility in this case, according to Han Qin, head of the Baoji environment monitoring team.

The smelting plant belongs to Dongling Group, one of the biggest private companies in Shaanxi Province. The plant in Changqing town produced 100,000 tons of lead and zinc and 700,000 tons of coke annually. It directly accounted for 17 percent of the county's GDP last year.

Its general manager Sun Hong said the county government had pledged, in a deal reached before the plant was opened, to relocate all residents living within a radius of 500 meters in three years.

Local authorities ordered the closure of the smelting plant August 6, about two weeks after the first lead poisoning case was reported in 6-year-old Miao Fan.

5. 1,000 children tested with high levels of lead in central China

The blood tests of 968 children out of 2,747 under the age of 14 in China's biggest lead smelting base have shown excessive levels of lead in their bodies.

The health bureau of Jiyuan City, in central Henan Province, initiated the tests after a lead poisoning scandal was exposed in neighboring Shaanxi Province.

The city government has suspended production at 32 of the 35 electrolytic lead plants and on the pollution-prone production lines of the other three major factories.

All children living within 1,000 meters of the smelters had been moved away, with allowances and assistance in education provided by the government.

6. Residents protest incinerator project

Local residents in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province hold up slogans in front of a government office building on November 23 to protest against the local government's plan to build incinerators near where they live.

Opposition to a planned incinerator project in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province intensified after hundreds of people staged a protest outside a government office on November 23, demonstrators said.

The 900 million yuan ($132 million) project is being built to replace a refuse landfill that is almost full.
Though the government said the plant would be safe and use internationally advanced equipment, many residents are concerned about the potential health hazards of dioxin emissions, a toxic chemical which can cause cancer in the human body.

The project was halted on December 10 to consider new plans.

Meanwhile, residents were asked to sort their garbage to help with recycling and cut down on the amount of waste in the landfill.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It had to go somewhere: (some) Chinese E-waste flowing into North Korea.

posted by Adam on December 16, 2009 @ 10:04 am

As I've argued elsewhere on this blog, climate change – despite its popularity as an environmental cause in the developed world – really doesn't have much of a constituency in China. And among the most important reasons for that lack of popular interest is the persistence of far more immediate, and toxic, environmental issues. Of these, perhaps none is faster growing or more dangerous than the growth of domestically-generated electronic wastes such as old computers, televisions, and other home appliances.

For years, environmental organizations in the developed world have raised significant money (and white guilt) by suggesting – wrongly – that the majority of the e-waste in China's e-waste processing yards comes from the United States and the EU. No doubt, some of it does (and, in the past, much of it did). But that's not the case, anymore. China recently became the world's second largest PC market and – more immediately – this fall it implemented a home appliance trade-in program to encourage the purchase of new televisions, PCs, refrigerators, washing machines, and air-conditioners by Chinese consumers. In return for trading in their old appliances, Chinese consumers receive significant discounts on the purchase of new ones.

The program has been wildly successful: according to state-owned media, in just the first three months of the program, 2.39 million appliances were "recycled." There's just one problem: China doesn't yet have sufficient environmentally-secure capacity for recycling such a large quantity of used appliances (for more info, see my recent FP piece on the subject). Instead, it continues to rely disproportionately on dangerous, environmentally destructive methods of e-waste processing (acid baths, for example).

In the next two years, this situation should change significantly, as China's waste appliance laws come into effect, and law-abiding processors receive government subsidies to support their revenue-intensive efforts. But that's in the future. What about now?

According to a fascinating blog post by Elizabeth Balkan at the New Energy and Environment Digest [NEED], some of that material is flowing into North Korea. Balkan writes:

… [t]he US and Europe for years have exported trash to developing countries in Asia and Africa at a lower cost and with fewer environmental safeguards. It is therefore somewhat unsurprising, but no less disheartening, to find out that China, too, is joining the ranks of countries opting to manage waste by having less developed countries manage it for them – often at considerable health and environmental risks.

The newest recipient country is not in Africa or Southeast Asia, as one might expect.

Rather, it appears that waste is being diverted to North Korea, China's northeastern neighbor, whose western coast lies directly across from China's prosperous coastal areas and many port towns.

As Balkan notes – this isn't completely surprising. And it's not an altogether new story, either (there have been scattered reports to this effect over the last two years). Last week, when I was in Korea, I was told that North Korea is making millions from gold refined from old circuit boards processed in the sorts of e-waste workshops long associated with South China and East Africa. Balkan cites an important if disheartening South Korean newspaper report that claims:

North Korean organizations in charge of raising foreign currency are bringing in and burying industrial waste from China for money, a report released yesterday said.

The report also said North Korean scientists who complained that their country is turning into China's industrial waste site have been purged in North Korea.

Daily NK, a media outlet on North Korean affairs, quoted a source in the North's South Hamkyong Province as saying, "The soil survey research center at Hamhung Institute of Technology released a research paper on its study of land pollution resulting from burial of industrial waste from China and a letter urging countermeasures to the Central Committee of the (North Korean) Workers' Party. The institute was dismantled and senior officials and researchers were all purged."

Based upon this passage, there's more than one cross-border toxic industry in play here. E-waste – and by that I mean appliances that contain recyclable materials – has value, and nobody who goes through the trouble of bringing it over the North Korean border is then going to turn around and bury it. Instead, they'll process it – most likely, in ways that are environmentally ruinous – and then sell the metals. If the North Koreans are burying hazardous materials, those materials aren't recyclable.

Neither Balkan nor the paper she cites indicates just how much Chinese e-waste is flowing into North Korea. But based upon what I know of the domestic Chinese e-waste trade, and how it's conducted in China, I would guess that it is actually very little. Most likely, the majority of the material is sourced north of Beijing, by businesses that can save money by shipping the material cross-border rather than to other parts of China (particularly the south). And, based upon the photo posted to Balkan's blog, I suspect that the e-waste is being pre-processed in China – that is, easily recovered and recyclable components are removed from the appliances before the circuit boards and more difficult to recover materials are shipped to North Korea.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Why the Best Legacy of Copenhagen Could Be a Stronger China

by Alex Pasternack, New York, NY on 12. 8.09 Via


The slight prospects for a deal at Copenhagen are already being pinned largely on the US and China. But with Obama's hands tied behind his back partly by the US Congress, with China already demonstrating leadership on renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts, and with both the developing and developed world hanging on Beijing's every word, the success or failure of Copenhagen will in large part depend upon China.

In a sense, Copenhagen isn't just about agreeing to agree on future carbon cuts or aid and technology transfer to developing countries. It's about how countries position themselves to lead the dialog going forward. Now's China's chance to shine, and we have to hope that it will.

The crucial role that China can play at Copenhagen hasn't been lost on China's negotiators or leaders. For decades they led a country notorious for its flagrant disregard for the environment, and with deep suspicion of foreign opinions. But for a handful of years, starting mainly with the awarding of the Beijing Olympics in 2001, China's government has grown determined to show the world it's cleaning up. And not just because it looks good. A cleaner environment will make real money, and prevent the social and political fallout that could come with continued environmental disaster.

Not surprisingly, China sees Copenhagen as its best opportunity yet at illustrating its commitments to the environment. If environmental controls were once at odds with the government's sense of self-determination and confidence, such controls are now becoming firmly part of that sense of power.

If climate change was once an excuse for the first world to (quite hypocrtically) tell China how to behave, now it's seen as a chance for China to show the rest of the world how to behave. To borrow Al Gore's (somewhat mistaken) formulation about the word 危机 weiji, the country that once looked like a paragon of crisis now exudes opportunity. And China's leaders, masters of both pragmatism and propaganda, may recognize that better than anyone.

Whatever the outcome may be of the climate negotiations -- and between China's and the US's still modest carbon targets, much remains to be done -- the best overall result of Copenhagen will be a China that's more confident than ever on the world stage. Combined with the country's booming economic and political (to say nothing of military) power, that kind of confidence is a great asset to both Beijing and the rest of the world. Whether you're talking about renewable energy or currency policy or political freedoms, the last thing anyone needs is a big important and strong country with a chip on its shoulder. That sense of insecurity only serves to isolate, antagonize and estrange -- and turn global concerns like climate change into merely political sore spots.

The dangers of China's historical inferiority complex were summarized in a great article last year by Orville Schell in the New York Review of Books. Schell, head of the Asia Society's center on US-China relations, describes the ways in which a national narrative of humiliation has served the power interests of China's leaders, at the often untold expense of its people. The country's "century of humiliation" was the subtext of the nasty international back-and-forth that ensued following the riots in Tibet last year, he observes, and of its vigorous and somewhat ugly reach for the most gold medals at the Beijing Olympics.

To be sure, China had much to be proud of as a nation at the glorious opening ceremony. And yet, as Schell quotes Xu Guoqi, author of Olympic Dreams: China And Sports, 1895-2008, "Through their coverage and handling of the Beijing torch relay, the West seemed to remind the Chinese they were still not equal and they were still not good enough."

But climate change -- once a bitterly divisive issue between China and the west -- could ferry China and all of us out of this narrative. At a meeting at the Asia Society recently about US-China cooperation over carbon capture (US pays, China builds, both sides benefit), I heard Schell invoke a new vision of China:

China's rise has been accompanied by America's decline. This does have one very good effect: for the first time in 150 years, we find this Sino-US relation playing field, which used to be like this - [he held his hand diagonally] in terms of pop culture, politics, soft power -- more like this [hand horizontal]. But this new leveling means we will cofront each other with new equality... The Chinese strength, its new confidence, and a level playing field, comes with a prospect for a better relationship.

A better relationship will be crucial on all fronts, not least the climate one. For all the competitiveness of a global low carbon economy, climate change is ultimately not a zero-sum game. Like China, it's a crisis that could be an opportunity. By increasingly putting pragmatism before propaganda, Beijing is showing it recognizes that. If it can locate the leadership to get the developing world to follow suit, and enter into cooperation with the developed world with a greater sense of confidence, China will shed its status as the world's environmental villain. That would inspire even greater confidence in the future among both African leaders and US senators.

If China assumes the role it's earned at Copenhagen, for perhaps the first time on the world stage, it can demonstrate the great responsibility that comes with its great power. In doing so, it would be remaking much more than its image.