China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Saturday, July 29, 2006

China's growing pollution reaches U.S.

By TERENCE CHEA Associated Press Writer
July 28, 2006, 8:38PM

MOUNT TAMALPAIS STATE PARK, Calif. — On a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Steven Cliff collects evidence of an industrial revolution taking place thousands of miles away.

The tiny, airborne particles Cliff gathers at an air monitoring station just north of San Francisco drifted over the ocean from coal-fired power plants, smelters, dust storms and diesel trucks in China and other Asian countries.

Researchers say the environmental impact of China's breakneck economic growth is being felt well beyond its borders. They worry that as China consumes more fossil fuels to feed its energy-hungry economy, the U.S. could see a sharp increase in trans-Pacific pollution that could affect human health, worsen air quality and alter climate patterns.

"We're going to see increased particulate pollution from the expansion of China for the foreseeable future," said Cliff, a research engineer at the University of California, Davis.

He has monitoring stations on Mount Tamalpais, Donner Summit near Lake Tahoe, and Mount Lassen in far Northern California. Those sites see little pollution from local sources, and the composition of the dust particles matches that of the Gobi Desert and other Asian sites, Cliff said.

About a third of the Asian pollution is dust, which is increasing due to drought and deforestation, Cliff said. The rest is composed of sulfur, soot and trace metals from the burning of coal, diesel and other fossil fuels.

Cliff is studying whether transported particulate matter could affect climate by trapping heat, reflecting light or changing rainfall patterns.

Most air pollution in U.S. cities is generated locally, but that could change if citizens in China, India and other developing nations adopt American-style consumption patterns, researchers say.

"If they started driving cars and using electricity at the rate in the developed world, the amount of pollution they generate will increase many, many times," said Tony Van Curen, a UC Davis researcher who works with Cliff.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that on certain days nearly 25 percent of the particulate matter in the skies above Los Angeles can be traced to China. Some experts predict China could one day account for a third of all California's air pollution.

Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, said he has detected ozone, carbon monoxide, mercury and particulate matter from Asia at monitoring sites on Mount Bachelor in Oregon and Cheeka Peak in Washington state.

"There is some amount of the pollution in the air we breathe coming from halfway around the world," Jaffe said. "There ultimately is no 'away.' There is no place where you can put away your pollution anymore."

China's environmental problems are severe and getting worse. Nearly 30 years of relentless industrial expansion has fouled the country's rivers, lakes, forests, farmland and skies.

The World Bank estimates that 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, and air pollution is blamed for about 400,000 premature deaths there each year.

Coal-fired power plants supply two-thirds of China's energy and are its biggest source of air pollution. Already the world's largest producer and consumer of coal, China on average builds a new coal-fired power plant every week.

Meanwhile, car ownership is soaring as the country's economy grows about 10 percent a year, contributing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

If current trends continue, China will surpass the U.S. as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the next decade, said Barbara Finamore, who heads the Natural Resources Defense Council's China Clean Energy program, which is helping the country boost its energy efficiency.

"China's staggering economic growth is an environmental time bomb that, unless defused, threatens to convulse the entire planet regardless of progress in all other nations," Finamore said.

Even Chinese environmental officials warn that pollution levels could quadruple over the next 15 years if the country doesn't curb energy use and emissions. Beijing plans to spend $162 billion on environmental cleanup over the next five years, but the scale of the country's pollution problems is immense.

"When you look at China's population growth and industrial growth, it's hard to imagine how air quality could improve in the near future," said Ruby Leung, a researcher at the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., which collaborates with Chinese government scientists on atmospheric research.

Earlier this year, Leung and her colleagues published a study that found particulate pollution has darkened China's skies over the past 50 years by absorbing and deflecting the sun's rays.

China's pollution also regularly dirties the air in neighboring South Korea and Japan, but until recently researchers didn't think it had much effect on North America.

U.S. scientists have recently found that Asian pollution is consistently transported across the Pacific on air currents. It can take anywhere from five days to two weeks for particles to cross the ocean.

Some scientists predict that global warming could change those circulation patterns, either speeding or slowing the transport of pollutants from Asia.

China's environmental challenges are daunting, but the country is taking action to reduce its energy use and air pollution, said NRDC's Finamore. Beijing has set ambitious goals for increasing energy efficiency, fuel economy standards and use of renewable power sources such as wind and solar, she said.

"There are tremendous opportunities for China to slow the amount of pollution it pumps in the air," Finamore said.

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China widens criteria to catch pollution crimes

    BEIJING, July 28 (Xinhua) -- In an effort to bring rampant pollution under control, China on Friday re-interpreted laws to make it easier to convict polluters and officials responsible for environmental crises.

    According to a new interpretation handed down by the Supreme People's Court (SPC), polluters and negligent officials responsible for environmental incidents that cause even a single death can be convicted.

    Convictions are also possible in cases where at least three people receive serious wounds, or ten get minor wounds, the interpretations said.

    If convicted, the accused face prison sentences of up to three years.

    If three or more people are killed in an environmental accident,those responsible can be imprisoned for three to seven years, according to the new interpretations.

    The severe prison terms also apply to people convicted of causing environmental accidents that injure more than 30 people, seriously injure at least ten people or cause the evacuation of 10,000 to 50,000 people.

    Convicts will also face terms of up to seven years if environmental incidents lead to the spread of contagious diseases such as H5N1 bird flu, SARS, plague, cholera or anthracnose.

    Currently, China's environmental laws target people who cause major pollution to the air, water, or soil, people who dump environmentally dangerous foreign waste in China, and officials whose slack administration contributes to major environmental crises.

    Prison terms are usually less than three years, with 3-7 year terms reserved for serious violations.

    China is waging a fierce battle to control environmental damagecaused by the surging economy, with pollution costing an estimated10 percent of gross domestic product.

    In 2005, 97.1 percent of all environmental mishaps involved therelease of pollution, and 27 officials involved in seven pollutionincidents were prosecuted and convicted, according to official figures.

    Also in last year, China's former environmental chief Xie Zhenhua resigned over failure in controlling Songhua River pollution, one of China's biggest environmental accidents since 1949, that forced millions of people to live without tap water forseveral days.

    Last Sunday, Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu called for a national efforts to curb water pollution, saying the environment prices China has paid for rapid economic growth were too high.

    The government earlier has announced that it will invest 1.4 trillion yuan (175 billion U.S. dollars) in environmental protection between 2006 and 2010. The money will be spent on waterpollution control, urban air quality maintenance, solid waste disposal and soil erosion prevention.

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Blast at Chinese Chemical Plant Kills 12

The Associated Press Via
Friday, July 28, 2006; 8:08 AM

SHANGHAI, China -- An explosion at a chemical plant in eastern China killed at least 12 people Friday and prompted the evacuation of 7,000 others, state media and officials said.

Also Friday, two unrelated explosions at another chemical plant and aboard an oil tanker injured at least five people, with two others missing and feared dead.

The 9 a.m. explosion at the Fudu Chemical Plant in Jiangsu province's Linhai Township, about 190 miles north of Shanghai, shattered the facility.

By midafternoon, 12 bodies had been recovered, a spokesman for the surrounding Sheyang county government said. About a dozen more were injured, said the man, who like many Chinese bureaucrats would only give his surname, Huang.

The cause of the 9 a.m. blast is still under investigation, Huang said. Though no dangerous levels of pollution have been detected, authorities evacuated 7,000 people from about a mile around the blast site as a precaution, he said.

Fudu is a major producer of fluorochemicals for industry, according to the company Web site. No details were given on the cause of the accident or the specific chemicals involved. Earlier newspaper reports said the company had been cited for violating pollution standards in the past but there was no mention of safety problems.

Reached by phone, Fudu General Manager Xue Chunlin said it was "not convenient" for him to comment on the cause of the accident or condition of those injured.

One hour before the blast, an explosion and fire struck a plant belonging to the Shanghai Yuanda Peroxide Co. Ltd., seriously injuring at least four people and billowing thick smoke across the Baoshan industrial district to the city's north, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The fire was quickly brought under control and investigators were looking into the cause, said a woman who answered the phone at Yuanda's headquarters in Shanghai.

In a later report, Xinhua said the Yuanda explosion had initially been ruled an accident with no sign of foul play.

Yuanda's Web site describes it as a joint venture with a Hong Kong company that produces 50,000 tons per year of the chemical peroxide.

Shortly before the Yuanda accident, a massive explosion split the hull of an oil tanker sailing down a canal in central Jiangsu's Yizheng district, Xinhua reported.

Two people aboard the boat were reported missing after the blast and feared dead, the report said. Another person was taken to a hospital in critical condition, it said.

Factory accidents in China kill thousands each year in fires, explosions and other incidents, most often blamed on insufficient safety equipment and workers ignoring safety guidelines. The resulting contamination of air and water has also forced the shutdown of drinking water systems to entire cities, inflicting massive financial losses.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Beijing wipes out polluting factories for the Olympics

By Cruz Fang (
Updated: 2006-07-27 14:11

The Beijing Coking-Chemical Plant is the latest pollution-causing factory to move from Beijing's urban district in accordance with a municipal government order aimed at creating a cleaner environment for the 2008 Olympic games.

A major polluter as well as gas provider in the Chinese capital, the factory supplied 710,000 families and 5,000 hotels with gas in the late 1990s. At one time the number of its registered workers surpassed 9,000.

Operations at the factory never ceased during its 47-year history, continuing to function even during the catastrophic 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, which caused at least 240,000 deaths, 180 kilometers east of Beijing.

But production came to an end on July 15, as a factory manager pressed a button, dumping out the last load of coke. Emotional workers took pictures, but the factory's huge chimneys will no longer send out smoke from Beijing's southeast end.

A Political Star

When Qin Wansuo was hired to the factory in 1974, the first training he received was political. He was told who their clients were - the Great Hall of the People, foreign embassies, big hotels and the Zhongnanhai, where the Chinese central government and Chairman Mao Zedong were seated.

With a list of high-priority customers like this, Qin said he formed the opinion that his factory's normal operation was not just a business but also a political mission.

Since the late 1970s, coal gas was widely promoted inside the city and the amount of private gas users sharply increased. The factory's political influence shifted, but did not fade. .

It was a set practice for many years for chief Beijing municipality leaders to visit the factory during the Spring Festival holidays, the most widely celebrated in China. Gas supply problems are one of the few factors that could easily ruin the holiday atmosphere, and the leaders didn't want that to happen.

Later, the factory's role in the city could be best summed up by Qin's metaphor: "When my factory sneezes, the municipality government gets a cold."

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Oil Is Like Milk; China Has No Need to Buy Cows: Andy Mukherjee

July 27 (Bloomberg) -- If your life depended on drinking a glass of milk every day, would you buy a cow?

That's the question Chinese planners must ask themselves as they evaluate their push to buy energy assets from Sudan and Angola to Iran, an effort that has prompted the country's state- owned oil companies to spend $15 billion in the past five years.

Agreed, the world's second-biggest auto market after the U.S. needs every drop of oil it can get. And China isn't the only country that has begun to equate energy security with physical possession of oil-producing assets.

On July 18, I wrote about a copycat drive by India.

Whereas the Chinese have bought more than 100 oil fields and companies in the past five years, the Indians have been largely unsuccessful in their quest. In the past year alone, state-owned Indian oil companies have lost at least five deals to their Chinese and Korean counterparts.

The issue, however, is more complex than who's succeeding and who's not. What needs to be considered is whether it makes sense for any Asian nation to make the purchase of energy- producing assets a cornerstone of its foreign policy when the economics of this global oil-hunt may itself be dubious.

According to three McKinsey & Co. consultants, if China manages to keep domestic production from its aging fields at the current level, it will need to buy 3 percent of the world's proven petroleum assets -- more than the combined reserves of BP Plc, Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Total SA -- to meet projected demand until 2025.

``Even if it were possible to buy all the reserves China is likely to need, the investment probably wouldn't be a smart one,'' Ivo Bozon, Subbu Narayanswamy and Jonathan Woetzel wrote in a special China edition of the McKinsey Quarterly.

Paying Premium Prices

``A much more efficient and less costly strategy would be to reform the state-controlled petroleum sector, open it to foreign investment, and integrate the country into the global system that supplies Japan, the U.S. and other big energy consumers,'' Bozon, Narayanswamy and Woetzel said.

According to the McKinsey consultants' estimates, Chinese national oil companies pay at least a 10th more than their international rivals for foreign reserves.

Why are they paying this premium? How does buying oil fields in Sudan -- and risking relations with the U.S. in the bargain -- secure China's energy supplies?

Of what use would China's overseas investments be if, say in the event of a world war, its enemies gained control of the Straits of Malacca, the chokepoint through which four-fifths of the oil used by China passes?

Value and Vulnerability

Even if China were promised home delivery of all the overseas crude it needed, where would it receive the commodity and how would it be refined?

``To keep up with surging demand, the country needs to build a large, technologically world-class refinery every year for the next 15 years, at a cost of about $2 billion apiece,'' the McKinsey researchers said.

Energy security isn't merely about extracting the crude. It extends to transportation, storage, refining, trading and retail. Things could go wrong at any stage.

After Hurricane Katrina halted refinery operations in Louisiana and Mississippi last year, crude-oil prices shot up even though global inventories were adequate. Prices rose because of limitations in the infrastructure required to divert petroleum product supplies from Europe to the U.S.

Real Security

For Asian nations, buying oil assets is a political project. Perhaps politicians have a sharper assessment of future security risks than the market. Or, what's more likely, they are just being overanxious and bidding up prices of even marginal assets.

China's quest for energy security must begin at home by dismantling arbitrary and non-transparent control on pump prices. Since March 2005, the government's guidance price for standard unleaded gasoline has risen 30 percent to about $2 a gallon, compared with a 37 percent surge in international crude prices.

As in many other Asian countries, artificially low energy costs in China have been a key plank of a strategy to keep inflation in check and avoid raising interest rates. This strategy does more harm than good.

For one, it militates against efforts at energy conservation and adds to pollution, already a serious threat to China. Second, such arbitrary price caps depress investment in everything from exploration to refining.

Global Network

China's refinery output in the first six months of this year was 85 million tons, 7 percent less than domestic crude-oil production, according to a report this month by Xinhua, the official news agency. In that period, China imported 12 million tons of refined oil products, on top of 70 million tons of crude.

The world has invested significant resources in creating a global energy network that makes oil a traded commodity.

There's nothing to be gained in bypassing the network, even if it could be done. The idea should be to find the most efficient way to embrace it.

If you need milk every day, you should buy a refrigerator. A cow in the backyard would be too much.

(Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

All Chinese cities to have sewage treatment plants by 2010

Source: Xinhuanews via

All the Chinese cities must have operating sewage treatment plants by 2010, with 70 percent of urban sewage treated before being discharged into the environment, the deputy minister of construction Qiu Baoxing has said.

Speaking at a national conference on water pollution control last week, Qiu said currently there are 791 sewage treatment plants operating in 383 Chinese cities.

Qiu's speech, made available to Xinhua Tuesday, said 52 percent of the urban waste water in China are treated before being discharged, up 18 percentage points from 2000.

In 135 major cities, 70 percent of the waste water are already being treated.

Qiu, however, said the country's water pollution situation is still grave, as 278 cities have yet to build their sewage plants, while many plants are running at lower-than-designed capacities. Some are not even running at all.

To ensure the attainment of the goals, the deputy minister said municipal authorities must include water pollution control into their urban planning.

The lack of proper sewage collecting networks is partly to blame for the under-utilization of the sewage treatment capacity.

Zhang Yue, the deputy director of the ministry's urban construction department, said earlier that the issue arises from the fact that many sewage treatment plants are financed by the central government through treasury bonds, while the sewage collecting networks are usually the responsibility of local governments.

Qiu said government shall have to change its policy and inject more funds into the building of sewage collecting networks.

To ensure the normal and sustainable operation of sewage treatment plants, the deputy minister said the policy of charging polluters for waste water treatment shall be applied to the remaining 150-odd cities that have not adopted the policy.

Local gov'ts to help cut pollution

By Sun Xiaohua (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-07-25 08:43

Nine provinces and regions have signed a commitment with China's top environmental watchdog to reduce water pollution by 10 per cent by 2010, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Speaking at a recent televised conference of the State Council on pollution control, Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan urged local governments to display "absolute determination" to solve the problem of water pollution by fulfilling the commitment.

China plans to cut its COD (chemical oxygen demand) emissions by 10 per cent during the 11th Five-Year Plan period (2006-10). As a typical indicator used to measure water pollution, COD is defined as the quantity of oxygen required to decompose all organic matter. In 2005, the country released more than 14 million tons of COD.

The nine provinces and regions, including provinces of Hebei and Guangdong, contain important rivers or lakes or have serious water problems.

Guangdong Province was required to reduce its COD emission to 940,000 tons by 2010, a 12 per cent reduction from 2005.

Local governments are urged to restructure industries so that factories discharging excessive industrial waste are gradually reformed or shut down.

Waste discharge surveillance should be established for more than 3,200 key firms and more advanced pollution control equipment should be established for new firms.

Faster construction of sewage plants in urban areas was called for during the teleconference. By 2010, more than 70 per cent of urban wastewater and 60 per cent of household wastewater should be treated through these plants.

"It is a signal showing the central government's resolve to solve the water pollution problem," said an environmental expert who refused to give his name.

"But the enforcement measure is not clear according to information published. What if the local government cannot fulfil the commitment? And if the consequences are not serious, then the effectiveness of commitment will be undermined."

"The environmental prices we have paid for rapid economic growth are too high," Zeng said, according to the Xinhua report.

"Excessive waste water is discharged, health hazards caused by water pollution frequently occur and many regions do not have a stable supply of drinking water."

Monday, July 24, 2006

Hong Kong, southern China leaders plan talks over pollution

HONG KONG (XFN-ASIA) - Chief Executive Donald Tsang said he will meet southern Chinese leaders next month to tackle rising pollution.

The talks are the latest effort from Tsang, who last week went urged citizens to reduce electricity usage in order to cut emissions from power stations, as he moves to clean up the city's air.

'Hong Kong's air is more polluted than it was 10 years ago, but I want you to know that I take this issue very seriously, and I am working with my colleagues in the government to deal with it as best and as quickly as possible,' Tsang told RTHK radio.

'I will meet our Guangdong counterparts early next month to take stock of the measures we have taken,' he said.

Air quality has deteriorated in Hong Kong so much that smog reduced visibility to less than a kilometer on more than 50 days last year, a record in this southern Chinese territory.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Foreign Cos. Clean Up Chinese Industry

JINSHAN, China — Shanghai's gleaming chemical industrial park, a processing zone for some of the world's most toxic materials, is a showcase in China's campaign to clean up its polluted land, skies and water.

Frederic Gourdin's job is to keep it that way.

Gourdin's company, a joint venture between France's Suez Environment SA and the local company that runs the industrial park, is responsible for ensuring that the chemical-laden water discharged from the zone's huge, ultramodern factories poses no threat to the environment.

"We keep developing every day because we are always getting new customers," says Gourdin, general manager of Shanghai Chemical Industry Park Sino-French Water Development Co. "We never know what sort of chemicals we might need to deal with."

As China beefs up pollution controls following a spate of chemical spills it's turning to foreign businesses with the advanced technology it needs to help solve its increasingly complex problems with industrial waste.

The industrial park some 30 miles southwest of downtown Shanghai, along Hangzhou Bay, is an example of the potential opportunities offered by China's multibillion dollar for pollution controls.

Piecemeal efforts to tackle industrial pollution gained urgency after a spill from a chemical factory explosion in November in Jilin province tainted water supplies for millions living in northeastern China and in neighboring Russia.

"Last year, since the Jilin accident, there has been very strict control and monitoring," says Gourdin. "Safety here is not a joke. These are all chemicals that could be extremely dangerous."

China has budgeted some $162 billion for environmental protection in 2006-2010. At the same time, its more than 600 big cities are belatedly tackling long-neglected sewage treatment and searching for ways to restore depleted aquifers and purify tainted rivers and lakes.

The country's 27-year-old economic boom has left its waterways and coastlines severely polluted by industrial and farm chemicals and domestic sewage. Its countryside is littered with garbage and construction waste, and its cities suffocated by smog.

Having long failed to enforce its own environmental safeguards, China lacks the expertise to clean up its own mess. Contracts for such work often go to foreign companies like Suez, which has a 50-year contract to provide water treatment and supplies for the Shanghai industrial zone.

This month Suez inaugurated a research lab to develop technologies for recycling waste water from the chemical factories. The goal is zero emissions of toxins into the surrounding waters _ the park already more than meets Chinese environmental standards and in some cases, more stringent European ones, officials say.

Elsewhere in China, the challenges are even more daunting.

The State Environmental Protection Administration reports that 45 percent of the country's chemical plants pose major environmental risks. A survey of 7,555 plants nationwide found that 81 percent were on bodies of water or in densely populated areas.

"Such geographical distribution poses grave environmental risks. It's the fundamental reason behind soaring water pollution incidents since last year," SEPA deputy director Pan Yue said in comments carried by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Without stronger precautions, "environmental accidents will continue to occur and public environmental safety cannot be guaranteed," Pan said.

China's market for environmental goods and services is about $32 billion annually, according to the U.S. government's Office of Energy and Environmental Industries. Almost $20 billion of that involves water treatment.

The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have announced new loans for almost $750 million in new cleanup projects in just the past month. Some involve simple approaches such as building terraces for fields and replanting forests. But many others will require advanced technology.

"China now realizes that environmental cleaning is part of development," said Jean-Louis Chaussade, executive vice president of Suez SA in charge of Suez Environment. "It's an enormous objective. It's huge and it will take a generation," he said.

Shanghai, an industrial giant of 20 million, has closed down many old, heavily polluting factories, shifting manufacturing from downtown to dozens of suburban industrial zones built to meet 21st century environmental standards, often with imported technology.

The centerpiece of the Shanghai chemical park _ home to major international companies such as energy giant BP Plc, Bayer AG, Degussa AG and BASF AG of Germany _ is a $2.73 billion, 900,000 ton-per-year ethylene cracker, a joint venture between BP and Sinopec.

City officials say they expect the size of the park to triple as they build more crackers, which convert heavy hydrocarbons such as naptha into the lighter chemicals that are the building blocks of modern consumer goods, from semiconductors to sneakers.

Unlike older, less carefully planned sites, the chemical park has technicians maintaining round-the-clock monitoring systems and the latest in firefighting and waste management technology.

Another Suez subsidiary operates a high-tech incinerator as part of a 30-year arrangement to handle solid waste from the zone. Danbury, Conn.-based Praxair Inc. and France's L'Air Liquide SA run a "tank farm" to handle gas supplies and emissions.

Such deals don't always work out. In 2004, RWE Thames Water, a unit of German utilities conglomerate RWE AG, pulled out of a big project in Shanghai in 2004 after the government ended a policy of guaranteeing fixed returns on those investments.

But as other big cities such as Beijing follow suit, for Suez and other pollution control firms doing deals in China _ such as rival French firm Veolia Environment SA, General Electric, Dow Chemical Co. and Germany's Siemens _ the market is simply too big to ignore.

"We believe China is a good country to be in," said Chaussade.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

China to promulgate new standards for drinking water

    BEIJING, July 18 (Xinhua) -- China will soon promulgate a new set of national compulsory standards on drinking water quality, a senior official from the Ministry of Construction said here Tuesday.

    The new standards represents the first revision of China's current standards issued in 1985, before rapid industrialization left most of the country's water bodies in pollution.

    Zhang Yue, deputy head of the ministry's urban construction department, told Xinhua that the new standards requires tests on over 100 water quality indices, far more than the current 35 indices.

    The new indices mainly have to do with organic pollutants and other harmful substances in the water as a result of industrial pollution, he said.

    According to Zhang, the new standards is on a par with that of moderately-developed countries.

    Work on the new standards is being coordinated by the Standardization Administration of China and involves the Ministry of Construction and the Ministry of Health, in response to rising public call for the revision of the outdated standards.

    The Ministry of Health published the draft version of the new standards on May 19 to solicit public opinions.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Cashing in on China's renewable energy boom

Fri Jul 14, 2006 3:15 AM ET

By Alison Leung

HONG KONG (Reuters) - China is set to spend $200 billion on renewable energy over the next 15 years, and industry players are racing to grab a slice of the action.

That kind of money would buy you an oil firm the size of Chevron <CVX.N> and leave change to fund the current renewables programs of all Europe's top oil firms for 25 years.

So from the arid plains of Xinjiang to the rolling hills of sub-tropical Guangdong, Chinese and foreign firms are erecting 40-storey wind turbines, installing solar panels, and conducting tests on corn for biofuel.

Beijing wants a tenth of its energy to come from environmentally friendly sources by 2010 -- a desire driven by soaring air pollution and chronic environmental degradation that is swelling medical bills and provoking discontent.

Projects will need turbines, blades and other power components, which is why General Electric Co. <GE.N>, Vestas Wind Systems <VWS.CO> and Gamesa <GAM.MC>, as well as homegrown firms China Solar Energy Holdings Ltd. <0155.HK> and Suntech <STP.N>, are expanding capacity in the country.

"Renewable energy will likely become China's next boom sector with oil at historical high prices," said Norman Ho, a fund manager at Value Partners, which has invested in Chinese wind energy components supplier Nanjing Gearbox.

"China needs energy to support its GDP growth."

Crude hit a record above $78 a barrel on Friday.

Analysts like Suntech and Shanghai Electric <2727.HK>, but call attention also to budding niche players such as China Solar and Taiwan's E-ton Solar <3452.TWO>.

"We believe solar energy's high growth prospects, particularly off a small base, make it a viable component of any investment strategy focusing on the renewable energy theme," Merrill Lynch said in a recent research report.

Credit Suisse estimates the compound annual growth rate of China's wind power capacity at 39 percent in 2004-10 and 20 percent in 2010-20. "This represents a remarkable growth potential for manufacturers of wind turbines," Credit Suisse's Angello Chan said.


In the short run, teething troubles such as a shortfall of raw materials facing Taiwan solar player Motech Industries <6244.TWO> might be an issue.

And crucially, analysts warn of a potential regulatory about-face or waning enthusiasm, the absence so far of a detailed incentives-and-subsidies plan, and a lack of official experience in the area.

Credit Suisse also warned competition may put downward pressure on wind turbine prices, and thus margins.

Yet if all gels, China -- which claims already to be the top annual investor in renewable energy on the planet -- could leverage the world's highest wind-power capacity potential.

China aims to have 30 gigawatts of installed wind power capacity by 2020, up from just 1 GW last year and powering between 13 and 30 million households at full capacity according to industry estimates.

Beijing's new renewable energy policy, unveiled in January, aims to create a system of financial and policy support for the use of renewable energy, including preferential tariffs for fuels such as biomass.

Beyond 2010, the world's second-largest power user wants to boost consumption from renewable sources to a fifth of its total by 2020 and slash reliance on imported oil.

Alternative energy sated 7 percent of China's needs last year, and the country's top economic planning agency said up to US$188 billion must be invested to reach the 2020 goal. Economic growth hovering at 10 percent will fuel power consumption over coming years anyway.

(For stories on emerging Chinese players in the industry, please click on <ID:nHKG308652>).

China Solar wants a six-fold profit leap next year, and the nation's top wind turbine maker, Goldwind, is pursuing a U.S. IPO to propel an eight-fold surge in sales to a target of $500 million by 2008.

CLP Holdings <0002.HK>, Hong Kong's dominant power supplier, is planning Asia's largest offshore wind farm in the territory.

And following a successful U.S. IPO by Suntech Power last December, Yingli Solar plans to raise $400 million in the Nasdaq's largest IPO by a Chinese firm, the first of at least five waiting in the wings, sources have told Reuters.

Renewable energy projects need intensive and long term government support. Beijing appears to have the resolve -- and the need -- to push ahead, but a proper system of tax or policy incentives could take years.

"Solar energy today is still expensive," said Chan Ka Keung, managing director at the renewable division of CLP Holdings Ltd.

"It's beyond what we should consider on a commercial basis."

(Additional reporting by Nao Nakanishi and Joy Leung and Emma Graham Harrison in Beijing)

($1=7.988 Yuan)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Pearl River: 'Neither black nor stinky'

July 14, 2006 Via Shanghaiist

pearlriver071406.jpgThe thought of hopping into the Huangpu gives Shanghaiist the heebie-jeebies. Admittedly, this is partly due to the nature of our day job, but ever since the Songhua River chemical spill last year, we've probably had a little too much exposure to China's overwhelming pollution problems. Since then, the media can't get enough of the ickiness of China's pollution problems, and basically has the greenlight to go crazy on reporting on the issue as the government continues its drive for "sustainable" growth (i.e. continued breakneck growth without screwing the environment too much more in the process).

But taking a dip into a major, disgustingly-polluted body of water is exactly what the governor of Guangdong Province and the mayor of Guangzhou did ... along with 3,500 other loyal citizens. Why? To prove that the Pearl River is now "neither black nor stinky" -- in certain sections -- after 30 years of being completely offensive:

More than 3,500 swimmers braved the murky waters of southern China's Pearl River in a campaign aimed at proving that the once badly polluted river has become cleaner, state press said.

But some swimmers were not impressed.

"Under the water, I could not see things 0.5 meters in front of me. And my eyes were uncomfortable," a swimmer surnamed Fan told Xinhua news agency.

The Pearl River, China's third largest, runs through Guangdong province, the powerhouse of the nation's export-oriented economy. It has suffered for decades from industrial pollution and raw untreated sewage.

We will refrain from commenting on the mental capacity of the above quoted swimmer who actually opened his/her eyes underwater. This swimathon was actually ordered by the outgoing party secretary of Guangzhou, who apparently was smart enough to depart for a new posting in Guizhou prior to the swim. The unlinkable South China Morning Post reported last week on the Yangcheng Evening News in Guangzhou which saw this departure as an opportunity to rag on the ill-advised plunge:

Guangzhou's Yangcheng Evening News went against the tide by panning a planned swimathon by 10,000 people in the Pearl River next week, trotting out experts to warn readers that diving in could make them sick.

The paper quoted Sun Yat-sen University No Hospital dermatologist Wan Miaojian warning people with open wounds to avoid swimming, but if they did they should shower after getting out.

The newspaper ran a detailed account of the experience of Guangdong Beauty and Hair Association chairwoman Ma Ya , who tested the water three times last week and advised swimmers to wear a diver's suit to protect themselves.

Ms Ma said she plunged in amid floating household waste and felt sticky when she got out. She came down with diarrhoea after accidentally swallowing a mouthful of water on her next swim, while her third plunge gave her an eye infection.

Blech. Shanghaiist won't linger on that thought of taking in a mouthful of Pearl River water. The Yangcheng Evening News goes on:

The swimathon was 'a meaningful one-off exercise' but 'doesn't mean that the water is clean', the newspaper quoted an unidentified environmental protection official as saying ... On the same page that it challenged the swimathon, the Yangcheng Evening News also reported that at an emergency meeting on Monday, the city government ordered a blackout on news of the swim.

A report released by the State Environmental Protection Administration showed the Pearl River's water quality was rated unsuitable for swimming between June 26 and July 2.

According to the AFP story, even the governor of the province noted that "water along parts of the river remains too polluted to swim in and that this year's crossing was scheduled at the height of the rainy season which ensured cleaner water." Good thing that whole original crew of 10,000 didn't show up to try and cram into that "black nor stinky" section of the river.

Photo from Steven Schroeder.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Group wins green award

Xinhua News Via
A CHINESE women's group has won an international prize for promoting the use of clean energy resources in rural northwest China.

The Shaanxi Mothers Environmental Protection Volunteers Association, a non-profit non-government organization, won second prize at the 2006 Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy.

The president, Wang Mingying, said her organization won the prize for its efforts to promote use of methane in rural areas.

The association, founded in 1997, conducted activities such as tree planting, environment protection campaigns, and training rural women in the use of methane to raise environmental awareness while improving rural living standards, Wang said.

In 1999, the association started a program under which rural women were taught how to raise pigs, then use pig dung to produce methane and use the byproducts as fertilizer for fruit trees.

It had trained 8,015 women in 105 villages, of whom 1,294 have established methane generating facilities in their homes, Wang said.

Using methane, each household can save annually at least 1,500 kilograms of firewood, formerly used in cooking, she said.

Sarah Butler-Sloss, founder of the Ashden Awards, said the association had set an example for other countries and in the study of global climate changes.

Founded in 2001, the Ashden Awards encourage the development and use of renewable energy resources.

Half China's chemical plants pose grave risk

Tom Miller in Beijing
Wednesday July 12, 2006


Rubbish collects along a boom on a polluted Beijing canal. Photograph: AP
Rubbish collects along a boom on a polluted Beijing canal. Photograph: AP

Nearly half of China's chemical plants pose "a severe environmental risk", according to a report released yesterday by the country's environmental protection agency.

The State Environment Protection Administration investigated 7,555 chemical factories nationwide and found that 81% were located either on bodies of water or near densely populated areas. Nearly 300 chemical plants were sited within six miles (10km) of officially protected sources of drinking water.

Of the plants surveyed, 45% posed a major risk, the report concluded.

The report comes eight months after a chemical spill in the Songhua river in north-east China forced authorities in the city of Harbin to turn off local taps.

An explosion at a petrochemical plant 236 miles (380km) upriver of Harbin released 100 tonnes of benzene into the river, producing a 50-mile slick of contaminated water and threatening the water supply for millions of residents who rely on the river for drinking and washing. The Chinese government was forced to apologise to Russia when the slick crossed the border into the Khabarovsk region of Russia's far east, where the river is known as the Amur, endangering local fish stocks.

Pan Yue, the deputy director of the environmental agency and a vehement advocate of stronger environmental protection laws, said the "current distribution of China's chemical industry" was the main reason for the increase in water pollution accidents over the past year.

"There is no way that this problem can be completely solved over the short term; all we can do is to strengthen our environmental safety policies and adjust the industry structure step by step," he said.

China has around 21,000 chemical plants located along its rivers and coastline, which are usually built near water for production and logistical reasons.

Ma Jun, an environmentalist and prominent critic of the government's water policy, said the real problem was largely political: "We need a more inclusive policy process in which all stakeholders are informed and can participate meaningfully."

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Long River

There are photographs from Wenxue City on 長江,(Via ESWN)
the river know variously as the Long River, Chang Jiang and Yangtse River.

Hong Kong strives to win back blue sky

(Xinhua) Via Chinadaily
Updated: 2006-07-10 22:34

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang said Monday an education campaign will start this month to encourage the public and the business sector to help clean the air in the city.

Speaking at the Legislative Council, Tsang said the government will endorse the Clear Air Charter initiated by the business sector and will launch a Dress Down Campaign this summer.

"In response to the green groups' appeal, the Civil Service Bureau will issue a reminder later today to encourage colleagues to dress in casual, but appropriate, attire in summer. I hope the private sector will also encourage their staff to dress casually in summer wherever appropriate," Tsang said.

All government bureaus and departments have raised the air-conditioned room temperature to the standard 25.5 degrees Celsius in green groups' appeal this summer.

According to experts, the move can save about one billion units of electricity a year, which means the public can save 900 million HK dollars (115.4 million U.S. dollars) in electricity tariffs. It will also help cut 700,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 2,400 tons of sulphur dioxide, 1,200 tons of nitrogen oxides and 100 tons of respirable suspended particulates annually.

Since improving air quality requires the whole community's participation, Tsang said he hoped citizens could make use of public transport, turn off idling engines, choose electric appliances with higher energy efficiency, switch off home appliances such as televisions and lights when not in use before leaving a room, choose electrical appliances covered by the Energy Efficiency Labeling Scheme and avoid using goods with volatile organic compounds such as hair spray and air refreshener.

In recent years, the government has done a lot to improve air quality. According to the government figures, major pollutants in the air have been reduced compared with 1997. In 2004, the concentration of respirable suspended particulates and nitrogen oxides recorded at roadside air quality monitoring stations fell by 9 percent and 24 percent respectively. Except for sulphur dioxide, emissions of major pollutants dropped between 16 percent and 28 percent.

Four years ago, Hong Kong set targets with the Guangdong Provincial government that would see, by 2010, a significant reduction in emissions of four major air pollutants in the region.To achieve this target, Guangdong and Hong Kong have put in place a series of measures.

Guangdong is adopting measures to expand the use of cleaner fuels, restrict the level of sulphur in fuels, phase out small-scale and highly polluting power plants, install desulphurization systems in generation units, and strictly control vehicle emissions.

In Hong Kong, power plants are still the major source of pollution in terms of emissions, with the amount of sulphur dioxide released accounting for 92 percent of the total. The government has imposed emission caps in the licenses of the power plants. In the long run, the government expects to require power companies to reduce emissions drastically and impose penalties for failing to meet the emission caps through the new Scheme of Control Agreements after 2008.

To meet the 2010 emission reduction targets, the government has also implemented other measures, including tightening the specifications for petrol to the Euro IV standard; introducing Euro IV emission standards to newly registered vehicles; requiring the installation of vapor-recovery systems at petrol stations; controlling volatile organic compounds emissions from specific products; and introducing a mandatory energy efficiency labeling scheme covering room coolers, refrigerators and compact fluorescent lamps.

"Hong Kong is a small place. Air pollution affects everyone regardless of age, wealth, status and profession. So, citizens should shoulder the responsibility together. I hope all Hong Kong people, the local business community, and businessmen investing in the Pearl River Delta Region fully support the activities to be launched by the Environmental Protection Department for a blue sky, " Tsang said.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Qinghai-Tibet railroad no harm to environment

Updated: 2006-07-06 11:51

The newly launched Qinghai-Tibet Railway will certainly bring a lot of travelers to Tibet, but it won't have a great impact on the local environment, Qiangba Punco, Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, said at a press conference in Lhasa on July 4.

Qiangba Punco, Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region, delivered a speech on the new Qinghai-Tibet Railway in Lhasa on Tuesday. [Xinhua]

The tourism industry will become Tibet's pillar industry because of the new railroad, the Chairman said. As a smokeless industry, tourism could greatly stimulate the development of correlative industries, but will have little impact on the region's ecosystem and environment.

In 2005, a total of 1.8 million visitors came to tour Tibet's high altiplano, generating nearly 2 billion yuan in revenue.

The Travel Bureau of the Autonomous Region predicted that there would be about 5,000 people arriving in Tibet every day after the railroad was completed, three or four thousand of whom would be arriving by train.

The first train to depart from Lhasa passes by the Winter Palace of the Dalai Lamas on a bridge over the Lhasa River on July 1. [Xinhua]

A study predicts that the annual number of travelers to Tibet will grow to 5.28 million in 2010, generating revenue of 5.8 billion yuan for the region.

Qiangba Punco pointed out that Tibet's ecosystem was drawing the attention of the whole country, with many citizens expressing concerns about its preservation now that the new railway has been launched.

The central government has taken a series of measures to protect Tibet's frail environment, including the construction of the National Environmental Safety Defense for the Tibet Altiplano,which will cost 38.7 billion yuan.

Local residents dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes dance in front of Anduo railway station to celebrate the launch of the Qinghai-Tibet Railroad on July 1. [Xinhua]

Besides the tourism industry, trade and social development will also be promoted after the rail route has linked Tibet with other parts of China. Local residents and Tibetan herdsmen are among those who will benefit from it.

Commodity prices in Tibet have traditionally been much higher than in the interior of China because of the high cost of transporting goods such a long distance. By reducing the cost of transportation, however, the new railroad will cause commodity prices to drop significantly.

The railway will accelerate the integration of Tibet's economy into the market of Eastern China and create more job opportunities as well.

A Ministry of Railways official said the Chinese government is planning to build three more railway lines in Tibet over the course of the the next 10 years as extensions of the newly-completed railway

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Beijing needs more 'blue sky' days

FLOATING dust hindered Beijing in keeping its sky clear for 119 days in the first half of the year, Beijing-based Star Daily reported today.

By the end of June, the city had 107 days that reached the "blue sky" standard, accounting for 59.1 percent of the total days and 5.9 percentage points less than the standard, so it must keep the sky clear for 131 days in the last half of the year.

Floating dust from areas outside of the city hovered in Beijing for more than 10 days in the first half of the year, which prevented the city from hitting its target, said Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Bureau for Environmental Protection.

In April, the city had only 9 "blue sky" days, together with 6 medium or heavily polluted days.

"Last April, Beijing didn't encounter any sandy days," Du said. He also said it is very challenging to achieve the target in the next six months, and the bureau will try its best to control the pollution.

About 250,000 people in Beijing took part in a campaign to suspend driving for one day, every month to protect Beijing's blue skies.

The city has moved industries out of the city and tightened vehicle emission regulations to increase the number of clear days.

The "blue sky" days for the first half of the year: January 11 days; February 20 days; March 20 days; April 9 days; May 23 days; June 24 days.

First train completes journey across the roof of the world

International Herald Tribune
MONDAY, JULY 3, 2006
China's first train from Beijing to Tibet made the final leg of its two-day journey on the world's highest railway, reaching Lhasa Monday after climbing to high elevations that sickened passengers and tested the specially built rail cars.

Girls, some dressed in track suits and others in traditional Tibetan robes, draped white scarves, a customary gift of greeting, on arriving passengers in the newly built Lhasa railway station.

Many passengers spent the day coping with the altitude, breathing piped-in oxygen from tubes as the train passed its highest point, the 5,072-meter (16,640-foot) Tanggula Pass. Three passengers threw up, while others had headaches - both symptoms of altitude sickness. Outside, Tibetan antelope and wild donkeys grazed beneath snow-capped mountains and deep-blue skies.

Aside from being a feat of engineering, the US$4.2 billion (€3.4 billion) railway is part of efforts to develop China's poor, restive west and bind it more closely to the booming east. Chinese leaders hope greater prosperity will help to still calls by Tibetans and other ethnic minorities for autonomy from the communist Beijing government.

The line has prompted protests by activists who say it will bring an influx of Chinese migrants to the isolated Himalayan region, threatening its ecology and diluting its unique Buddhist culture.

Trains completed shorter trips on the line between Lhasa and Golmud while passengers on the 16-car train from the Chinese capital were in the midst of their journey.

State media gave heavy coverage to the railway, with newspapers publishing front-page photos of passengers singing and villagers waving to the passing train. The state television midday news showed President Hu Jintao congratulating workers who built the line.

Before the last leg of the trip to Lhasa, the train stopped in Golmud early Monday to switch its standard engine for three powerful locomotives required to haul the train at high altitude.

Passengers included a 2 1/2-year-old boy, a 78-year-old man and a group of ethnic Tibetans newly graduated from the Beijing Police Academy who were headed home to work as police officers.

One Tibetan passenger asked a Western reporter what the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, thought of the train. The man, who asked not to be identified by name, said that with China's Internet monitoring, it was too dangerous for him to search news Web sites for the information himself.

The only signs of human habitation in the arid highlands south of Golmud were traditional herders tending yaks and small train stations that dot the rail line.

After the train climbed above 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), ballpoint pens and bags of processed food burst due to the low air pressure. Laptop computers and digital music recorders failed, because moving parts in their disc drives are cushioned by tiny air bags that break at high altitude.

China's government says it is spending 1.5 billion yuan (US$190 million; €150 million) on environmental protection along the Golmud-Lhasa stretch of the railway.

But despite promises to minimize pollution, the sides of the line were littered with plastic bags, bottles and cardboard boxes. Large sections of the permanently frozen earth were grassless, puddled and scarred by vehicle tracks. Damaged permafrost "becomes dark, ugly, muddy water," said Daniel Wong, an engineer based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen who worked on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, also laid over permafrost. "The most unfortunate thing is that such damage will spread," he said.

The railway is projected to help double tourism revenues in Tibet by 2010 and cut transport costs for goods by 75 percent. Until now, goods going to and from Tibet have been trucked over mountain highways that are often blocked by landslides or snow, making trade prohibitively expensive.

New York-based Students for a Free Tibet set up a Web site,, urging the public to wear black armbands in protest of the project, which the group says "is a tool Beijing will use to overwhelm (the) Tibetan population."

"We reject the railway just as we reject China's illegitimate rule in Tibet," the site said.

Communist troops marched into Tibet in 1950, and Beijing says the region has been Chinese territory for centuries. But Tibet was effectively independent for much of that time.

The rail line is a decades-old dream for Chinese officials. But work began in earnest only in 2001, after engineers worked out how to stabilize tracks on permafrost.

The highest station is in Nagqu, a town at 4,500 meters (14,850 feet) in the plateau's rolling grasslands.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

China’s ecological suicide – a global nightmare

Published on 30/06/06 at 13:49:46 CET by
EnvironmentChina is committing ecological suicide – destroying its waterways, atmosphere and natural resources to fuel runaway industrialisation. And this process threatens the entire planet.

By Laurence Coates

Just as the Chinese people are among the main victims of global warming, mainly caused by the older industrialised ‘West’, China’s latest export wave – acid rain, air pollution and even more greenhouse gases – is a major threat to the global environment. Coal dust and acid rain caused by China’s power industry have fallen as far away as California, and belated moves to protect China’s forests have driven armies of Chinese loggers to Burma and Brazil.

In April, the population of Beijing awoke to find a yellow blanket covering the city. A massive sandstorm originating from Southern Mongolia had dumped an estimated 300,000 tons of sand dust on the Chinese capital, with authorities urging its 14 million people to stay indoors. Desertification in northern China and one of the most acute water shortages in the world, alongside the effects of global warming, has increased the frequency and ferocity of such storms. While Beijing was struck by five severe sandstorms in the 1950s, this rose to 20 in the 1990s, and eight so far this year!
Extreme weather conditions, environmental shocks and pollution scandals are grabbing the headlines in China, despite the ‘communist’ regime’s continuing tight grip on the media. There is a growing popular questioning of the regime’s pursuit of rapid but uncontrolled industrialisation, and the antics of corrupt officials who in cahoots with local and foreign capitalists are fast obliterating the country’s land, forests, rivers and other natural resources.
Desert now accounts for a quarter of China’s landmass and is advancing at the rate of over 3,000 square kilometres a year. The destruction of China’s natural forests as a result of ill-planned cultivation during the Mao era, industrialisation and, more recently, widespread illegal logging, is the main cause of desertification. A government crackdown on the loggers has driven them into Burma, Indonesia and the Amazon, where Chinese companies are notorious for evading local laws in order to feed China’s booming furniture export trade.
With pollution-related mass protests rising ten-fold over the last decade, the Chinese dictatorship is increasingly forced to pay lip service to a ‘green agenda’. According to the World Bank, of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 16 are in China. More than 100 million people live in cities like Beijing where the air is considered “very dangerous”. The approach of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – improbably dubbed the ‘Green Olympics’ by regime propagandists – adds to the pressure on the ruling Communist Party (CCP). But, above all, it is the rising economic cost of environmental destruction that alarms the CCP leaders. The World Bank estimates this is costing China 7.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) every year. By this measure, its recent headline GDP growth rates of ten percent a year are not so impressive. Giving vent to the pessimism in official circles, deputy environment minister Pan Yue warned of millions of “environmental refugees” and predicted that China’s so-called economic miracle “will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.” [Spiegel, 7 March 2005].

“Life-threatening environmental crisis”
According to US environmentalist Elizabeth Economy, hundreds of millions of Chinese face “a life-threatening environmental crisis”. The poisoning of its rivers, into which largely untreated industrial waste and sewage is routinely pumped, means that 700 million Chinese drink contaminated water. China now produces as much organic water pollution as the US, Japan and India combined, which explains its high rates of hepatitis A, diarrhoea, and liver and stomach cancers. Of the 500 largest Chinese cities, 193 undertake no sewage treatment whatsoever, according to a report from the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). 30,000 children die every year from diarrhoea caused by drinking unclean water. The Ministry of Health openly acknowledges that environmental pollution is behind a 25 percent increase in birth defects nationwide since 2001.
The dangers were brought home to the entire population in November 2005, when 3.8 million people in the northeastern city of Harbin had their water supplies cut off for a week following an explosion at a petrochemical plant 350 kilometres away. The scandal at Harbin, involving a 100-ton toxic slick of the deadly chemical benzene, and a botched cover-up by local authorities, forced the environment minister’s resignation. Yet appalling industrial accidents of this kind are a weekly occurrence in China. While the central government can make an example of this or that errant official, the incentive to cut corners in order to maximise profits means that countless other transgressions go unpunished and often unreported at local level.
Around 60 percent of the water in the seven major river systems – the Yangtze, Yellow, Huai, Songhua, Hai, Liao and Pearl River – is “unfit for human contact”. Even the Yangtze, the world’s fourth longest river and previously considered too big to poison, is a “dying river” according to a recent official report. With 25 billion tons of mostly untreated wastewater pumped into the Yangtze every year, its water is “cancerous” and a threat to drinking supplies in the 186 cities along its banks. The official Xinhua news agency reported a pollution belt stretching hundreds of kilometres from the inland metropolis of Chongqing all the way to Shanghai. Cities along the Yangtze must tap far away reservoirs for drinking water or drill deeper into the underground aquifer, a process that causes land subsidence. Shanghai’s city centre has sunk 1.7 metres over the past 40 years.

Water diversion scheme
This explains the increasingly heated debate surrounding the mastodon $50 billion project to divert 45 billion cubic metres of water from the Yangtze to China’s arid north via a network of canals, dams and tunnels to be completed over the next four decades. The south-to-north water diversion scheme is the regime’s answer to the acute water shortage in Beijing and other northern cities. As pollution exacerbates China’s water crisis, however, even water rich southern regions like the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta are now experiencing water shortages.
Water, even more than oil, is a vital commodity in any industrialised society and therefore the object of potentially serious conflicts. Inter-provincial conflicts over natural resources are nothing new in China and are set to intensify. This is due to the increasing sway of private – including foreign – capital, deregulation, and the anarchic jostling for economic advantage between the provinces. There has been fierce competition for control of water resources between mainly agricultural upstream provinces and the industrialised coastal ones. On a per capita basis, water consumption is 2.5 times higher in the cities than in the countryside. The rapid growth of China’s cities means urban demand for water is set to rise by 60 percent over the next five years.
“There’s growing tension among rural interests, urban interests and factories over who gets water. Water will become a major problem in China in the next decade,” warned Yukon Huang of the World Bank.
The CCP regime’s love affair with large dam projects has further aggravated the situation. It is “a dictatorship run by engineers, in particular hydropower engineers”, argues Jesper Becker in Asia Times. President Hu Jintao is by profession a hydropower engineer, as is former prime minister Li Peng, whose son heads the China Huaneng Group, involved in several major dam projects including the world’s biggest, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Nearly half the world’s 45,000 large dams are in China (22,104). Many more are underway as the regime aims to double China’s hydropower output by the year 2010.

River run dry
CCP spokesmen insist the dams help prevent devastating floods and generate clean electric power, helping to reduce dependence on coal, which currently produces 70 percent of China’s electricity. Hydropower is undoubtedly cleaner than coal, but not without serious adverse effects on the environment. The problem of severe flooding has become worse despite the proliferation of dams, due to global factors such as climate change but also local factors, particularly silting of the riverbed. This was illustrated when the Yangtze burst its banks in 1998, killing 4,000 people and causing $30 billion-worth of damage.
Opposition to new dam projects has been the main issue for the emerging environmental movement in China. As Chinese author Dale Wen points out, “At the root of the rush to build more dams is deregulation and privatisation of the utility industry. The phenomenon is generally known as ‘enclosure of the waters’ in Chinese.” [China Copes with Globalization, December 2005].
The dangers that flow from excessive dam building are illustrated by the fate of the Yellow River – known as the “cradle of Chinese civilisation” – which has been dammed virtually out of existence. In 1972, the river failed to reach the sea for the first time. Nowadays, with the exception of the rainy season the Yellow River is prone to run dry about 1,000 kilometres from the coast. By restricting water flow, dams limit a river’s natural ability to dilute and break down industrial pollution. They also aggravate the problem of sedimentary build-up or silting. This has led to the absurd situation in which the construction of large dams creates the need for more dams to ‘correct’ problems caused by the existing ones. Large dam projects have been catastrophic for China’s bio-diversity: The Three Gorges Dam threatens the world’s only fresh water dolphin and several other unique species with extinction. The human cost too has been monumental. So far 16 million Chinese have been displaced by dam projects, the majority condemned to unemployment and destitution. Local officials often cheat ‘dam refugees’ out of the meagre compensation due to them under Chinese law. Mass protests, marches and battles with the police have become a common feature of dam clearance schemes.

Fossil fuels
China’s consumption of fossil fuels has exploded as its economy has surged, but in a hugely wasteful and uncontrolled fashion, with “vast overcapacity” in industry according to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. So, while it accounts for five percent of global GDP, China consumes 12 percent of the world’s primary energy resources and is now the number two producer of greenhouse gases after the United States. Between 1996 and 2003, China’s oil imports increased from 20 million tons to 90 million tons annually. More than a third of this increase is due to the expansion of the motor vehicle fleet, already the world’s third largest and growing rapidly under the impact of World Trade Organisation market-opening rules.
“China has begun to enter the age of mass car consumption. This is a great and historic advance,” proclaimed Xinhua proudly in 2004. The environmental impact of this is, of course, devestating. Based on research by SEPA, vehicle exhaust emissions already account for 79 per cent of total air pollution in China. If this is so today, with 33 million motor vehicles on Chinese roads, consider what will happen when that figure rises to 130 million by 2020, as most industry analysts predict. China will in that case have amassed, in a relatively short span of time, around half as many vehicles as in the United States today. As is widely known, motor vehicles are the single biggest source of atmospheric pollution, causing around 14 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions – the most common ‘greenhouse gas’.
Not surprisingly, with nearly 1,000 new cars hitting the streets of Beijing every single day, it recently became the “air pollution capital of the world”, based on satellite data from the European Space Agency. Not only are the people of the capital being poisoned; motor traffic in Beijing now moves at less than half the speed – just 11 kilometres an hour during peak periods – than when it was the world’s ‘bicycle kingdom’ in the 1980s!
While other famously polluted metropolises like Mexico City and Los Angeles have an air pollution index of 66 and 44 respectively, Beijing has recorded figures above 300, at which point the air becomes ‘hazardous’. For a child exposed to this level of airborne toxins, this is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day!
Despite the huge rise in oil consumption, coal is still the main driver of the Chinese economy. Given the three-fold rise in world oil prices since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, this dependence on coal has grown. China is also the world’s biggest producer, with total estimated coal reserves of 5.5 trillion tons. Domestic production has rocketed from less than one billion tons of coal in 2000 to two billion last year. The coal boom has spawned countless small ‘wildcat’ coalmines across China, and directly contributed to the carnage in that industry. Almost 6,000 Chinese coal miners were killed last year, 80 percent of the global total. In India, where miners are organised in trade unions, mining deaths are one-tenth the level in China. As one Indian commentator pointed out, if the Indian coal industry suffered a similar horrific body count, the government would fall.
Every seven to ten days a new coal-fired power station opens somewhere in China. Given that only one-fifth of China’s coal is washed, coal-power produces massive quantities of sulphur dioxide causing around 400,000 premature deaths a year through heart and lung disease. It also creates acid rain, which falls on nearly 40 percent of China’s territory – poisoning rivers, forests and crops. According to the World Bank, crop loss from acid rain alone costs China $5 billion annually. In Chongqing, which burns 15 million tons of coal every year, acid rain has stripped the paint off traffic signs.

‘Green GDP’?
Considering that China just two decades ago was a Stalinist ‘command’ economy, today’s anarchic state of affairs – the almost complete lack of even minimal environmental controls – can seem incongruous. In fact, the Stalinist regime of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping wrought colossal environmental damage, due to arbitrary and adventuristic policies that, in the absence of democratic controls by the working class, could not be reversed or modified. The wholesale destruction of forests carried out under Mao, designed to expand the area under cultivation and achieve complete food self-sufficiency, has led to widespread soil erosion, flooding and landslides.
But the growth of capitalist relations and even more pervasive official corruption since that time has powerfully undermined the central government’s grip on the provinces and, therefore, over the economy. Today, barely ten percent of China’s environmental laws and regulations are actually enforced. SEPA, the government’s environmental protection arm is according to the Financial Times, “a weak and understaffed actor in the Beijing bureaucracy”, with a staff of just 250 compared to 18,000 at its US equivalent. China’s ‘strong’ central government, in other words, is a myth!
While the government still produces a ‘five-year plan’, this is no longer in any sense a directive to the state-owned sector that still accounts for half of industrial production, but rather a set of guidelines. A 2004 government study found that half the sewage treatment facilities built under the last plan (2001-05) were not being used because local officials considered operating them too expensive. Similarly, although two-thirds of factories have water purification equipment, most choose not to use it. Not only are the fines for non-compliance usually cheaper than the cost of running the equipment, but local governments also derive a significant part of their budget income from collecting the fines. The new five-year plan approved in March, promises greater use of ‘Green GDP’ (economic production less environmental costs) as an official measure. But the National Bureau of Statistics has yet to agree what criteria to apply when compiling this information. Not surprisingly, local governments are not keen on ‘Green GDP’ measurements – their income and influence within the government machinery are based on the past year’s economic performance. A pilot scheme introduced in Shanxi province in 2004 concluded that, based on ‘Green GDP’, its economy had hardly grown at all for the past 20 years. This province, which produces one-third of China’s coal, suffers from massive subsidence caused by its network of underground tunnels. One-seventh of the land in Shanxi – twice as big as Austria – has caved in, leaving 400,000 people homeless. The picture is similar in other resource rich regions. Of 118 cities whose economies depend mainly on natural resources, supplies are running out in 30. The Economist reported that, “Protesters blocking bridges and roads, and staging sit-ins and other kinds of demonstrations had become common sights in these cities,” some of which have unemployment rates in excess of 20 percent.
Clearly, the Chinese dictatorship is incapable of arresting the country’s – and with it the whole planet’s – headlong rush towards ecological suicide. Only by completely reconstructing the Chinese state along democratic socialist lines, ending the rule of the so-called ‘communist’ party (in reality a pro-capitalist bureaucratic dictatorship) and taking the economy into democratic public ownership and control, can the present disastrous course be changed. To bring about such a fundamental shift, China’s fast-growing environmental movement must link up with working class resistance to privatisation, deregulation and sweatshop labour, a movement that has experienced an even more dramatic upswing in recent years.

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