China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Sunday, March 30, 2008

China plans hefty investment for ecological conservation in Tibet

LHASA, March 28 (Xinhua) -- The Chinese government plans to invest more than 20 billion yuan (2.8 billion U.S. dollars) to protect the ecological system of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau during the 2006-2030 period. Fourteen conservation projects will be launched, covering natural grassland and wildlife protection, the establishment of nature reserves, the control of desertification and soil erosion, and geological disasters prevention, said Zhang Yongze, director of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Department of Environment Protection. The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau boasts a unique eco-system due to its climate and geography. Tibet, with its biological diversity, is a major gene bank ensuring global biodiversity. However, the eco-system is very fragile and has difficulty recovering after being damaged. "The government has always attached great importance to ecological conservation in the plateau region by allocating significant funding in this regard," Zhang said. In the 2001-2005 period, he said, the central government put about 120 million yuan into protecting the Lhalu wetland -- the highest and biggest urban wetland in the world situated in the regional capital, Lhasa -- the nature reserve of the sacred Namco Lake and grasslands in Nagqu Prefecture, in addition to hefty investment in other areas. "We have also banned exploitation of some mineral resources to avoid damaging the eco-system in Tibet," Zhang said. Following the freezing of the mining of gold dust from Jan. 1, 2006, the regional government has prohibited the exploitation of iron sand from Jan. 1 this year, he said. Local environment authorities would focus their efforts on pollution and radiation control, rural environment protection, andimprovement of environment monitoring and law enforcement systems this year, he said.

Friday, March 28, 2008

China's Green Beat

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

China's Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?

Even the Chinese government suspects the massive dam may cause significant environmental damage

By Mara Hvistendahl Via Scientific American

DAM THE ENVIRONMENT: Has an environmental cataclysm been unleashed by China's Three Gorges Dam? Valerie Crafter/iStockphoto

SHANGHAI—For over three decades, the Chinese government has dismissed warnings from scientists and environmentalists that its Three Gorges Dam—the world's largest—had the potential of becoming one of China's biggest environmental nightmares. But last fall, denial suddenly gave way to reluctant acceptance that the naysayers were right. Chinese officials staged a sudden about-face, acknowledging for the first time that the massive hydroelectric dam, sandwiched between breathtaking cliffs on the Yangtze River in central China, may be triggering landslides, altering entire ecosystems and causing other serious environmental problems—and, by extension, endangering the millions who live in its shadow.

Government officials have long defended the $24-billion project as a major source of renewable power for an energy-hungry nation and as a way to prevent floods downstream. When complete, the dam will generate 18,000 megawatts of power—eight times that of the U.S.'s Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. But in September, the government official in charge of the project admitted that Three Gorges held "hidden dangers" that could breed disaster. "We can't lower our guard," Wang Xiaofeng, who oversees the project for China's State Council, said during a meeting of Chinese scientists and government reps in Chongqing, an independent municipality of around 31 million abutting the dam. "We simply cannot sacrifice the environment in exchange for temporary economic gain."

The comments appeared to confirm what geologists, biologists and environmentalists had been warning about for years: building a massive hydropower dam in an area that is heavily populated, home to threatened animal and plant species, and crossed by geologic fault lines is a recipe for disaster.

Among the damage wrought: "There's been a lot less rain, a lot more drought, and the potential for increased disease," says George Davis, a tropical medicine specialist at The George Washington University (G.W.) Medical Center in Washington, D.C., who has worked in the Yangtze River Basin and neighboring provinces for 24 years. "When it comes to environmental change, the implementation of the Three Gorges dam and reservoir is the great granddaddy of all changes."

Dam Quake When plans for the dam were first approved in 1992, human rights activists voiced concern about the people who would be forced to relocate to make room for it. Inhabited for several millennia, the Three Gorges region is now a major part of western China's development boom. To date, the government has ordered some 1.2 million people in two cities and 116 towns clustered on the banks of the Yangtze to be evacuated to other areas before construction, promising them plots of land and small stipends—in some cases as little as 50 yuan, or $7 a month—as compensation.

Chinese and foreign scientists, meanwhile, warned that the dam could endanger the area's remaining residents. Among their concerns: landslides caused by increased pressure on the surrounding land, a rise in waterborne disease, and a decline in biodiversity. But their words fell on deaf ears. Harnessing the power of the Yangtze has been a goal since Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen first proposed the idea in 1919. Mao Zedong, the father of China's communist revolution, rhapsodized the dam in a poem. The mega- project could not be realized in his lifetime, however, because the country's resources were exhausted by the economic failures of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and then the social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s a to the early 1970s. Four decades later, the government resuscitated Mao's plans. The first of the Yangtze's famed gorges—a collection of steep bluffs at a bend in the river—was determined to be the perfect site.

In June 2003, nine years after construction began, the state-owned China Yangtze Three Gorges Development Corporation (CTGPC) filled the reservoir with 445 feet (135 meters) of water, the first of three increments in achieving the eventual depth of 575 feet (175 meters). The result is a narrow lake 410 miles (660 kilometers) long—60 miles (97 kilometers) longer than Lake Superior—and 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) wide, twice the width of the natural river channel. Scientists' early warnings came true just a month later, when around 700 million cubic feet (20 million cubic meters) of rock slid into the Qinggan River, just two miles (three kilometers) from where it flows into the Yangtze, spawning 65-foot (20-meter) waves that claimed the lives of 14 people. Despite the devastating results, the corporation three years later (in September 2006) raised the water level further—to 512 feet (156 meters). Since then, the area has experienced a series of problems, including dozens of landslides along one 20-mile (32-kilometer) stretch of riverbank. This past November, the ground gave out near the entrance to a railway tunnel in Badong County, near a tributary to the Three Gorges reservoir; 4,000 cubic yards (3,050 cubic meters) of earth and rock tumbled onto a highway. The landslide buried a bus, killing at least 30 people.

Fan Xiao, a geologist at the Bureau of Geological Exploration and Exploitation of Mineral Resources in Sichuan province, near several Yangtze tributaries, says the landslides are directly linked to filling the reservoir. Water first seeps into the loose soil at the base of the area's rocky cliffs, destabilizing the land and making it prone to slides. Then the reservoir water level fluctuates—engineers partially drain the reservoir in summer to accommodate flood waters and raise it again at the end of flood season to generate power—and the abrupt change in water pressure further disturbs the land. In a study published in the Chinese journal Tropical Geography in 2003, scholars at Guangzhou’s South China Normal University predicted that such tinkering with the water level could trigger activity in 283 landslide-prone areas.

That is apparently what happened to the 99 villagers of Miaohe, 10 miles (17 kilometers) upstream of the Yangtze, who saw the land behind their homes split into a 655-foot- (200-meter-) wide crack last year, soon after the reservoir water level was lowered for the summer floods. Officials evacuated them to a mountain tunnel where they camped for three months.

One of the greatest fears is that the dam may trigger severe earthquakes, because the reservoir sits on two major faults: the Jiuwanxi and the Zigui–Badong. According to Fan, changing the water level strains them. "When you alter the fault line's mechanical state," he says, "it can cause fault activity to intensify and induce earthquakes."

Many scientists believe this link between temblors and dams—called reservoir-induced seismicity—may have been what happened at California's Oroville Dam, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The largest earthen dam in the U.S., it was constructed on an active fault line in the 1950s and filled in 1968. Seven years later, when the reservoir's water supply was restored to full capacity—after engineers lowered it 130 feet (40 meters) for maintenance—the area experienced an unusual series of earthquakes. U.S. Geological Survey seismologists subsequently found a strong link between the quakes and the refilling of the reservoir.

The Oroville area was sparsely populated, so little damage was done. But earthquakes have also been connected to past hydropower projects in China, where dams are often located in densely populated and seismically active river basins. Engineers in China blame dams for at least 19 earthquakes over the past five decades, ranging from small tremors to one near Guangdong province's Xinfengjiang Dam in 1962 that registered magnitude 6.1 on the Richter scale—severe enough to topple houses.

Surveys show that the Three Gorges region may be next. Chinese Academy of Engineering scholar Li Wangping reports on the CTGPC's Web site that the area registered 822 tremors in the seven months after the September 2006 reservoir-level increase. So far, none have been severe enough to cause serious damage. But by 2009, the dam's water level is set to be raised to its full 575-foot capacity and then lowered about 100 feet (30 meters) during flood season. That increase in water pressure, in water fluctuation and in land covered by the reservoir, Fan says, makes for a "very large possibility" that the situation will worsen.

Local news media report that whole villages of people relocated to make room for the dam will have to move a second time because of the landslides and tremors, indicating that officials failed to foresee the full magnitude of the dam's effects. Guangzhou's Southern Weekend late last year reported that villagers in Kaixian County were eager to move again, citing landslides, mudslides and ominous cracks that had appeared in the ground behind their homes. They also hoped that moving might resolve land allocation issues: Some said they received only half of the acreage they had been promised.

Water Displacement The dam is also taking a toll on China's animals and plants. The nation—which sprawls 3.7 million square miles (9.6 million square kilometers)—is home to 10 percent of the world's vascular plants (those with stems, roots and leaves) and biologists estimate that half of China's animal and plant species, including the beloved giant panda and the Chinese sturgeon, are found no where else in the world. The Three Gorges area alone accounts for 20 percent of Chinese seed plants—more than 6,000 species. Shennongjia, a nature reserve near the dam in Hubei province, is so undisturbed that it is famous for sightings of yeren, or "wild man"—the Chinese equivalent of "Big Foot"—as well as the only slightly more prosaic white monkey.

That biodiversity is threatened as the dam floods some habitats, reduces water flow to others, and alters weather patterns. Economic development has spurred deforestation and pollution in surrounding provinces in central China, endangering at least 57 plant species, including the Chinese dove tree and the dawn redwood. The reservoir created by Three Gorges dam threatens to flood the habitats of those species along with over 400 others, says Jianguo Liu, an ecologist at Michigan State University and guest professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences who has done extensive work on biodiversity in China.

The dam further imperils delicate fish populations in the Yangtze. Downstream, near where the river empties into the East China Sea, the land around the Yangtze contains some of the densest clusters of human habitation in the world, and overfishing there has already endangered 25 of the river's 177 unique fish species. According to a 2003 letter to Science by Wuhan University ecologist Ping Xie, many of these fish evolved over time with the Yangtze flood plain. As the dam decreases flooding downstream, it will fragment the network of lakes around the middle as well as lower the Yangtze's water level, making it difficult for the fish to survive. The project has already contributed to the decline of the baiji dolphin, which is so rare that it is considered functionally extinct.

The reservoir could also break up land bridges into small islands, isolating clusters of animals and plants. In 1986, Venezuela's Raúl Leoni Dam flooded 1,660 square miles (4,300 square kilometers) of land, creating the vast Lake Guri, along with a scattering of nonsubmerged land. The nascent islands lost 75 percent of their biological species within 15 years, according to research published in Science.

To determine the true toll, the Three Gorges Dam is taking on animal and plant species, Liu says, long-term data is needed, so that decreases in population totals can be compared with natural species fluctuation. But he cautions that many of the dam's effects may not be immediately apparent. The project is altering reproduction patterns, meaning it may already be too late for some plants and animals. "In the short term, you see the species still there, but in the long term you could see [them] disappear," Liu says. It is here that State Council representative Wang's allusion to "hidden dangers" rings especially true.

Disease and Drought When officials unveiled plans for the dam, they touted its ability to prevent floods downstream. Now, the dam seems to be causing the opposite problem, spurring drought in central and eastern China. In January, the China Daily (the country's largest English-language newspaper) reported that the Yangtze had reached its lowest level in 142 years—stranding dozens of ships along the waterway in Hubei and Jiangxi provinces. An unnamed official with the Yangtze River Water Resources Commission blamed climate change, even as he acknowledged that the dam had reduced the flow volume of the river by 50 percent. To make matters worse, China is now plowing ahead with a controversial $62-billion scheme to transfer water from the Yangtze to northern China, which is even more parched, through a network of tunnels and canals to be completed by 2050.

Meanwhile, at the mouth of the Yangtze residents of Shanghai, China's largest city, are experiencing water shortages. The decreased flow of fresh water also means that saltwater from the East China Sea now creeps farther upstream. This, in turn, seems to be causing a rise in the number of jellyfish, which compete with river fish for food and consume their eggs and larvae, thereby threatening native populations that are already dwindling as a result of overfishing. In 2004, a year after the dam was partially filled, scientists noted a jellyfish species in the Yangtze that had previously only reached the South China Sea.

The effects of the dam's disturbance of whole ecosystems could reverberate for decades. G.W.'s Davis is part of a project researching the disease schistosomiasis (a.k.a. snail fever or swimmer's itch), a blood parasite transmitted to humans by snails; people can get it by swimming or wading in contaminated fresh water when infected snails release larvae that can penetrate the skin. (Symptoms include fever, appetite and weight loss, abdominal pain, bloody urine, muscle and joint pain, along with nausea, a persistent cough and diarrhea.) The snails used to breed on small flood plain islands where annual flooding prevented a population explosion. Now, the decreased flow downstream from the dam is allowing the snails to breed unchecked, which has already led to a spike in schistosomiasis cases in some areas.

According to Davis, such alterations could precipitate a rise in other microbial waterborne diseases as well. "Once you dramatically change the climate and change water patterns, as is now seen in the Three Gorges region," he says, "you change a lot of environmental variables. Almost all infectious diseases are up for grabs."

The official recognition of the dam's dangers suggests that the project's environmental and public health impacts are starting to sink in. Political analysts speculate that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are eager to distance themselves from a project they inherited. Although halting plans at this point would be an admission of government error, the openness following the Chongqing meeting raised the hopes of worried scientists that officials would take action to minimize the project's environmental and public health fallout.

Government-funded institutions have been quietly assessing possible recourses. Officials say they've spent more than $1.6 billion on fortifying landslide-prone areas and will spend an additional $3.2 billion on water cleanup over the next three years. In January the CTGPC signed a memorandum of understanding with the Nature Conservancy allowing that organization to consult on species protection and river health in the dam area. China's Ministry of Health, meanwhile, is trying to control schistosomiasis infections with a combination of drugs and applications of molluscicides, pesticides that wipe out the disease's snail carriers.

But these measures may not be sufficient to avert disaster. In February China's State Environmental Protection Administration said reservoir water quality targets had not been reached despite a cleanup effort that had been underway since 2001. And fighting schistosomiasis requires a more holistic, multi-pronged approach—particularly now that ecosystems in the Three Gorges region have been altered. To ward off an outbreak, Davis says, the government would have to prevent the use of night soil as fertilizer, build cement irrigation ditches, and ensure area villagers access to clean water. So far, that hasn't happened.

Government Oversight In the wake of media reports about the government's concerns, officials began to backpedal. In a November 2007 interview with state news agency Xinhua, State Council's Wang claimed that "no major geological disasters or related casualties" had occurred since the reservoir's water level was raised in 2006; five days later, the earth in Badong crumbled and the railroad tunnel landslide wiped out the bus and its passengers.

Following a brief period of openness, discussion of the dam's environmental effects has once again become largely taboo in China. Government officials fear that continued free discussion of the project's ramifications could lead to civil unrest. One internationally published Chinese scientist working in the Yangtze Basin declined to comment publicly, noting, "This is a very sensitive topic…. I can't give hypotheses."

Despite the Three Gorges dam's growing list of problems, however, hydropower remains an integral—and ostensibly green—component of China's energy mix. China still draws 82 percent of energy from coal, but large dams are crucial to the country's climate change program, which aims to increase its proportion of electricity from renewable resources from the current 7.2 percent to 15 percent by 2020. Over one third of that will come from hydropower—more than from any other source. Twelve new dams are planned for the upper Yangtze alone.

The logistical and environmental hurdles involved in executing these dams underscore China's commitment to hydropower. The Yangtze's newest dams include several smaller projects that are necessary to alleviate sedimentation caused by the Three Gorges reservoir. In his 2007 report to the National People's Congress, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said that China had relocated 22.9 million people to make room for its large hydroprojects.

China's original goal was to fill the reservoir to its maximum level by 2013. Despite all the trouble, that target was moved up to 2009, Fan says, to boost hydropower output by an additional 2.65 billion kilowatt-hours each year.

"For the economic interests and profit of the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation," he says, "that's very important. But the function of any river, including the Yangtze, is not only to produce power. At the very least, [a river] is also important for shipping, alleviating pollution, sustaining species and ecosystems, and maintaining a natural evolutionary balance."

"The Yangtze doesn't belong to the Three Gorges Project Development Corporation," Fan adds. "It belongs to all of society."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

China in need of green revolution

By Qian Yanfeng (China Daily) Updated: 2008-03-24 10:35

Don't be fooled by the tranquil facade of the Taihu Lake district. One of the most powerful transformations in China is underway behind its veneer of serenity, showing the way for environmental redemption to private enterprises and the authorities in other industrial districts.

It has been 10 months since the blue-green algae outbreak in the Taihu Lake disrupted water supply to 2 million residents in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. Much water has flown down the Taihu since. Many manufacturing enterprises, at the urging of the provincial and city governments, have taken difficult and costly measures to cut down on industrial pollution that was said to have contributed to the algae crisis, their efforts seen as an example for others to remedy decades of environmental abuse and neglect.

"Excessive industrial development along the Taihu Lake area has taken a deadly toll on the environment," says Li Yuanchao, head of the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the former Party Secretary of Jiangsu province. "Strict environmental standards should be enforced to reduce pollution, even if that means a slowdown in growth. It's the cost we have to pay."

While going all out to crack down on the enterprises held responsible for the pollution, the Jiangsu provincial environmental protection bureau issued what is considered the strictest environmental standard in the nation - DB32 Discharge Standard of Main Water Pollutants for Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant and Key Industries of Taihu Area - which took effect at the beginning of this year. DB32 leaves little room for compromise: enterprises either comply or get out.

As a cradle of China's industrial resurgence in the early 1900s and that of the "south Jiangsu model" featuring village and township industry in the end of the 1970s, Wuxi has played host to one of the nation's most advanced and developed modern industrial zones. It enjoys a long history of industrial development, especially in textile and machine manufacturing, while printing, dyeing, plating and chemical industries mushroomed in the 1980s.

These manufacturing industries have brought unprecedented wealth to the region in the past two decades, but at a high cost. Growing environmental problems in recent years, such as the algae outbreak, have sounded a serious warning that the old pattern of growth simply can't be sustained.

Although Wuxi's manufacturing output ranks among the nation's top 10, its industrial structure is heavily skewed toward the chemical sector. Small chemical companies dot the city's 3,000-plus watercourses and rivers. Many of these companies have been discharging waste directly into the nearby rivers that eventually flow into the Taihu Lake.

Things are changing, however. Statistics from the municipal economic and trade committee show some 600 small chemical companies were closed down in 2007. Other sectors like metallurgy, printing and dyeing, plating and cement are also facing the heat.

The city's environmental protection bureau has ordered the closure of sewage drain outlets along the river channels into the lake so that companies are forced to discharge their wastewater into the city's sewer pipes that ensures their treatment in the sewage plant.

"Companies will have to do preliminary treatment if the content of pollutants in the wastewater proves high," says Qin Jueming, chief of staff of the environmental watchdog. "If they don't do it, they will simply be shut down."

The local government has also been relocating environmentally hazardous companies from the city proper to industrial parks since 2003 to minimize pollution through centralized management and promote their industrial upgrading with tougher restrictions. The algae crisis has only accelerated this process. Textile, plating, mechanical and electrical sectors have all seen the construction of industrial parks in the city's suburban areas.

The tough measures after a decade-long mad rush for GDP growth reflect the realization that industrial restructuring and upgrading is the key to achieving both higher profits and environmental protection. Wuxi is thus turning to hi-tech and modern services industry as its new drivers. In five years, software and service outsourcing are expected to become the city's pillar industries.

Rising costs

Policy adjustments are pushing up costs substantially for enterprises in the region. Liu Qun, director of the environmental protection department of Wuxi Resin Factory of Bluestar New Chemical Materials Co Ltd, says the company has spent over 10 million yuan ($1.42 million) since 2007 to upgrade its wastewater treatment facility, which now has the capacity to treat 120-150 tons of sewage per hour. Squeezed by increasingly stringent environmental standards, the company added to its sewage treatment portfolio a 2000 m3 wastewater pool for emergency use last year.

Apart from initial construction costs, the company has to pay an additional 6 million yuan every year on wastewater treatment in its own facility and 2 million yuan as pollution discharge fees to the government.

"Discharge fees for chemical oxygen demand (COD) will have a 50 percent increase when a new standard comes into effect from June," says Liu. "Which also reduces the maximum amount of COD discharge by half. We are thus forced either to cut down on production or improve technology."

Established in 1958, the company is the largest epoxy resin manufacturer in China as well as an important production base for new chemical polymer materials. Aware of the devastation pollution can wreak both on the environment and the company itself, it has been trying out different ways to minimize environmental hazards. It has worked out new manufacturing methods that allow for less consumption of water, thus reducing the amount of wastewater.

"We also recycle chemicals like ECH, phenol and toluene from wastewater which can be used as materials in manufacturing epoxy resin. It can not only reduce organic pollutants in the wastewater and save costs in treatment, but can also bring about nearly 7 million yuan in sales," Liu says.

Wuxi Resin Factory is apparently not the only one benefiting from such recycling technique, which is gaining increasing recognition from enterprises as the key to sustainable development.

With a yearly production capacity of 50,000 tons of citric acid, DSM Citric Acid (Wuxi) Ltd has developed a recycling model that saves both costs and reduces pollution. Marsh gas coming out of the wastewater treatment facility is burned to produce energy for heating mycelium, a waste from the production of citric acid. The dried mycelium is then processed into feed for animals, which in turn generates additional sales for the company.

"We have put in more than 47 million yuan to upgrade the wastewater treatment facility since its construction in 1998," says Zhu Linying, general manager of the company. According to Zhu, the drainage outlet of the facility is equipped with a monitoring system connected to the city's environmental protection bureau, which means the government can keep a daily record of its pollutant discharge.

"In all, we have to pay over 5 million yuan for wastewater treatment and discharge every year, which is much more than what could be made from recycling," Zhu says. "However, as a socially responsible company, we think it necessary to do whatever we can to protect the environment. Moreover, it can improve our image as an internationally competitive company."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

China upgrades environmental administration to ministry

Special Report: NPC, CPPCC Annual Sessions 2008

State Councilor Hua Jianmin, who is also Secretary General of the State Council, delivers the explanation of the plan for institutional restructuring of the State Council during the fourth plenary meeting of the First Session of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, March 11, 2008. (Xinhua Photo) Photo Gallery>>>

BEIJING, March 11 (Xinhua) -- China is to elevate the status of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) to a ministry, among the major 27 ministries and commissions of the Cabinet, said Hua Jianmin, State Council secretary-general, on Tuesday.

"Environmental protection is the fundamental policy of our country, and is crucial to the existence and development of the Chinese nation," Hua, a State Councilor, said while explaining a government reshuffle plan at the ongoing parliamentary session in Beijing

China will face the severe challenge of environmental protection for a long time to come, with the arduous task of reducing pollutants, he noted.

The new ministry aims "to step up environmental improvement and ecological protection and accelerate the building of a resource-saving and environment-friendly society."

Hua added the ministry was responsible for drafting and implementing programs, policies and standards concerning environmental protection, working out environmental functions in different regions, supervising pollution prevention and treatment, and tackling major environmental issues.

The change was welcomed by deputies to the National People's Congress (NPC).

"It is really exciting," said Huang Xihua, vice director of the environmental protection bureau of Huizhou, Guangdong Province. "The environmental protection work of China will have more room for improvement," she said.

China's environmental protection work started about 30 years ago, when a group under the then construction commission was founded.

In 1987, an independent national environmental protection bureau was established at a vice-ministerial level. It was elevated to ministerial level in 1998.

"This further elevation shows the government has become more concerned with environmental protection," said Wei Fusheng, a Chinese Academy of Engineering academician.

Environmental protection has been in the spotlight in recent years as China's economic miracle has brought in its wake severe challenges to the environment.

In 2006, China missed its pollution control goals of cutting two main pollutants by two percent.

Many Chinese still remember the polluting of the northeastern Songhua River in November 2005 after a chemical plant explosion, and the blue-green algae outbreak in the eastern Taihu Lake in Jiangsu Province in May 2007. Both incidents caused water cuts for millions of residents.

Huang knows well the dilemmas faced by local environmental protection bureaus.

"Environmental protection bureaus at provincial level and below are under the direct leadership of local governments, who are in charge of our personnel changes and funding," she said.

"Eat one's hay, walk his way. It is hard for a local environmental protection bureau to work independently and monitor the government."

The overlapping administrative function of several departments is another problem.

Chen Min, Guangdong provincial environmental protection bureau vice director, recalled his trouble in carrying out an environmental protection project.

"Progress of the project was slow because it needed the coordination of many departments like agricultural, forestry, water resources, among others. But as the level of environmental protection administration was lower in comparison, it was very hard for us to negotiate with other departments."

Huang made a motion in 2003 as the deputy to the 10th National People's Congress calling for the elevation of SEPA.

At the end of 2007, the China Council International Cooperation on Environment and Development submitted a proposal to the State Council for the elevation and its vertical administration for local environmental protection bureaus.

In fact, elevation of the environmental protection administration might not be a cure-all, but it sparked people's hope.

"Now that they are at the same level, it would be easier for environmental officials to negotiate with other departments at the planning stage of some projects, so as to prevent pollution from the beginning," said academician Wei.

His view was shared by Wang Jinnan, Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning vice head.

"In the past, policies of SEPA were always opposed by various interest groups," he said. "After the elevation, the new ministry could enjoy more rights in decision-making."

However, there were people who remained cool-headed at the change, especially those from grassroots bureaus who didn't see the sign of change for vertical administration.

"The elevation is surely a good thing, but when it comes to grassroots level, enhancement of authorities in environmental protection would not be that easy," said an unnamed official from a local environmental protection bureau.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

China's green leap forward

While cynics point to China's pre-Olympic greening as blatantly political, the country's moves have been bold.
Fuel efficiency standards: Efficient cars produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Europe and Japan currently have the best efficiency averages, followed by China. Canada and the U.S. lag badly, and will continue to even when proposed new standards are adopted. China: 36 mpg. (current) 43 mpg. (2009) Canada: 27 mpg (current average, no standard) TBA (starting in 2011) United States: 25 mpg. (current average) 35 mpg. (proposed, 2030 California: 25 mpg. (current) 36 mpg. (proposed, 2016) Europe: 40 mpg. (current) 48.9 mpg. (proposed 2012) Japan: 40 mpg. (current) 48.9 mpg. (proposed, 2015)
Most polluted cities (List for 2007, compiled by the non-profit Blacksmith Institute, based in London and New York) Sumgayit, Azerbaijan Linfen, China Tianying, China Sukinda, India Vapi, India La Oroya, Peru Dzerzhinsk, Russia Norilsk, Russia Chernobyl, Ukraine Kabwe, Zambia
The rise of the world's most populous country is widely seen as a story of resource consumption and industrial expansion run amok. Yet the Asian power is quietly positioning itself as an environmental leader
March 08, 2008

No gasoline-powered car assembled in North America would meet China's current fuel-efficiency standard.

Even vehicles produced under California's proposed, and much praised, efficiency law – being fought tooth and nail by the U.S. and Canadian governments and the auto industry – wouldn't come close to the Chinese mileage limits.

If that's a shock, take a deep breath. There's more.

The world's most populous country – and one of its most-polluted – is racing to cut all sorts of emissions, including the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. And any hope of getting the troubled Kyoto Protocol negotiations back on track comes in large part from China.

This is not the common wisdom about a place widely viewed as pillaging its environment in the name of economic growth and international status.

To be sure, China faces massive environmental problems: For evidence, look no further than photos of Beijing's impressive Olympic venues, their dazzling architecture obscured by thick smog. The national government steamrolled opposition and common sense to build the monumental Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River, ensuring ecological and human disaster. China has overtaken the United States as Earth's biggest spewer of greenhouse gases. It's opening new coal-fired generating stations at the rate of about one a week.

Still, it is doing far more than Canada, the U.S. or just about any other place to clean up its act. It has begun to impose regulations and targets for car emissions, renewable fuels, carbon storage, forest renewal, energy efficiency and industrial pollution. It's investing heavily in new technologies, including "clean" coal and alternative power sources. In many ways it's putting us to shame.

Its successes have, so far, been overwhelmed by the sheer size of its economy, and its rapid growth. As well, many people here simply refuse to see anything positive in the authoritarian powerhouse.

When it comes to climate change, China has always worn a black hat – with good reason.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, it was treated as a developing country and, so, was excused from taking on greenhouse gas targets. It has argued, along with the rest of the world's "poor" nations, that since it wasn't responsible for climate change it should be allowed to grow rich in the same unsustainable way North America and Europe did. And it has insisted that wealthy Europe, North America and Japan must clean up their act before it should be expected to do anything.

That line is partly true. Much of China is abjectly poor, and its per capita greenhouse gas emissions are about one-seventh of Canada's.

On the other hand, it is, in total, growing very rich. It's now one of the world's leading exporters and holds much of the United States' massive debt. That makes putting it in the same woebegone column as Congo or Zimbabwe patently ridiculous.

China seems to have finally acknowledged that it is, indeed, a big industrial and financial player. At the recent United Nations conference on climate change, in Bali, it shifted from intransigent roadblock toward possible bridge.

The extent of the transformation became clearer this week at an Ottawa conference on the future of climate change action beyond 2012.

The event, sponsored by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, was governed by "Chatham House" rules. Under that system – named after the London research organization that invented it to promote open discussion – discussions can be reported, but no one can be quoted by name.

Experts there – Canadian and American researchers, including a representative from a high-level group that advises Beijing – said, quite simply, China has decided to build a low-carbon economy. A couple of years ago, it wasn't considered polite to even mention climate change: Now, it's embedded in the latest five-year plan, which calls for a 20 per cent improvement in energy efficiency by 2010.

Some critics argue that, despite the apparently centralized government, the rhetoric from Beijing is far more impressive than the action on the ground, since many local officials still promote economic growth, or their bank accounts, at the expense of the environment. And apart from the increasing number buying cars, the green movement doesn't yet touch the average person.

Still, while it's early days, and many of the plans are, for now, a dog's breakfast, China is doing amazing things, one conference participant said.

Not surprisingly, although China wants to be seen as a good global citizen, the main push is self-interest.

This summer's Olympics provided an immediate jolt. China doesn't want foul air to spoil its coming-out extravaganza.

On top of that, pollution is taking a terrible health toll: It's among the country's leading causes of death. Climate change threatens to eliminate glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau that are the major source of water for China and much of Asia. Freak storms have unleashed death and economic destruction.

The car efficiency standards were inspired by looming fuel shortages and the soaring price of oil, which China must import.

And like forward thinkers here, Chinese leaders are also convinced there's gold in green. They dominate world trade in conventional exports. Why not in clean technology, too? For a start, China will soon introduce low-cost solar panels that are expected to take over the global market.

China also appears ready to be helpful with the next round of talks on emission targets. Under the agreement reached at Bali, targets are to be negotiated by the end of next year and come into effect in 2012. But that deal was a weak compromise, cobbled together just so the marathon conference wouldn't be viewed as a failure. With 200 nations divided into bickering groups, and complex issues to sort out, prospects for meeting the deadline are dim.

The key impasse is that the United States, backed by Canada, insists China accept commitments before it will move. China has given signs it will act, but wants a signal from the United States before it will go as far as it can. That could come soon after George W. Bush leaves office, since all three of the remaining presidential contenders support action on climate change.

The other message, though, is that China won't thump its chest about any of this. It doesn't want to be seen as a leader: It prefers stealth.

We're in for a diplomatic dance that's well worth watching with an open mind.