China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Friday, March 20, 2009

City of dreams

A Chinese eco-city

Mar 19th 2009 | DONGTAN From The Economist print edition

Still on the drawing-board

IDEAS about tackling China’s myriad environmental woes, from soil erosion to polluted waterways, tend to come in outsize packages—hardly surprising, given the scale of the damage. Bold environmental solutions are as appealing to policymakers as they are to engineers who want to put their stamp on the cities of tomorrow. One such project is Dongtan, a planned eco-city on an alluvial island near Shanghai. Designed by Arup, a British design firm, to house 500,000 people on a 8,600-hectare (21,250-acre) site, it was billed as a low-carbon alternative to urban sprawl and a blueprint for other eco-cities. But four years on, not a single green building has gone up on the site.

The reason lies not in the spluttering global economy but in the political corridors of Shanghai, the powerful city to which Chongming island belongs. A prime mover behind Dongtan was a former Shanghai Communist Party chief, Chen Liangyu, who steered the land into the hands of Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation, or SIIC, a state-owned developer, and lent his prestige to the project. Then, in 2006, Mr Chen was sacked for property-related corruption. He was later convicted and is under house arrest. The way big land deals are done in Shanghai has been changed.

A noticeable loser is Dongtan. Arup’s original plan had 50,000 residents moving in by 2010, when Shanghai hosts the World Expo. That has now been quietly dropped. Arup’s Roger Wood says SIIC has opted to put construction on hold, pending further permits. He denies, however, that the project has been cancelled. On a recent visit to the site, your correspondent found an SIIC business centre and a shuttered hotel, neither of which appear in the master plan. Local residents say the hotel, outside the site proper, was a private villa owned by Mr Chen, who presumably enjoyed his excursions to Chongming.

A new bridge and tunnel spanning the estuary is already completed and will open to traffic later this year. That should boost land prices on Chongming, and may give SIIC a nudge to develop—or sell—the Dongtan site. It also raises the question, however, of what constitutes an eco-city. Arup had envisaged a compact, mostly car-free community. Residents would live and work in green research centres and other such industries, buy local produce and use renewable energy. The new road link, however, puts Shanghai within commuting distance. Locals also talk excitedly of future sales of holiday and retirement homes—hardly the original idea. Critics also point out that building an eco-city on farms near hugely important wetlands, which attract rare migrating birds (and birdwatchers), was always dubious. For its part, Arup said the wetlands would be protected by a buffer zone around the city.

A more obvious strategy might seem to be to rebuild a polluted industrial zone in China’s rustbelt and insist on smart design and energy efficiency. But China is urbanising so relentlessly that vast tracts of housing will have to be built somewhere. By 2030, the urban population is forecast to reach 1 billion, according to McKinsey Global Institute. Better to plan new, more efficient cities than allow car-dependent urban sprawl to eat up farmland around existing urban centres, goes the thinking. Better still, of course, to build them.

Friday, March 13, 2009

China's green champion pushed to sidelines

Poor health blamed for inactivity of campaigner but environmentalists fear fall from prominence signals government change of direction

Pan Yue

Pan Yue Photograph: NATALIE BEHRING/Natalie Behring

The Chinese government's most strident defender of the environment, Pan Yue, has been pushed out of the political limelight as policymakers ramp up plans to bolster the faltering economy with consumer incentives and industrial investment.

Formerly the most outspoken critic of polluting industries and the local governments that protect them, Pan has been quietly driven to the sidelines in recent months.

Environmentalists fear his fall from prominence could signal a change of direction by the Chinese government and a weakening of the power of the environment protection authorities less than a year after they were upgraded to ministry status.

At an awards ceremony in December he explained his silence had been due to ill health, but environmentalists suspect a more political reason. "He doesn't look sick to me. I don't think health is the problem," said Feng Yongfeng, an influential environmental journalist. "People are saying that it is because the government will launch lots of projects to save the economy. If Pan was in power, he'd probably interfere with these projects."

Pan has lost authority over environmental impact assessment approvals, cut down media appearances and admitted that his pioneering "Green GDP" project has been shelved.

The environment ministry denies compromising over the environment to boost the economy. "We'd rather be seen as the bad guy at the moment than make our way into the history as sinners," Wu Xiaoqing, who replaced Pan last year as spokesman on the environment, said this week. "We must be very strict in applying environmental standards."

Since taking his post in 2003, Pan had been at the forefront of widely praised government initiatives to build an "eco-civilisation" by shifting the world's fastest growing economy on to a more sustainable track.

Until his arrival, the environment agency was seen as toothless, but Pan astounded many observers by blocking billions of dollars worth of projects and warning publicly that the country's economic development was in danger of hitting an ecological wall.

He harnessed the power of the media by naming and shaming the worst violators, introduced a freedom of information law that obliged local authorities to release pollution data and encouraged non-governmental organisations and journalists to expose environmental wrongdoing.

His actions – extraordinary in Chinese communist party circles – were possible thanks to support from the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, strong family credentials and the optimism generated by a fast-growing economy.

But he was passed over for promotion at the last party congress in 2007 and has since been steadily nudged into a quieter role on environmental education and "green economy" planning. As well as his removal last year from the position of environment spokesman, he lost the power to block projects that cause pollution, waste energy or hurt biodiversity.

Wu Xiaoqing is seen as someone more focused on the economy than the environment. He is a former deputy governor of Yunnan province, which is seeking environmental impact assessment approval this year for a cascade of huge dams on the Jingsha river, a major tributary of the Yangtze.

Despite its upgrade from agency status and a full vote-seat in the cabinet, the ministry of environmental protection remains small and has no jurisdiction over local environment protection bureaus, which are controlled by regional governments more concerned about their economies.

Tom Wang of Greenpeace said there was disappointment. "When the upgrade happened last year we were all very excited because it seemed a signal that the government is more concerned about environmental protection but I don't see any difference. Local environment officials are still getting their pay cheques from local governments."

Earlier this week, Friends of Nature questioned how the 4 trillion yuan economic stimulus package will be spent. Despite promises of new investment in renewable energy and "green buildings," they fear most of the money will go on steel, cement and other energy-intensive industries.

"Many projects, like roads and dams, pose a big risk to the environment so we need to take a close look at whether the environmental impact assessment systems are strictly being enforced," said Zhang Boju, a researcher with Friends of Nature.

In Yunnan and other provinces, local governments have introduced "green passage" regulations that fast-track environmental impact assessments in the interests of the economy.

In one of his few media appearances earlier this month, Pan said environmental impact assessments continue and the ministry would not allow high energy-consuming and polluting projects for the sake of domestic demand.

Don't blame China for the world's eco woes

By Patrick Whiteley (China Daily) Updated: 2009-03-12 07:44

Two Chinese businessmen walk into an international airport smoking room crowded with Western men puffing on cigars. The two Chinese are about to light up when one suit-wearing smoker turns and barks: "Do you mind?"

This is an old analogy used to illustrate the hypocrisy of some in the West who blame China for the world's pollution woes.

They blame China as it quickly develops to provide its citizens with a better quality of life. But developed countries are "developed" because their factories have been polluting the sky for more than 200 years.

Critics still blame China as it builds new cities with modern homes, running water, sewage systems, transport infrastructure, schools and hospitals, just as their countries did.

They blame China as it serves the needs of hundreds of millions of farmers moving from the land to the cities in the biggest urbanization program in human history. No nation has ever had to do this before, and the challenges are highly complicated.

Communities are like three-legged tables, held up by environmental, social and economic supports. The three are closely linked and affect the stability of the community.

The rampant rise in dirty factories fueled by economic development not only pollutes the air and waterways but also creates ghettos crammed with factory workers and the resulting social problems.

If one table leg is longer than the others, the table is unbalanced and society is far from harmonious.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told China Daily last month her country and Europe "didn't know any better" about protecting the environment during their industrialization and development, and urged the Chinese not to make the same mistakes they did.

The Chinese people, from the Environment Minister down to grass-roots citizens, know change must come. And they are learning from their own mistakes, too.

After people protested over work on a $1.4 billion chemical factory near Xiamen, Fujian province, the project was halted and the local environmental agency was planning to review a proposal to relocate the plant to a neighboring city.

Deputy Environment Minister Zhang Lijun recently admitted serious problems remained in China and that local governments were not putting enough pressure on businesses to control pollution. His ministry is powerful and environmental laws have been toughened, but enforcement still relies on local officials and not enough has been done to fix China's air, lakes and rivers.

Local officials face a conflict of interest because heavily polluting industries offer more jobs and more taxes, which allow local governments to improve their regions - but at what cost?

A report from Zhang's department revealed nearly a quarter of the monitoring stations along China's major rivers found water quality was "worse" than ever, while another survey of five cities said the average air quality in two ranged from "polluted" to "hazardous".

London's Great Smog of 1952 is an extreme example of how this situation can go from bad to worse. More than 12,000 Londoners died as a result of the five-day catastrophe. The city's undertakers ran out coffins and it forced the British government to pass the original Clean Air Act.

This is a tragedy no nation wants to repeat.

Patrick Whiteley is a senior editor with China Daily

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

China aims to regrow its 'empty forests'

  • Jonathan Watts and Chen Shi
  • Thursday 12 March 2009
  • As China attempts to reverse deforestation, it has set up its first national park in Heilongjiang province, and hopes tourists will fill the gap in the economy. Jonathan Watts visits a small factory that has turned a million trees into toothpicks

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Commentary: Time to create "greener wealth" 2009-03-09 15:40:19 BEIJING, March 9 (Xinhua) -- Britain's Sunday Times newspaper recently unveiled its first Green Rich List, featuring the world's top 100 tycoons or wealthy families who have made either serious investments in green technology and businesses or hefty financial commitments to environmental causes. Of the tycoons or wealthy families worth 200 million pounds sterling (290 million U.S. dollars) or more, 35 richest U.S. financiers and entrepreneurs dominate the list, most of whom are from the Silicon Valley, followed by 17 Chinese, 10 British and 7 German tycoons. The top two in the list are Warren Buffett, who invested in wind-energy projects, and Bill Gates, who has funded alternative fuels such as oil from algae. In the context of the global economic slump, how come the richest and smartest financiers and businessmen coincide in focusing on "green industry?" And is it a cost-effective choice? The sharp business sense may have been behind their "turn-to-green" decisions. Investors with a strategic vision would not only chase profit from mature industries, but also look forward to the future. Faced with shrinking nonrenewable resources, rising pollution and increased extreme climate change, more and more governments and people have realized that green industry, with the characteristics of high efficiency, low pollution, waste-recycling and energy-saving, would become the world's leading trend in the near future. In other words, those who first acquire updated green technology would gain the upper hand over their competitors in the future. Even amid the continuing global financial crisis, the business elites remain unshaken in their determination. Many IT tycoons are turning to green investments to explore a new frontier, just like what they did to feed the then-infant Internet economy several decades ago. Admittedly, the green investments are also a reflection of the corporate social responsibility of some global riches. Fundamental R&D of green technology calls for large amounts of investment, but the outcome is hard to predict, with a relatively high possibility of failure and making little profit. As a result, many medium-sized corporations are reluctant to get involved. Business tycoons like Buffett and Gates are beginning to turn their eyes to environmental protection and public welfare services. They are willing to make investments in experimental research, which is a laudable move. There are 17 Chinese businessmen on the "green list," who are mainly involved in solar energy and electric-car technology. Unlike the American businessmen who tend to pursue more advanced technology, the Chinese tycoons pay much attention to mass production and application of green technologies. A report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2007 showed that China's solar industry ranked first in the world in terms of size and scale. All in all, the vision of these eco-pioneers offers inspiration and provides us with much food for thought. Firstly, green industry could be a new path for our economy in the face of a raging global financial crisis. Second, green industry could reconcile profit seeking and environmental protection in a harmonious way for the first time in history, thus making development more sustainable. Third, in the face of worsening global warming and pollution, actions speak louder than words. In cooperation with governments and environmental activists, the business world can be reckoned to be a combat-worthy force. The wealth we create could be greener than ever before.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Grazing in a nature reserve the only choice for herders in Xinjiang Uighur region of China

World Bank

Just before Christmas my colleagues Judith Schleicher and Zeng Jun joined me on a visit to Lake Aibi in order to visit Kokobasto, a Kazakh nationality village situated north of the lake and within the Lake Aibi Nature Reserve in China's far north-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. When I last visited the village (as mentioned briefly in my rant about goats and an accompanying YouTube film), I was told that herders from the high summer pastures to the north came down to Kokobasto during the winter along with their livestock.

I had wanted to meet them and discuss herding practices, even though it was a particularly cold and bleak time of year. In fact those shifting herders no longer come to Kokobasto, and my following YouTube film documents some of the meetings we had with a selection of the 250 inhabitants who live permanently in the village.

The villagers feel part of Tuoli County, Tacheng Prefecture, to the north, and they have their livestock grazing permit from there. But they actually live and herd their livestock in the nature reserve, which lies wholly within Jinghe County, Bortala Prefecture.

The local governments have tried several times to negotiate a solution to this discrepancy, but it is still unresolved, simply because no new grazing land in either Tuoli or Bortala can be provided to the villagers by either party. The Bortala government has agreed to resettle the villagers if they want to move and committed to provide them with better living conditions.

Despite the prohibition of grazing in the nature reserve, the villagers graze their livestock on a strip of very low quality rangeland (5 km in width and 31 km in length) in the conservation area; they simply have nowhere else to go. The total livestock the village included 1,300 goats and sheep, 120 cows, 30 horses and 30 camels. This is a very high stocking rate and the rangeland used is severely overgrazed.

According to the head of the village, only 13 of the 51 households can feed their families by livestock grazing, and the other 38 households need off-farm income to cover their basic living needs. During household visits, villagers told us about the limited sources of income and their wishes to have their children educated. The interviews confirmed the vulnerable nature of their economic situation.

China clings to clean-up amid woes


Thu Mar 5, 2009 By Emma Graham-Harrison

BEIJING (Reuters) - Grappling with slowing growth and a rising tide of unemployment, China is still pushing for cleaner development and may step up efforts to tackle climate change, the country's top economic planner said Thursday.

Experiments with a cap-and-trade emissions trading system for air pollutants, more spending on technology to tackle global warming and another round of shutdowns at outdated power plants and factories are all on the agenda for 2009.

The election of a new U.S. president with a strong position on global warming, and a looming deadline for a world deal on fighting climate change, have focused attention on China as the world's top emitter of greenhouse gasses.

But some experts have voiced fears that the global downturn will test the resolve of China and other leading emitters to fight global warming at a time when efforts to revive their economies dominate the policy agenda.

Beijing, in turn, is worried about its reliance on imported oil and gas, the health and economic consequences of its murky air and water and risks of protests and unrest from citizens threatened by pollution and now also unhappy about the economy.

"We will make every effort to save energy and reduce pollution," the National Development and Reform Commission said, laying out the "major tasks" for this year in a report to the annual session of China's rubber-stamp Parliament.

A long-standing drive to cut wasteful energy use remained a focus of attention with pledges to improve management of power demand, fine-tune pricing of oil products and block construction of new power-hungry projects.

More closely targeted measures include income tax rebates for purchase of energy efficient equipment and tax credits for the manufacture of small, environmentally friendly cars.

The effort to improve "energy intensity" was actually speeded up by the economic downturn, which helped China to achieve a self-imposed energy-saving target for the first time in 2008, by pushing dirty metal firms and factories over the edge.

"The growth of production in energy intensive and highly polluting industries slowed down significantly," the NDRC said.


In a section on tackling pollution, the report pledged to "continue to experiment with the cap-and-trade emissions trading system." It gave no more details, but this likely referred only to pollutants such as acid-rain-causing sulfur dioxide.

However, officials have said in the past that a scheme for these gasses could lay the ground for a system tackling greenhouse pollutants such as carbon dioxide by putting monitoring equipment in place, building up a market and popularizing the concept of emissions trading.

The government also plans to set climate change programs for each province -- which could help give local leaders eager for promotion greater incentive to clean up firms in their area -- and will this year step up the hunt for clean technology.

"We will increase research and development on technologies for slowing down and responding to climate change," it said.

Beijing has called for rich nations to provide green technology to developing countries as part of a global pact to cut emissions of global warming gasses, due to be hammered out at talks in Copenhagen in December.

It is highly vulnerable to the effects of a warming planet, ranging from droughts in its already parched south to rising sea-levels along the heavily populated coast and storms in the typhoon-prone south.

Desulfurising equipment was added in power plants with another 100 gigawatts of capacity over 2008, meaning nearly two thirds of the nation's generators now strip out the gas, the report said, and more plants will be upgraded this year.

China offers higher tariffs to power plants that clean the gas from their emissions and said it will step up oversight of the scheme. In the past, companies have installed the equipment but kept it switched off to save money.

Dirty water was also a target, with plans to ensure over two-thirds of urban sewage is treated by the end of the year.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

'Red card' polluters face credit crunch

By Zhan Lisheng (China Daily) Updated: 2009-03-03 07:47

Sixteen firms in Guangdong have been warned they may be denied further access to loans by local banks after receiving their second red card in the environmental protection credit ratings.

Related readings: Pollution checks set to intensify Ministry to monitor pollution New ideas for an old village take rural roots Green light given to 153 new projects

The companies were among 28 given the worst rating in 2006 by the provincial environmental protection bureau and were found to have made little progress before the deadline for improvements last year, said the watchdog on its website.

In total, 269 businesses were given environmental protection ratings three years ago; 210 were shown green cards, 31 yellow and 28 red, the latter comprising heavy industrial polluters, thermal power stations with a capacity of over 6,000 kilowatts and wastewater disposal plants with a daily capacity of more than 10,000 tons, said bureau engineer Du Huaming.

"They churn out about half of the province's chemical oxygen and sulfur dioxide. So how well we get such enterprises under control decides heavily on how successful the pollution control is," he said.

"The watchdog has been working with local branches of the People's Bank of China and China Banking Regulatory Commission since 2007 to share the pollution information of the enterprises. Local banking institutions will adjust the credit scale for polluting enterprises accordingly."

Those shown green cards in the environmental protection credit ratings are eco-friendly firms and will enjoy favorable policies in terms of environmental management and special funds, while those that receive yellow cards will be kept under close supervision this year.

Companies that get red cards are blocked from floating shares on the stock market or financing, and run the risk of being closed down if they do not make the necessary changes.

"Environmental ratings will force companies to hone their awareness of protection as it will arouse the attention of both the government and the public," added Peng Peng, a researcher with Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

China plans 59 reservoirs to collect meltwater from its shrinking glaciers

Major project for Xinjiang province amid concerns over future water supply
Glaciers in the Tian Mountains in western China are melting because of global warming. Link to this video

China is planning to build 59 reservoirs to collect water from its shrinking glaciers as the cost of climate change hits home in the world's most populous country.

The far western province of Xinjiang, home to many of the planet's highest peaks and widest ice fields, will carry out the 10-year engineering project, which aims to catch and store glacier run-off that might otherwise trickle away into the desert.

Behind the measure is a concern that millions of people in the region will run out of water once the glaciers in the Tian, Kunlun and Altai mountains disappear.

Anxiety has risen along with temperatures that are rapidly diminishing the ice fields. The 3,800-metre Urumqi No1 glacier, the first to be measured in China, has lost more than 20% of its volume since 1962, according to the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (Careeri) in Lanzhou.

To deal with the consequences, Xinjiang will set aside 200m yuan (£20m) for each of the next three years. In the first phase, 29 reservoirs will be built with a combined capacity of 21.8 billion cubic metres of water, according to the Xinhua news agency.

Wang Shijiang, director of Xinjiang's water resource department, said the mountain reservoir system was designed to "intercept" meltwater, which has increased in volume over the past 20 years as a result of global warming.

Xinjiang is particularly dependent on a steady supply of meltwater from glaciers, which act as solid reservoirs that store precipitation in the winter and release it in the summer.

Few city residents understand the problem because in recent years water supplies have surged thanks to the extra meltwater and increased rainfall. The excess supply has been used to water golf courses and make artificial snow for a ski slope in semi-desert Urumqi. But scientists say the glut is unsustainable because it comes from the release of water that has built up over thousands of years.

"At the moment there is plenty of water in the big cities. But it is hard to say how long it will last," said He Yuanqing, a glaciologist at Careeri. "On one hand, global warming is accelerating the melt. But on the other, it is increasing rainfall, so we need a way to store the extra water."

It is unclear, however, how long the water can be stored without replenishment. Experts have previously called for the reservoirs to be built underground so that the water does not evaporate in the summer, when Xinjiang has the highest average temperatures in China.

Overexploitation of river systems and oases has exacerbated the problem. The volume of water in the once vast Aibi lake in Xinjiang has decreased by two-thirds over the past 50 years, the Beijing News reported today.

In terms of glacier melt, the worst affected area in China is the Tibetan plateau, often described as "the roof of the world". Last month, Chinese scientists warned that glaciers on the plateau had lost 989 million cubic metres over the past 40 years and were continuing to melt at a "worrying speed". They added that ice fields had shrunk by 196 sq kilometres, equivalent to a quarter of New York city.

Beijing plans to build more efficient heating facilities to cut pollution 2009-03-02 21:31:04 Print

BEIJING, March. 2 (Xinhua) -- Chinese capital Beijing will put into use 20 bigger and more efficient heating centers in the next two years in a bid to reduce pollution.

Ten such centers were in operation and the city planned to increase the number to 20 in 2009 and 30 in 2010, an official with the Municipal Commission of Development and Reform said Monday.

The 30 centers, replacing 670 small coal-fired boilers, would provide heating to 100 million cubic meters of housing in ten suburban districts, according to the official.

The city launched the project of building more efficient and less polluting heating facilities in Changping District in 2005.

The centers, equipped with desulphurization facilities, could reduce harmful smoke and sulphur dioxide emissions by 74 percent and 68 percent respectively, according to the commission. They were also 30 percent more efficient.