China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Sunday, June 28, 2009

How Confucianism could curb global warming

China openly debates the role of Eastern thought in sustainability.

from the June 26, 2009 Via

Now here's a curveball to secular Western policy experts: China's intellectuals are openly debating the role of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in promoting the Communist Party's vision of a harmonious society and ecologically sustainable economic development.

Nowhere is the question of what to do about the environment more vital than in China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases – especially because scientists agree that climate change disproportionately affects the poor and the disenfranchised and that climate change will affect future generations far more than the present.

Yet the general impression of China's role in issues relating to environment is one of foot-dragging because it hasn't bought into a Western model to address it.

But Pan Yue, China's vice minister for environmental protection, is calling for China to capitalize on traditional Chinese religions in promoting ecological sustainability.

He says, "One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature. Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Taoist view of the Tao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years. It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society."

And this just might work.

As The New York Times recently reported, China is in the midst of a transformation to cleaner forms of energy.

Although much of China's energy needs are still met by inefficient, coal-fired power stations with poor track records in terms of emissions, China has begun to invest heavily in cleaner coal technology in an effort to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.

Because of this, the International Energy Agency reduced its estimate of the increase in Chinese emissions of global warming gases from 3.2 percent to 3 percent even as the same agency raised its estimate of China's economic growth. China is managing to increase its economic output at a greater rate than its emissions.

This is good news for everyone.

But buried innocuously in the middle of this report was the startlingly frank statement of Cao Peixi, president of the China Huaneng group, China's largest state-owned electric company.

When asked about his company's decision to invest in more expensive but cleaner technology he replied: "We shouldn't look at this project from a purely financial perspective. It represents the future."

The $64,000 question facing economists and politicians across the world is how to make decisions that take into account the big picture beyond the "purely financial perspective."

This is a hard question for Western economic and political theorists to answer, because their theories are based on the Enlightenment view of the self as an autonomous, rational individual.

But how are we to make decisions that take into account the interests of those who have not yet been born?

Being respectful to the interests of past and future generations is key to the Confucian view of the self and groups. To the question, "Who am I?" the Confucian answers, "I am the child of my parents and the parent of my children."

Confucianism begins from the proposition that human beings are defined by kinship networks that span the centuries. From this perspective the interests of the individual are bound up with the interests of the kinship group as it extends forward and backward across the generations.

This will be a key factor in the way China handles present and future environmental issues.

Consider the views of Jiang Qing, a leading Confucian intellectual. According to a recent report by Daniel Bell, a political theorist at China's Tsinghua Univeristy, Mr. Jiang proposes a political system that can take into account the interests of those who are typically ignored in modern democracies, such as foreigners, future generations, and ancestors.

"Is democracy really the best way to protect future victims of global warming?" he asks.

As China assumes a greater leadership role on the world stage, we can expect the emergence of a variety of models of sustainable development rooted in a plurality of cultural traditions, including Confucianism.

The time when Westernization was the only credible model of development is over.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Yellow River dams verge on collapse

By Tan Yingzi (China Daily) Updated: 2009-06-19 10:34 Several dams on branches of the Yellow River in Gansu province are near collapse only one or two years after their construction. Improper construction procedures, disqualified workers, embezzlement of construction funds and mismanagement of local water resource departments are threatening the safety of the dams, according to China Youth Daily. One dike more than 80-m long and 20-m high, built in 2006 in Yuanxian county on the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River, has developed a breach about 10 meters wide in the middle.

According to nearby villagers, at least five newly-built dams are in very fragile condition, the newspaper said.

All those dikes are part of the soil and water conservation project of the Yellow River under the management of the Ministry of Water Resources. Most of the money for construction comes from the central government.

With a length of 5,464 km, the Yellow River, dubbed the "mother river" of China, suffers the most serious soil erosion in the world, especially along its middle and upper reaches. The average amount of mud and sand washed into the river every year reaches 1.6 billion tons.

Since 2003, China has poured a total of 83 billion yuan ($12 billion) into tackling soil erosion along the river and constructed more than 160,000 dams, according to Xinhua News Agency.

As flood season approaches in July, August and September, China's dam safety is coming under heavy pressure and inspections show many of them are not in good condition, Minister of Water Resources Chen Lei said last month.

China has the world's largest number of reservoirs, and 37,000 of them, or more than 40 percent of the country's total, are in potential danger. Of those, 3,642 dams are being reinforced and another 7,611 need immediate reinforcement.

From 1999 to 2008, a total of 59 dams were breached nationwide, 30 caused by torrential rain and another 20 from quality defects, he said.

Monday, June 15, 2009

China suspends 'illegal' hydropower projects for environmental reasons

Dam construction was started without necessary ecological assessments, says ministry of environmental protection

China's environment ministry has suspended construction of two ambitious hydropower dams in the upper Yangtze river region, saying the projects were illegal because they were started without necessary environmental assessments.

The announcement, carried widely in state media today, is an unusually aggressive move by the ministry of environmental protection, whose local bureaus answer to local governments despite it being upgraded to a full ministry last year.

The dams are part of an estimated 200 billion yuan ($30 billion) project involving hydropower stations along the Jinsha river tributary in south-western China which environmentalists have said would damage the region's biodiversity.

Two large state-owned power companies, Huadian Power and Huaneng Power, started blocking the middle reaches of the river in January without approval from the ministry, it said in a notice on its website late Thursday.

"To protect the management of the environment ... and to punish the violation of the environment and illegal acts regarding the environment, the environmental ministry decided to suspend the construction projects in the middle reaches of the Jinsha River," spokesman Tao Detian said in the statement.

Tao said additional environmental reviews would be needed for the hydropower projects to go ahead.

Hydroelectric power is viewed as a relatively clean alternative to the heavily polluting coal-fired plants that are China's main source of energy. But some critics have questioned the potential environmental and social impact of so many huge projects.

The Beijing News newspaper quoted an unidentified person who works for a hydropower project at a large power company as saying it was the first time the environment ministry has responded so strongly to hydropower.

China plans to build 12 hydropower projects along the 1,423-mile (2,290km) Jinsha River that flows from northern Qinghai province to Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.

The electricity output from the stations is estimated to equal the output from the massive Three Gorges Dam in central China.

Dams have big impacts on communities both upstream and downstream, and the companies should take into consideration the ecology of the Lijiang area, Tao said in the statement. Lijiang is an important tourism and trekking area in south-western China.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

China and the environment: Red, green - and black

Visiting China a couple of years ago, the American journalist Thomas Friedman conceded that, when it came to climate change, his hosts had a point. Yes, the west had grown rich using dirty old coal and oil, and the Chinese had the right to do the same. "Take your time!" he told a conference in Tianjin. "Because I think my country needs ... five years to invent all the clean power and energy efficiency tools that you, China, will need to avoid choking on pollution and then we are going to come over and sell them ... to you." It took a few moments for his words to be translated and land in delegates' headphones - and for the ripple of consternation to spread around the hall.

Two years on, Mr Friedman's lesson - that clean energy can be profitable rather than a costly drag - has not only been learned by the Chinese; now Beijing is intent on writing the rest of the textbook. Just look at yesterday's Guardian report on China's plans to ramp up wind and solar power, so that they meet 20% of its energy needs by 2020. That is already a big advance in Beijing's goals - and it is poised to go even further. There are reports it will spend up to $600bn on clean power over the next decade - or the equivalent of its entire military budget every year for each of the next 10 years.

Sums like that certainly put western chatter about green new deals in perspective. Indeed, China's 20% goal matches European targets, which EU members such as Britain are struggling to meet. And while Beijing's announcement may put Europe's governments on their mettle, there is more to this clean stimulus than a challenge for environmental leadership. China is dependent on imported fuel, it can see the business opportunities from developing green technology (it is already the world's leading manufacturer of photovoltaic panels, which turn sunlight into electricity) - and Beijing needs to go into this December's negotiations on a successor treaty to Kyoto with something to deflect the charges that it is some kind of climate criminal. Instead, China will be able to cast itself as a green leader.

There is only one snag. Green optimists such as Thomas Friedman yoke energy security with the green agenda; Beijing is effectively decoupling the two. However much it may trumpet its green initiatives, China is still the world's biggest user of coal and the largest emitter of carbon. Neither of those two things look likely to change. Beijing has yet to accept any target for reducing carbon emissions. The US Congress looks as if it will accept only a small one. The two countries that are central to December's negotiations in Copenhagen will be able to show much progress and good faith - but painful, binding targets? Do not bet on it.