China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ma Jun: the call of rivers 2009-10-28 18:14:28

    By Gong Yidong

    BEIJING, Oct. 28 (Xinhua) -- When Ma Jun stood on the banks of the mighty and yet polluted Yangtze River in 1994, he had vague idea that one day he would devote himself to a Mission Impossible: saving China's dying rivers.

    Named as one of 100 Most Influential Persons of 2006 by Time magazine, Ma has spared no efforts to raise public participation in environmental protection. Backing him up is a brand-new information platform linking government, businesses and ordinary people.

    Born in 1968, Ma often recalls the "good old days" of his childhood by the Jin'gouhe River, or Golden Hook River, a major source of water for Beijing residents. "The water glistened with swarms of fish," he remembers. With his friends, it was where Ma learned to swim.

    On summer nights, Ma liked to go out to observe insects in the dim lamplight along the street. "Beijing was much smaller then, and surrounded by undeveloped farmland."

    But, the Jin'gouhe River had smelt foul by the late of 1970s when the country's economic reform and opening-up started. And, Masays, "the water quality of the river was rated Category V, meaning not drinkable, by China's national standards."

    "Many rivers in Beijing have lost their functions, except as outlets for waste water discharged by factories or households. Some of them simply dry up, for good. "

    By the time Ma Jun graduated from university in 1993 and went to work for a media, his anxiety had been further aggravated by visits to the Yangtze River, the most important lifeline for people living in the south of China, whose ecology was deteriorating.

    "The rushing waters reminded me of the poem by Chinese poet Du Fu of the Tang Dynasty -- Falls boundlessly wooden whinny, endless Yangtze River is billowing, but what I saw in the deep of the mountains was rampant deforestation, soil erosion and damage to the environment. The locals said what they owned were just messy patches. "

    Nationwide, nearly all China's rivers and lakes were suffering growing pollution. Take the Dongtinghu for example. Once the country's largest freshwater lake, Dongtinghu had dwindled substantially in volume and area. The Fenhe River in north China's Shanxi Province was threatening local people's health due to heavy industrial pollution.

    In the face of water shortages, China's governments investigated different options, but engineering took the upper hand, culminating in the construction of reservoirs and large dams in southwest China and projects to divert river from south to north.

    Ma, however, questioned their feasibility, as these measures failed to take into account ecological questions.

    "The water issue concerns the formulation and implementation of public policy, and influences the public interest to a great extent. But it was restricted to professional circles and very few people had idea of what it means."

    Ma turned his observations into a book named China Water Crisis, which has been compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. This was China's first major book putting its environmental crisis under the microscope.

    In the book, Ma analyzed problems with the seven basins in China and expressed his concern: "If the policy-makers do not approach water treatment from the basics of environmental protection and sustainable development, many regions in China will be stricken by water crises in the near future."

    His concern is echoed by the reality: more than 60 percent of China's fresh water is contaminated and more than half of major cities fall below the country's modest air quality standards.

    Unsatisfied by merely pointing out problems as a journalist, Ma continued thinking about remedies for China's water crisis, further developed during a stay with an international environmental consulting company and tenure as visiting scholar for a year at Yale University.

    "I came to realize the power of the market in its disciplining role over the company performance, which might be applied to environmental protection.

    "What should be concomitant is the widespread participation of citizens, without whom the process can hardly be meaningful or effective."

    Ma transformed his thoughts into actions.

    Soon after returning to China in 2006, he set up an NGO, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and launched the China Water Pollution Map followed by the China Air Pollution Map, providing searchable databases though which the public could access thousands of environmental quality data and factory-based infraction records released by various government agencies, including the Ministry of Environmental Protection and its subordinate agencies across the country.

    "We aim to promote dialogue engaging enterprises, governments and the general public through our information platform," Ma says.

    The Chinese government's Measures for the Disclosure of Environmental Information, released in May 2008, bolstered Ma's confidence. Starting from 2,500 records, the two databases have proliferated to include 49,000 records at the end of August, involving about 30,000 domestic and foreign companies, which have been warned or penalized by governments for their violations of environmental rules.

    "In the past, it was hard for the public to access these documents, but they now do thanks to our platform, and can exert pressure on companies to comply with the rules," says Ma.

    A recent case involved the shoe-maker giant Timberland.

    Since 2004 residents in Shanghai's Baoshan district repeatedly complained to the city government about the "foul odor" emitted by Shanghai Richina Factory, which had been targeted by pollution watchdogs for exceeding emissions limits. The factory, however, seemed to be blind and deaf to the locals' petitions

    Ma discovered the Shanghai factory stood out because it was the only one to have breached regulations six years in a row. "We then found that this factory was listed as one of Timberland's suppliers."

    In collaboration with the Friends of Nature, an influential NGO on environmental protection, Ma wrote a letter to Timberland's chief executive Jeffrey Swartz in mid-July after the two groups had failed to get a response from the factory.

    Then, the HK-based South China Morning Post newspaper carried a story based on Ma's database records and made public Richina's performance. Ultimately, the report drew the attention of Timberland, which ordered Richina to desist from substandard behavior.

    In a letter to the Friends of Nature and IPE, the CEO of Richina said his company planned to conduct third party audits. "We are reaching out to the community and neighborhood groups. Part of this process will be an open house event for the community, local residences and other interested parties."

    Ma believes the handling of the Richina case showed a shift from "management" to "governance" in the arena of environmental protection. In the old days, environmental management was a sheer work of the government and many companies would rather pay limited penalty fines year after year rather than resolving their pollution problems.

    "The advent of information like the Water Pollution Map and Air Pollution Map is changing the pattern as it touches upon different stakeholders because of its accessibility, " Ma says.

    The Shanghai case also illustrates what Ma defines as a Green Choice Alliance (GCA) for Responsible Supply in China Management Program, with the ultimate target of better environmental management by companies.

    "It aims to curb environmental pollution in China's manufacturing hubs by integrating transparency and stakeholder participation in the existing supply chain management system. "

    Tapping into IPE's database of specific citations of companies violating emissions standards and other environmental rules in China, corporate users can use the search engine of the database to compare their list of suppliers with IPE's list of violators, Ma says.

    Some multi-national companies, including General Electric (GE) and Wal-Mart, are already using the databases to monitor sourcing practices in China. This extends to thousands of suppliers.

    Up until now, more than 130 companies have approached Ma's institute, explaining what went wrong and how they planned to fix the problems. Many hoped to be removed from the list by the introduction of third-party audits of their improved performance.

    Ma and his colleagues are also reaching out to governments. Earlier this year, they developed a Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI) evaluating 113 environmental protection bureaus' performances across China. On top of the list was Ningbo, a medium-sized city in eastern China. Beijing took the 16th ranking.

    Ma believes China's NGOs should build credibility on reason and hard evidence. "When they (NGOs) were born in the early 1990s, they made great contributions by letting their environmental voice heard, regardless of being emotional or not. But when we are entitled to the right to speak with the advancement of China's civil society, we must get down to solid science."

    "I'm here for the long run," Ma says, looking into a sky enveloped by haze.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Environmental activist and journalist, George Monbiot, talks to  Greenpeace China about China and climate change.

Environmental activist and journalist, George Monbiot, talks to Greenpeace China about China and climate change.

Beijing, China — China would be a lot more proactive on climate change if the West stepped up and took their share of the burden, British journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot tells Greenpeace China.

With just over a month to go before key UN talks on climate change at Copenhagen, Greenpeace China invited the outspoken Monbiot to give his opinion on China's role at that summit.

Greenpeace:  For an effective climate change-stopping deal at Copenhagen, what do you believe China needs to commit to?

It must become part of a global system of binding emissions caps. But this needs to be done fairly: it would be quite wrong for China to carry the entire burden of the West's outsourced emissions. When goods are manufactured in China then bought in other countries, I believe that the greenhouse gases produced in their manufacture should be divided equally between the two trading partners. This would be fair and it would help China to commit to a cap on emissions without compromising the development of its people.

Greenpeace: What do you think Beijing is likely to agree to?

Monbiot: I don't have any special knowledge of Chinese policy, but judging by what I have read in the media, it seems that the Chinese government is prepared to negotiate as long as it sees the rich nations carrying their share of the burden.

Greenpeace:  Around 70% of China's energy needs are met by coal-fueled power stations. What can China reasonably be expected to do to reduce this and by how much by say, 2020?

Monbiot: China's coal burning is one of the world's most pressing climate threats. There are three means by which the emissions from these plants might be addressed:

a. An overall reduction in electricity production. This is unlikely to be possible in a country growing as fast as China is.

b. A substitution of energy sources. I know that China is installing a great deal of renewable power capacity. The key question is whether this supplements or substitutes for coal-fired power production. If it merely adds to electricity production without leading to the closure of any coal plants, it will do nothing to address the problem.

c. Carbon capture and storage (CCS). Time is very short. If this is to be part of the solution, it has to happen right away. The question is whether the existing coal-burning plants are able to be retrofitted with capture and storage equipment. If not, is the government prepared to replace them with plants whose emissions can be removed?

[Greenpeace response: CCS is unproven, risky and expensive and investing in it threatens to undermine the range of clean energy solutions which are available right now.]

Greenpeace: What can China do to persuade its growing middle class not to have the same environmentally-damaging aspirations as the West – eg. multi-car ownership, international travel, a house stocked with the latest electronic gadgets?

Monbiot: It's very hard, especially as the West has made no serious moves in this direction. If our governments had demonstrated that they were serious about this, China might be more inclined to follow suit. But we are in a very weak position when it comes to lecturing other countries about how much they should consume. If the Chinese people do achieve a level of resource consumption similar to ours, however, many of the world's natural systems will collapse. The impacts on the climate and natural resources will be much greater than they are today.

Greenpeace:  What should the industrialised world reasonably be expected to offer China to help reduce its greenhouse gas emissions growth?

Monbiot: First we must offer to meet China halfway on outsourced emissions. Then we should start to discuss measures to compensate China for development foregone.

China's Water Needs Create Opportunities

The Qinghe Wastewater Plant in Beijing. China's water shortage, especially in the northern part of the country, is driving a need for wastewater recycling.

MONTREAL — The staggering economic growth in China has come at a heavy cost, paid in severe contamination of the country's air, soil and water. But now the Chinese government is aggressively pursuing more stringent environmental regulation, with a particular focus on water distribution and wastewater treatment.

Recent stimulus spending has opened up the Chinese market to green initiatives. And Canadian companies are responding to the call for advanced water treatment and reuse technology.

"It's not well known that China has set aside more money for the adoption of clean technologies than any other country on the planet," said Dallas Kachan, managing director of Cleantech Group in San Francisco, which tracks global investment in clean technologies.

The Chinese economic stimulus package of 4 trillion yuan, or $585 billion, announced a year ago, focused nearly 40 percent of its spending on environmental and energy-efficient projects.

The climate change meeting in Copenhagen in December is likely to prompt policy shifts that further drive the market for clean technologies in China, Mr. Kachan said. "This is possibly the best time to be doing business in China as a clean-tech company," he said. "It's important to get in now and form relationships."

Since 2006, the clean technology market in China has "gone from niche to mainstream," and it is growing at an annual rate of more than 20 percent, according to Tsing Capital, one of the country's first clean-technology venture capital firms.

Canada has a strong track record for innovation and investment in clean water technology and already has a foot in the Chinese market. "Canadian companies like Zenon Environmental that are world leaders in ultraviolet technology have benefited a lot of the emerging companies looking to enter China," said David Henderson, managing director of XPV Capital, a Toronto-based investor in emerging water industry companies.

Alan McMillan is managing director of Omazo Ventures, a technology incubator firm also based in Toronto, and chairman of BX Jishu, a Chinese clean-technology distributor. Omazo, through BX Jishu, distributes in China equipment manufactured by UV Pure Technologies, also of Toronto, that purifies water using ultraviolet light.

This summer, Omazo struck a deal with a Shanghai-based hotel chain to supply 1,000 Chinese hotels with UV Pure's purification units. Omazo declined to name the buyer but said that on average, each unit would cost $2,000 and hotels would typically need 2 to 10 units, depending on their size.

Omazo is focused on the commercial property market — and specifically, on bringing clean water to China's burgeoning hospitality industry. "That's our penetration strategy," Mr. McMillan said. "We see the hotel industry as being one of the first to demand clean water. Hotels have extreme water needs for their pools, restaurants, showers. And the people who stay in them have high expectations."

The trade service division of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce recently announced a plan to build 10,000 green hotels by the year 2012 — hotels that will need to be outfitted with the latest in water treatment technology. In 2007, China raised its national standards for drinking water and established an inspection network to monitor water quality. The Health Ministry added 71 benchmarks to the 35 already required under previous standards. But water sources are still considered unreliable, and boiling water in hotels for drinking continues to be the norm.

UV Pure specializes in systems for institutions like hotels, schools and hospitals. Conventional ultraviolet systems tend to foul up when treating water in China because of high mineral content, and typically require costly water softeners. UV Pure's technology features a self-cleaning mechanism, which according to the manufacturer allows it to operate effectively even in exceptionally hard water.

"There's no question that opportunities abound for clean-tech companies in China," said Rick VanSant, UV Pure's chief executive. "The Canadian government has done an excellent job in pursuing an improved relationship with China. And Canada has been a relative hotbed for the development of leading environmental technologies, particularly with respect to water disinfection and wastewater treatment technology."

Trojan Technologies, a company based in London, Ontario, which was acquired five years ago by Danaher, a diversified U.S. engineering company, is another that has sold ultraviolet disinfection technology to China — in its case to hundreds of municipal wastewater treatment plants located mostly along the fast-developing coast.

Sales have been helped by a revision in government regulations on wastewater disinfection — based partly on Trojan's input — to allow ultraviolet treatment as an alternative to chlorination.

"The new regulation and the Chinese government's most recent five-year plan, which identifies building infrastructure to collect sewage and treat it as one of its main priorities for first-tier cities, dovetailed to create a market opportunity," said Marvin DeVries, Trojan's chief executive. "It was an opportunity that we were, and still are, anxious to participate it in."

The company also supplies, through local Chinese distributors, ultraviolet water treatment systems in industrial markets and products designed to disinfect water in private homes. At present, its initiatives in China are moving forward much ahead of schedule. "In no other geography have we found stimulus funding translate into orders and deliveries as quickly as we have in China," Mr. DeVries said.

"As a Canadian company, we were never under any allusions that the Canadian market would be big enough for us," he said. "Right from the outset we adopted an export mentality." But Trojan's acquisition by Danaher in 2004 was a crucial factor helping its entry to China and similar markets, he added. Using Danaher's existing sales organization in the country, Trojan was able to leverage its experience and infrastructure almost immediately.

Zenon Environmental is another instance of Canadian innovation in clean technology being marketed globally by a prominent multinational. The company, based in Oakville, Ontario, had already begun to distribute its water filtration membranes in China before being acquired by General Electric's water and process technologies division in 2006, but the acquisition enhanced the Canadian treatment technology's scale and reach in the market.

The membrane bioreactor technology was used at the Beijing Olympics, where G.E. treated all of the wastewater from the Olympic Village for reuse and irrigation.

In November, G.E. opened an expanded manufacturing and assembling plant in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, to complement its research and development center in Shanghai. Also in Wuxi, the Meicun wastewater treatment plant employs the company's membrane technology to treat water that is discharged into Lake Tai, the country's third largest lake. A huge algae outbreak in the lake in 2007 made tap water undrinkable for the 2.3 million residents of Wuxi. G.E.'s equipment is being used to protect the city's potable water supply.

China's water shortage, especially in the northern part of the country, is driving a need for wastewater recycling. "Right now, only 30 to 40 percent of the wastewater gets treated in China," said Steve Watzeck, president of engineered systems at G.E. Water. "But we understand that Beijing aims to reuse 100 percent of its wastewater by 2013. Implementing advanced wastewater reuse technologies is key to China's continued industrial growth."

China's capability in clean water technology is still underdeveloped. But the country's solar industry is an example of how quickly it can sprint to the fore. Mr. Kachan of Cleantech Group, points out that Suntech Power, the Chinese company that a year ago became the world's leading maker of crystalline silicon solar modules, did not exist eight years ago.

"Suntech came out of nowhere," Mr. Kachan said. "The same thing could very well happen with clean water technology. China has all the raw ingredients of success, from boundless resources, cheap labor, motivation, governmental and policy support to an entrepreneurial sprit that is driven by a desire to be first."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Tower of Power
By Austin Ramzy Monday, Nov. 02, 2009
A worker prepares for the installation of giant rotor blades atop a wind-turbine tower in China's Gansu province
Big fan
A worker prepares for the installation of giant rotor blades atop a wind-turbine tower in China's Gansu province
Ariana Lindquist / The New York Times / Redux

In China, one doesn't have to look far to see the country's commitment to renewable energy. In cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, rooftops are now covered with solar water heaters. On the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, towering white wind turbines are popping up where only cattle, sheep and herders on horseback once roamed. While coal consumption is expected to climb more than 3% annually for the next two decades, the government has also required that electrical companies add a significant amount of alternative energy to their portfolios. With the global economy languishing, China — which is not only the world's most populous country, but also the most polluted — offers the promise that its green-energy drive can become a major source of demand for international wind and solar companies.

That expectation was given a boost in September when First Solar, the Arizona-based solar-module manufacturing giant, announced that it had landed a deal to build a solar field bigger than Manhattan near the city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia. The project will dwarf the largest solar plants to date, and eventually generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of 3 million Chinese homes. To fulfill the huge demands, First Solar says it's considering building a solar-module manufacturing facility in the city to support the project. While financial details were not released, news of the deal caused First Solar's stock to jump 11% on the day of the announcement. "This major commitment to solar power is a direct result of the progressive energy policies being adopted in China to create a sustainable, long-term market for solar and a low-carbon future for China," First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn said in a statement. (See the 10 green energy ideas.)

China, the world's leading producer of greenhouse gases, is taking an aggressive path to develop alternative sources of energy. Already the world's leading generator of hydropower — a renewable but sometimes controversial power source because of the impact on river ecosystems — China now aims to be the front runner in wind- and solar-power generation. In 2007 the government directed that by next year at least 3% of large power companies' generating capacity should come from renewable sources (excluding hydropower); this target jumps to 8% in 2020. That may not sound like much, but according to a recent study by the China Greentech Initiative, a coalition of Chinese and foreign businesses, NGOs and government organizations, environmental technologies including renewable energy could become a $1 trillion market in China by 2013. In a recent commentary, Pulitzer Prize – winning journalist and author Thomas Friedman wrote that China's decision to go green "is the 21st-century equivalent of the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik."

The fast-growing country's huge appetite for electricity is behind the push. While China's total power capacity will nearly double by 2020, the amount that could come from wind and solar is expected to jump more than fivefold, aided by significant government assistance. Beijing announced in March it will subsidize 50% of costs for certain solar-panel projects, and 70% in remote regions. (See pictures of the new ways to boost energy efficiency.)

But as often happens in China, this potential bonanza could prove to be a mirage for foreign companies. The country's policymakers are nurturing a domestic alternative-energy industry on a massive scale. China is home to more than 100 wind-turbine manufacturers and some 400 solar-panel companies. The country has quickly grown into the world's largest maker of photovoltaic cells. Yet more than 95% of PV cells produced by China in 2008 were exported, indicating the country's output far exceeds domestic demand. Not surprisingly, foreign companies think they are being blocked from the mainland market. The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China has complained China has erected alternative-energy trade barriers, focusing specifically on the treatment of wind-turbine makers. In a position paper released in September the group said, "The use of bidding requirements to bar international [wind-turbine] companies from competing is a cause for grave concern for these players who have all invested heavily in the market to live up to stringent local content requirements."

Paulo Fernando Soares, China chief executive for Indian wind-turbine maker Suzlon Energy, says his company has successfully bid for provincial-level projects, but Suzlon and all other foreign firms have been shut out of national-level wind-base projects in Gansu, Hebei and Inner Mongolia. While the Chinese manufacturers are able to sell turbines cheaper than foreign firms, Soares argues they can't match foreign-made equipment in terms of reliability and overall track record. "The Chinese government has decided that they want to develop wind bases, that they want to promote a local industry and that they want to have local suppliers working in those big wind bases," he says. "Then the Chinese government says the foreign companies are so much more expensive than the local companies. If the turbine price is the only selection criteria, then fine. If you take into account risks and performance and tariffs and everything, I can tell you in most of the cases, if not all of the cases, the international suppliers are more competitive than the local suppliers." (Read "Is China Now the Climate Change Good Guy?")

China's Ministry of Commerce rejected the European chamber's complaints of protectionism, saying the country tries to offer a level playing field for all foreign and domestic businesses. But because China has not signed the World Trade Organization agreement that limits protectionism for government procurement, foreign governments have little recourse. China's National Development and Reform Commission said in June that except in cases where the necessary technology is unavailable domestically, funds from the country's $586 billion stimulus package should buy Chinese-made equipment.

Soares points out that Suzlon has built a factory in Tianjin with more than 900 employees to satisfy Chinese requirements for 70% local parts content in turbines. "They want to promote local industry. But then the question is, What is local?" says Soares. "More than 95% of my employees are Chinese. I'm an investor here, a producer here and pay taxes here. So why is there this difference?" Adding insult to injury, Chinese firms are proving to be tough competitors in markets outside China's borders. In Germany, where government subsidies helped stimulate global solar-panel production, an industry association is investigating claims that Chinese panelmakers are dumping their products. Non-Chinese solar firms complain they are undercut in European and American markets by Chinese companies selling similar products for 30% less than rivals. The dispute has the potential to increase trade frictions between China and the West. Earlier this year, U.S. customs officials ruled that imported solar panels were subject to a duty of 2.5% (panel imports were previously duty-free).

Shi Zhengrong, founder and CEO of Suntech Power, China's biggest solar-panel maker, says his company doesn't sell panels below cost anywhere in the world. And he points to First Solar's Ordos deal as evidence that foreign firms can succeed on the mainland. "As long as companies have a competitive renewable-energy technology and product offering," he says, "there will definitely be opportunities in the Chinese market."

Some overseas firms insist that China is simply repeating an economic development strategy that has propelled the country's rapid progress in many other manufacturing sectors. The country has been able to use the lure of huge potential markets to entice foreign companies to hand over technology and know-how in exchange for lucrative deals, later using that knowledge to produce competitive products cheaper than those of overseas originators. Foreign companies built the generators for the first stage of the massive Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, but the generator contracts required the foreign makers to transfer technology to Chinese partners, who took the lead in later phases of construction. A similar pattern appears to be playing out in alternative energy. Foreign wind-turbine manufacturers held nearly 60% of the Chinese market in 2006. By last year that position was reversed, with Chinese firms taking 74% of new installations, says Jun Ying, chief China representative for the consulting firm New Energy Finance. In fact, the number of Chinese turbine manufacturers has expanded so rapidly that the government, fearing a glut, warned in October that applications for new factories might not be approved.

Given the number of foreign companies that have set up their own facilities in China, the government is unlikely to let them fail completely, says New Energy Finance's Ying. "If they have manufacturing capacity in China, they generate GDP, generate tax revenue, generate employment, I do not see a reason why the Chinese government would let them die," he says. "A parent may like one child more than the other, but at the end of the day I think they will continue to do well and continue to do business in China." With the rest of the global economy still stagnating, life as China's stepchild may be the best some international firms can hope for.