Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Payment for Ecosystem Services in China

When CGS first arrived in China, "payment for ecosystem services" (PES) was a term bandied about by Chinese government officials almost as frequently as "sustainable development." It may be a buzzword, but PES is worthy of some greater attention, not least because China's government appears to take the concept seriously.

PES is basically paying people to exercise stewardship over natural resources that provide economic value. Thus, Shanghai might pay adjacent communities not to sell or build on coastal wetlands to reduce the risk of flooding and storm damage to the city, for example.

As a country with diverse, complex ecosystems that have been imperiled by economic growth, China could use PES as an alternative method of protecting critical environmental resources. Moreover, PES has potential as a poverty-reduction strategy. It should be noted that China has already implemented some PES schemes, such as its Sloping Land Conversion Program, which subsidises grain purchases for farmers who agree to reforest sloping land (thus combatting erosion). A 2006 report entitled "Developing Future Ecosystems Services Payments in China" provides some helpful thoughts on how PES could be usefully implemented in China.

The report discerns three types of rights which are critical for PES: rights to resources (possessed by the seller of ecosystem services), rights to access ecosystem services (which are purchased from the possessor by the buyer), and rights to buy and sell ecosystem services, which are possessed by both parties (p. 25). As the report notes, if such a framework is to be implemented in China, the uncertain legal character of rural land tenure will need to be resolved (p. 64).

Moreover, the report notes, land management is the currently the responsibility of four different ministries; some coordination or consolidation would be useful. Covering local implementation costs in PES project budgets is essential to actual implementation (p. 58). Finally, starting by expanding watershed rights systems would be useful because such systems are typically easiest to implement.

It's welcome, then, that the Chinese government is co-financing, with the Asian Development Bank, a technical assistance study which aims to develop national guidelines for eco-system compensation in river basins. The study, begun in 2008, aims to develop guidelines to identify the rights and responsibilities of various stakeholders, monitoring and evaluation, and changes to tax systems. If successful, the report will do much to encourage the development of PES in China.

However, one of the recommendations in Developing Future Ecosystems Services Payments in China, clarifying land tenure, deserves further mention. Rural land tenure rights, though supposedly set in law, in fact vary by locality. Efforts to change the situation often run into difficulties, as the government's recent attempts at rural land reform indicate.

is often interested in the political and social dimensions of environmental change, and here is a good example of how macro-political structures impede environmental protection. Land tenure is tricky in China because of the history of Communist policies, concern for rural opinion, and the priorities of local government. It won't be easy to hack through this thicket of political and social interests, but for the sake of PES in China, let's hope it can be done.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The politics of national climate legislation

In a recent post, CGS touched on the political difficulties confronting national climate legislation. Following the most recent round of European Union (EU) negotiations on its cap-and-trade scheme, new insights into these difficulties are worthy of comment.

The Economist reports that, in contrast to earlier proposals to auction off all emissions permits,
With recessionary winds swirling, the summit agreed big concessions to countries that worried about spiralling electricity bills for consumers, or job losses through “carbon leakage”: jargon for factory owners shutting up shop and relocating to parts of the world that do not penalise greenhouse gases. A new clause allows the EU’s poorest, most coal-dependent countries to receive up to 70% of their allowances for industrial carbon emissions free initially.

Eventually, all permits will have to be bought via auctioning, generally viewed as the fairest and most effective way to allocate permits initially. In the meantime, however, it's clear that political negotiations have gotten the better of ecological imperatives. Indeed, the outcome of the EU negotiations even betrayed a notable degree of cynicism, including the stipulation that "if other big polluters do not sign up to binding curbs at Copenhagen next year, heavy industrial sectors vulnerable to foreign competition would receive up to 100% of their allowances free—but only if they meet 'benchmarks' for using the cleanest available technology" (from The Economist).

Frighteningly, the EU can still lay claim to the most robust emissions reduction framework in the world. The outcome of these latest negotiations may represent a reasonable political compromise, but they fail to acknowledge the ecological imperatives of accelerating climate change. This all bodes ill for America's forthcoming efforts to create a domestic cap-and-trade system; all signs are that the American political environment is less climate-friendly than its European counterpart.

As for China, the watering-down of the EU's cap and trade system is likely to reduce developed-country leverage in the near-term. The consequence may be that big developing nations will be less likely to take on emissions-reduction commitments. As The Economist reports elsewhere, the lack of rigor in developed-country cap and trade systems "will make it harder to resist China and India when they seek transfers of money in the name of 'solidarity'”.

Back to the drawing board, and perhaps the sub-national level?

Charles McElwee on recent post "Environmental Enforcement in China"

Charles McElwee, one of the foremost authorities on Chinese environmental law and policy, and author of China Environmental Law, attempted to leave a comment on CGS's recent post, "Environmental Enforcement in China," but was prevented from doing so by a technical error. It makes an excellent point, and is reprinted below:

I would add one item to your list of "what's to be done?" recommendations--permit citizen suits in China (I can't remember whether this was one of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] recommendations). Citizen suit provisions allow private citizens to enforce environmental laws (sue for penalties, for instance) where the primary enforcement authority has failed to do so. Thus, they fit in nicely with your theme of "citizen participation." As a practical matter, NGO's will probably need to fund and support most of these actions, but that seems doable.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Environmental Enforcement in China

So far, CGS hasn't commented on environmental enforcement in China, and as China celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of reform and opening, it is high time to do so.

It's common wisdom that while the Ministry of Environmental Protection (
MEP) takes enforcement of environmental regulations quite seriously, local agencies often fail in implementing them. This common wisdom is well-founded, but also tends to obscure the potential for cooperation to enhance the effectiveness of environmental regulation. In this post, CGS strives to present a more balanced view of environmental enforcement in China.

The Good:

A report from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning noted that in 2004, "China's legal framework for environmental management include[d] 9 laws on environmental protection, 24 laws on natural resources management and environmental related provisions, 34 administrative rules and regulations and some 427 standards for environmental protection." The central government, according to the report, uses a variety of environmental quality metrics to assess local government performance on air and water quality, as well as waste management. Moreover, some legislation, such as the National Renewable Energy Promotion Law, is quite progressive. Article 6 of the Law states that
"The Government lists the development of utilization of renewable energy as the preferential area for energy development." Washington,for one, has so far failed to express any such preference, either in spirit or in law.

One event last year further illustrates the innovative approaches that MEP sometimes adopts to environmental regulation and enforcement. According to an article on the government-run Xinhua news website, MEP in 2007 launched an initiative to persuade banks to bar lending to companies proven to have violated environmental regulations. This "green credit policy" was said to have resulted in the denial of loans to 12 violators, and the withdrawal of some 1 billion RMB in loans already granted to malfeasant debitors. For these unfortunates, environmental enforcement was no slap on the wrist.

The Bad:

Now, the other side of the story: the article went on to quote Pan Yue, now Vice-Minister of MEP, as saying that

"Many of the high-energy consuming and polluting industries are at the same time the most lucrative industries in some areas, and some local governments refuse to order to cut off loans. Moreover, a number of these companies are turning from banks to social groups for financing, which is not within the jurisdiction of our policy."

The green credit policy, then, nicely illustrates both what is promising and lacking about environmental regulation in China. The "governance gap" between the center and local environmental protection bureaus often leave regulations lightly enforced, or suboordinated to economic development priorities. The root causes of this governance gap, which concern corruption and the political power structure in China, are beyond the immediate remit of CGS. Suffice it to say, the center faces great difficulties in implementing and enforcing its environmental policy, no matter how well-conceived or intentioned. A 2006 OECD report perhaps puts it best:

China's environmental policy suffers from "a lack of coherence among environmental regulations, conflicting interests at different levels of the administration, and insufficient technical capacity and resources available to environmental institutions to carry out their duties. The general policy framework favouring development over the environment compromises the work of enforcement bodies at the subnational level and results in widespread non-compliance with environmental requirements."

A poignant example of this incoherence was provided in Charles McElwee's post on "A New Environmental Enforcement Unit?": the penalty under Chinese criminal law for "
causing a serious environmental pollution accident which leads to the serious consequences of heavy losses of public or private property or personal injuries" is the same as for "desecration of national symbols." Not to disrespect China's national symbols, but to equate the (hypothetical...) actions of a drunken graffiti artist with one who discharges radioactive materials into the water supply?

The Future:

So, what's to be done? The OECD report proposes a number of excellent recommendations, including increasing the size of the relatively tiny MEP, but CGS would like to focus on the last of them:

Promoting public participation in environmental decision-making should continue to be one of the key objectives of the state and local environmental authorities. By enhancing environmental awareness, encouraging environmental associations and providing training, the public can become an active implementation agent. Studying mechanisms for public participation in OECD countries can help to adapt the best approaches to the Chinese context.
CGS has noted before the apparent willingness of the Chinese government to enhance public participation in environmental enforcement- a rare opportunity, it asserts, to strengthen civil society without provoking Beijing's distrust. Moreover, it's cheap and relatively easy to do so. An Asian Development Bank report entitled "Growth and Environmental Regulation: reports on international experiences and their importance for Chinese regulation" provides a number of promising suggestions for enhancing citizen participation in environmental enforcement.

First, replicating the US Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) would provide citizens with a means to reliably track hazardous materials discharge in their communities (p. 51). Second, creating the post of "environmental omsbudsman" would present a less politically-charged channel for citizens to bring environmental grievenences to the attention of local officials (p. 129). Third, financing the use of inexpensive environmental monitoring equipment by citizens' groups (called "bucket brigades" in America) can help to supplement the monitoring capabilities of local officials.

All of these initiatives attempt "secondary enforcement": ensuring that primary, national-level policy is implemented and enforced on the local level. It's important to be clear that secondary enforcement is no substitute for a coherent national environmental policy, or indeed for a robust rule of law system. The Growth and Environmental Regulation report notes, for example, that perhaps the most effective secondary enforcement mechanism possessed by the US Environmental Protection Administration (US EPA) is its ability to withold federal highway funding from any state which fails to comply with national environmental regulations (p. 126). Nonetheless, focusing on participatory secondary enforcement has the advantage of being less dependent on systemic reform, and hence less likely to antagonize Beijing.

In closing, it's worth noting that although these recommendations target citizen participation in China, they offer opportunities for international cooperation. Replicating the TRI would be best facilitated by technical cooperation between the US EPA and MEP, while the establishment of environmental ombsbudsmen and bucket brigades would be a worthy goal of NGOs like Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace. The ultimate message, then, will be familiar to CGS regulars: China's environment is in peril, but there are plenty of opportunities for foreigners to aid in its rescue.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Report from China Energy and Environment Summit: Frontiers of US-China Clean Technology Cooperation

CGS last week attended the China Energy and Environment Summit, hosted by, among other agencies, China's National Development and Reform Commission. Although the summit featured several interesting presentations, CGS, as is its wont, will focus on implications for international energy cooperation.

In this vein, the most notable presentation, in CGS's humble opinion, was that of Julio Friedmann, Director of the Carbon Storage Initiative at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). Mr. Friedmann began by emphasizing that cooperation should be aimed at making clean technologies cost-competitive; if they are not, Mr. Friedmann stated, the money might well be better spent on vaccines or foreign aid programs. This is a bold, though thoroughly sensible, statement, and one which CGS believes ought to guide priorities in clean technology cooperation.

Carbon Capture and Storage

Mr. Friedmann went on to describe LLNL's work in carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology concept that traps carbon dioxide from a point source before it is emitted into the atmosphere, and prevents it from escaping. Most CCS schemes envision injecting the captured carbon deep underground, into geological formations that will prevent leakage. Such formations are finite, leading Mr. Friedmann to describe them as a "resource, like oil or gold, that can be monetized." Such a characterization may help to persuade developing countries, such as China, invest in CCS projects- for which LLNL is well-positioned to assist. Mr. Friedmann described some cutting-edge work in membrane nanofabrication and dual-use desalinisation to assist in carbon dioxide separation , which could do much to make CCS a cost-effective reality in developing nations.

Wind, etc.

Mr. Friedmann concluded by identifying other fruitful areas for expanded US-China technology cooperation. These include bulk electrical storage, such as better batteries for vehicles, and underground coal gassification, which gassifies coal in situ, both goals Mr. Friedmann suggested be pursued through the public-private Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate.

Mr. Friedmann was most optimistic, however, about the potential for joint wind energy research. Several challenges were highlighted that cooperation would aid in solving, including managing wind intermittency, the need for high-quality modelling tools to proscribe turbine spacing, height, and placement, and the need for wind-forecasting technology with a resolution on the scale of a 1/2 square km grid. Mr. Friedmann also noted some astounding progress in wind power technology, including airborne wind turbines which have generated sustained baseload power from great heights (none are in permanent operation due to safety concerns).

It's worth noting that Mr. Friedmann's emphasis on wind comes on the heels of an important paper by Stanford's Mark Jacobson, which concludes that wind energy is overall the most sustainable raw energy source.

Going Forward

CGS emerged from this and other presentations convinced of the need to ramp up international cooperation on CCS and wind. Sadly, as Mr. Friedmann noted, the delegates to the recent climate negotiations in Poznan specifically excluded CCS from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) program scope. Given the importance of the CDM in financing existing clean technology cooperation, this is a great shame. At least until next year, we may have to look less to the UN, and more to individual governments.

America, as Friedmann has noted elsewhere, leads the world in enhanced oil recovery, a technique akin to CCS. A newly reinvigorated approach to clean technology development and deployment, which hopefully will occur in Steven Chu's Energy Department, should thus incorporate a strong focus on cooperation with China. If Chinese and other developing-country stakeholders and researchers are included as an integral part of wind and CCS research in America, we stand a far better chance of realizing these technologies' potential to help absolve the carbon sins of the developed and developing world.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Some brief words on a carbon tax

In its post on recent developments in Poznan and America, CGS referred several times to a cap-and-trade system for reducing emissions. Such a system, in which an overall limit on emissions is set, and businesses and organizations buy, sell and trade permits to emit, is the preferred option for developed nations to cut carbon. An Emissions Trading System has already been partially implemented in Europe, and the Obama administration has signaled its intention to institute something similar in America.

But CGS would like to put in a plug for a carbon tax. This would simply tax a set amount per ton of carbon. A carbon tax has the benefit of being economically efficient; it directly imposes a cost on those who burn carbon, reflecting its environmental externalities. The extra cost should encourage people to burn less carbon, reducing the economy's overall carbon intensity. It also avoids the complications of a cap and trade system, including how to allocate permits. At least, in theory. Problems remain, including how to set the price of carbon high enough to reflect its actual externalities.

But before someone (probably an American) tells you taxing carbon will never work, or is anti-freedom, note that several countries, including Finland and Sweden, have imposed carbon taxes for over a decade. Descriptions can be found on the website of the Carbon Tax Center, but for now, suffice it to say that these countries have imposed a carbon tax for some time without political revolts, and while retaining very high rankings in global indices of business competitiveness.

Food for thought.

Oceans at the brink of collapse

In CGS's humble opinion, everyone should have a look at this recent The New York Times editorial on the dire state of our oceans. The editorial essentially describes the increasing acidification of the oceans as they absorb more and more carbon dioxide (in fact, were it not for the carbon sequestration capacity of the oceans, we'd almost certainly be heading for a scortching-hot world). In more acidic waters, the shells of marine animals simply dissolve, and corals stop growing.

The net result, needless to say, would be an ecological catastrophe. So here's one more reason, if you needed one, to take your own greenhouse gas emissions, and those of whatever country you happen to live in, very, very seriously.

Glimmers of hope from Poznan and Beyond

Global climate talks at Poznan finished today, and along with developments in America, bring us glimmers of hope here at CGS.

Mexico pledges to reduce emissions

Expectations for the Poznan talks were modest, and some of the outcomes, such as unfreezing climate change adaptation funds for developing countries, were underwhelming. But one development has great implications: Mexico's pledge to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050. As reported by Britain's Guardian newspaper, Mexico's pledge is one of the first by a developing country, and is meant to encourage others to make similar commitments.

Such commitments, made in good faith by developing countries, are a crucial part of breaking the climate deadlock (see previous post). This is not to underestimate the challenges that still face a new global climate treaty. Europe, once in the vanguard, has significantly weakened its emissions cap-and-trade system. Mexico's pledge, moreover, is contingent upon assistance from developed countries, meaning that the familiar bickering over who should pay for what will be amplified.

Nonetheless, this is real progress. For the first time, a large, important developing country (and a major oil producer, at that) has made a firm commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. If a few other middle-income countries follow suit, political lobbies in Europe and America can no longer accuse the developing world of refusing to share the pain of reducing global emissions. The UNFCCC's leadership, including the able Yvo de Boer, should focus their efforts over the next year on getting other developing countries to adopt such commitments.

North America takes the lead

Mexico's northern neighbor, meanwhile, took two important steps towards regaining the position of climate leadership it has forsaken for the past decade. President-elect Obama appointed Carol Browner, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, as his "climate czarina" in charge of coordinating the Administration's efforts in the climate and energy fields. Moreover, the State of California issued America's first comprehensive plan for reducing emissions. These are two very heartening signs that the United States will actually take on the "greatest challenge ever faced."

These, by the way, are Ms. Browner's words. While CGS might have preferred Al Gore, it is ecstatic that President-elect Obama has created a high-level post for energy and climate, which is of crucial importance for pushing an ambitious emissions reduction effort through the Congress and the federal bureaucracy (see previous post). Moreover, Ms. Browner really is an excellent choice. She knows how Washington works, and most importantly, she knows the scale of the climate problem. Her appointment will do much to show the world America is serious about tackling climate change. Bravo, Mr. Obama, you warm our hearts.

California, meanwhile, is characteristically at the forefront of innovation- in this case, a framework for ambitious emissions reductions. Importantly, the state has decided to auction all of the emissions permits under its cap-and-trade scheme, rather than to issue some of them for free, or for fixed sums. This is a pitfall that nearly ruined Europe's first attempt at an Emissions Trading Scheme. Further worthy of note is the allocation of emissions reductions by "wedge": toughened auto emissions reductions (yet to receive federal approval, due to Bush Administration obstructionism), increases in energy efficiency, and an expanded portfolio of renewable energy sources.

Wither China?

These developments partially eliminate two of the factors that underpin the Chinese government's unwillingness to commit to emissions reductions: a unified developing-country bloc that resists such commitments, and America's shameful intransigence on climate issues. Beijing is hence more vulnerable to international pressure to take on such emissions reduction commitments itself. But still not all that vulnerable: China retains great leverage, and in an age of global financial crisis, appeals to economic interest will fall on receptive ears. Moreover, as CGS has often noted, its protests that the West is responsible for most historical global emissions are valid.

So it's all the more urgent to develop a concrete framework for sharing the economic burden of global emissions reduction. The West should enhance its technology transfer and technical assistance initiatives, while China needs to take on some form of emissions reduction commitments. These could be confined to certain sectors or political jurisdictions (only the more developed urban areas, for example), but ecologically speaking, China can't be given a free ride.

That's the work the world has cut out for it over the next few years. But we go about the task with spirits lifted, and faith restored by seeing what visionary leadership can accomplish.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Poznan: Just bubbling with enthusiasm...

Not really. CGS was just searching for a witty title for this post about the potential for geothermal energy. Just as the global climate negotiations at Poznan looked to a dreary rehash of climate cliches (think of your children, cruel world!), the UN Environment Program announced new findings that indicate a minimum of 7000 megawatts of energy could be produced by tapping geothermal sources in Africa's Great Rift Valley. That's almost as much geothermal energy as the entire globe produces at the moment, according to the US National Renewable Energy Laborotory. Call East Africa "the Saudi Arabia of geothermal."

This geothermal capacity represents exciting sustainable-development potential for East Africa. Geothermal electricity plants are typically zero- or ultra-low emission facilities, though the technologies employed are not as mature as those used in fossil-combustion plants. The US Government is aiding a number of countries in assessing and developing geothermal resources, but it's fair to say that the vast majority of the world's geothermal potential remains untapped. China, for instance, generates about the same amount as the United States- some 2500 MW annually, but newer technologies being developed by the US Department of Energy promise to tap far greater heat resources.

It's uncertain how cost-effective expanded geothermal projects will be, particularly given the recent collapse of oil prices. But regardless, the East African find gives the sustainable development community a rare opportunity to cheer the potential for linking economic development and climate sustainability. Let's hope the US government continues to build on its efforts to diffuse and deploy geothermal in promising areas of the world- which seem to be growing more numerous.

Co-Benefits for Air Quality and Climate: a little more to the story

Geoff over at China Green Buildings made an excellent point regarding CGS's recent "Air Quality in Beijing: Progress and Prospects" post. Geoff, in a great post on the Asian Brown Cloud, noted that according to the UN Environment Program, Asian Brown Cloud phenomena likely offset a rise in global temperatures as a result of greenhouse gas emissions by 20-80%. Working too hard to reduce air pollution might actually have substantial implications for the rate of global temperature increase. The message, I suppose, is that a co-benefits approach can't be pursued in isolation: the end goal still must be concrete, measurable, and verifiable reductions in the global GHG emissions budget.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New US-China EcoPartnership Initiative

China Greenspace is all about international environmental cooperation. So it's quite excited about the recent establishment of the EcoPartnership initiative as part of the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED).

The SED, just to back up a bit, is a sustained series of high-level meetings between Chinese and American officials "for addressing issues of mutual concern." One major component of the Dialogue concerns Energy and Environment; in June 2008 the two countries announced a "Ten-Year Energy and Environment Framework" through which they intend to "address the challenges of environmental sustainability, climate change, and energy security." So again, right up our alley here at CGS.

The EcoPartnerships were announced at the recent (December 4, 2008) SED ministerial conference in Beijing. EcoPartnerships are intended to link sub-national actors, including local governments, research institutions, and enterprises together to work on specific issues of common environmental concern. The EcoPartnerships framework stipulates that partnerships "may have as their objective the promotion of policy innovation, educational initiatives, technology transfer on appropriate terms, information dissemination."

The EcoPartnerships website, for example, announced that the city of Detroit and Ford Motor Company will work with Chang'an city and auto company to "focus on implementation of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles." Even cooler, New Orleans' Tulane University will partner with Shanghai's East China Normal University to "develop a global model for the sustainability of coastal cities, focused on restoration, conservation and enhancement of environmentally sensitive wetland areas." Bravo. In fact, CGS can't help but gloat that it suggested this very kind of coastal partnership a couple months ago.

But will they actually accomplish anything? Our friend Charles McElwee at Chinese Environmental Law Blog calls the EcoPartnerships a "boondoggle." He's right that "the US-China energy/environmental cooperation space is already jam packed with initiatives and organizations driven by the private sector and NGO’s." And I say, the more the merrier.

It's true that such low-level cooperation is no substitute for high-level agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting sustainable development. But it's also likely that sub-national partnerships can prepare the ground for the Holy Grail, a US-China agreement on reducing emissions. In a previous post CGS argued, following the featured book Can Asia Change the Game?, that cities in developing countries can help to break the climate deadlock by providing some policy entrepreneurship in reducing emissions. There's no reason, for example, why Shanghai and Los Angeles shouldn't be working together to reduce emissions and improve air quality simultaneously, even while Beijing and Washington dicker over emissions targets. The former pair are both affluent, cosmopolitan places where transportation and industrial emissions impose serious economics and aesthetic costs. Cooperation between each city's renowned universities can only bring benefits to both.

So the basic proposition here is that sub-national cooperation on environmental issues can help subvert national-level intransigence. It's a thankless, herculean task to negotiate a bilateral (let alone global) agreement on greenhouse gas emissions reduction. But for Shanghai and LA, for example, to do the same would in all likelihood be a lot easier.

It remains unclear how effective EcoPartnerships will be, and they probably won't result in sub-national agreements to reduce emissions. But they are almost certain to represent value added, and CGS, for one, is happy even in such a crowded "cooperation space" to see the SED promoting Eco-Partnerships. Now if the rest of the government (and economy) would only start thinking this way, we might really be getting somewhere.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Air Quality in Beijing- Progress and Prospects

During CGS's recent trip back to the States, many people asked about air quality in Beijing, given the government's herculean efforts during the Olympics to improve it. Despite CGS's affiliation to a research group at Beida that specializes in air pollution control, it's not something CGS knows a great deal about. So a recent post from our friend at LiveFromBeijing, David Vance Wagner, provides some welcome quantitative rigor to CGS's bumbling answer, "well, the sky sure looks a lot bluer..."

Vance's data shows that

Although the air quality since 9/21 hasn't been as good as it was during the Olympic period, the average particulate matter concentration in the air this fall has been over 20% lower than the same time period last year and almost 40% lower than the same time period two years ago.
Jiayou, Beijing. Vance notes that PM10 concentrations in our favorite northern Chinese megacity, which are particularly important for environmental health, are still above those recommended by the World Health Organization, but hey, progress is progress.

Speaking of which, we need some serious progress on those climate negotiations in Poznan. Last week CGS wrote about the need to block the climate deadlock. The recent book CGS referenced, Can Asia Change the Game?, intelligently emphasizes the need for climate negotiations to focus on co-benefits for developing countries between fighting air pollution and climate change with policy measures that do both.

Air pollution is a more concrete and (in political terms) more pressing environmental issue than climate change for many developing nations. Its impact on human health is established and direct, and air pollution impacts the denizens of large developing cities in innumerable, very visible ways.

A co-benefits approach that emphasizes measures to reduce both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions would focus on reducing trips by private autos, favoring the use of mass transit, bicycles, and even walking. It would also focus on the adoption of sustainable construction practices (this is where our man Geoff at China Green Buildings comes in), and a shift away from fossil fuel combustion in electricity generation.

The co-benefits approach stands a good chance of gaining traction with developing nations eager to please domestic constituencies (and let's face it, they all are) by focusing not just on the abstract notion of "climate change," but also environmental problems that more directly impact everyday life. We just want to avoid an American-style political sleight of hand where politicians stand in front of some mountain range declaring that the air is clean and then fly away in a jumbo jet.

Intellectual Property Rights and Clean Technology in China

In a previous post, China Greenspace (CGS) made the case that weak protections for intellectual property rights (IPR) would imperil the transfer of clean technology to China. If a series of articles by Ian Harvey of the UK Intellectual Property Institute is correct, CGS may have been way off the mark, and that such perceptions are incorrect.

Harvey argues that, contrary to popular belief, IPR protection is impressively strong in China. He cites the statistic that 90% of suits by foreign patent holders against Chinese entities for IPR violations are successful, versus 35% in the United States.

It's unclear to CGS whether the rigor Harvey identifies in China's IPR protection scheme applies equally to more pedestrian technologies as well as to cutting-edge technology that will be necessary to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, Harvey's articles provides much food for thought, and an impetus for CGS to humbly re-think its earlier assertions.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Talks Begin in Poznan; Can Asia Change the Game?

After several weeks of inactivity, due to a short trip to the US, China Greenspace is back, spurred on by the opening of the 14th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Poznan, Poland. The Conference is arguably the most important event in the annual international climate policy calendar, particularly since the Parties are trying to fashion a new global climate deal by next year's Conference in Copenhagen.

China Greenspace has previously expressed scepticism that developing nations, led by China, would offer any major concessions, a predicament that threatens progress on a global deal. This sadly appears to be the consensus, as Green Leap Forward reports.

The deadlock, needless to say, must be broken, and quickly. This past week, China Greenspace paid a visit to Hong Kong's Civic Exchange, a think tank which has just released a new book, entitled Climate Change Negotiations: Can Asia Change the Game?, that examines the role of Asian nations in making possible an effective global climate change treaty.

The book offers a fairly comprehensive framework for breaking the climate deadlock, including recommending that mitigation initiatives in Asian countries focus on those with "co-benefits" for economic development and air pollution control, emphasizing forest preservation and land use management, and the framing of current climate negotiations as a "development round" that aims to integrate climate sustainability and economic development goals. All of this aims at getting past a basic predicament: America, and to a lesser extent Europe, argues it's pointless to act on climate unless big developing-country emitters like China also commit to reducing emissions, while these same developing nations accuse the rich world of causing the vast majority of global emissions (true).

Apart from these, two suggestions in particular struck China Greenspace. First was the suggestion that mitigation efforts target more developed Asian cities and regions where capacity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is greater, and the relative costs are lower. This approach has much to recommend it, particularly since political will to take concrete steps to reduce emissions appears to be significantly higher at the local than the national level. Second, the book offered Japan's energy efficiency efforts as being worthy of emulation by other Asian nations. This suggestion, and associated efforts by Japan's government to launch an "Eco-Action Partnership for Asia," is compelling, to which China Greenspace intends to devote some serious future attention.

In the meantime, CGS feels compelled to reiterate its fundamental contention that the most important impediment to a global climate deal remains American intransigence. Word from the incoming Obama Administration is encouraging regarding its commitment to environmental issues, but diplomatic leadership will be crucial. Unfortunately, it looks like most of America's foreign policy attention will be focused on Iraq/Afghanistan and the financial crisis. CGS humbly submits that President-elect Obama should round out his impeccable Cabinet choices with the appointment of a Cabinet-level climate and climate envoy, preferably of Al Gore stature.

Asian commitment to the climate negotiation process will be crucial, but, for better or worse, everyone still awaits word from Washington on this one.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

China's Environmental Regionalism

Last Thursday, Beijing played host to the 4th Regional Air Quality Management Conference, a joint initiative of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the US Environmental Protection Agency. CGS was in attendance for the first day of a conference that, true to its name, emphasized the necessity of regional approaches in combating air pollution. This seems pretty straightforward: air pollution doesn't respect municipal boundaries, so in major metropolises it is usually a multi-jurisdictional concern. But in China, discussions about environmental regionalism serve to highlight continuing gaps in the country's environmental governance structure, and so are worthy of our further attention.

American experts highlighted the trend in US air pollution control policy towards increasing regionalism. Art Williams, a consultant with the Regulatory Assistance Project, noted the growth in Regional Planning Organizations as a result of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which serve as an important forum for federal-state cooperation. Metropolitan Planning Organizations have a similar function, but focus on urban areas instead of large geographic regions. Nonetheless, these MPOs are important because, according to Williams, they help to focus transportation policy-making and coordination, and because federal transportation spending is tied to sound planning processes by these MPOs. These kinds of regional approaches, American experts agreed, were crucial to successfully reducing air pollution while also expanding regional economies and populations.

China has also given rise to some successful regional air pollution control efforts, most notably in the Pearl River Delta, which includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong Province. A representative of the Guangdong Provincial Environmental Protection Bureau described the creation in 2003 of a regional air pollution management plan, and joint daily air quality monitoring since 2005. In 2008, the "Guangdong-Pearl River Delta Atmospheric Pollution Mitigation Joint Conference" (广东省珠江三角洲大气污染防治联席会议) pledged to develop a regional control scheme for atmospheric pollutants, as well as measurement and verification systems for pollution control. The Bureau outlined a regional strategy based on four pillars, joint policy, research, emissions reduction engineering, and regional mitigation technology. The Conference will remain the primary coordination body, with a subsidiary Office and Research Center, each overseeing policy and research expert networks.

Such structures represent a good start towards genuine environmental regionalism. However, these structures are not as robust as their American counterparts, principally because they lack some of the legislative buttressing. Yan Gang of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning offered a compelling vision of regional air pollution management in the Yangtze Delta region, centered around Shanghai. Gang called for a regional air quality management board, chartered and overseen by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, as well as a regional center for pollution forecasting and policy development, accompanied by a regional monitoring network. Perhaps most boldly, Gang called for a single platform to integrate energy-air quality policy.

This far-reaching vision raises wider questions of what greater environmental regionalism might mean for China. In America, as Mr. Williams pointed out, regional consortia have been used to develop policy leadership in areas such as climate change, where central government action has been perceived as being behind the curve. Environmental regionalism might help to ease policy coordination between the central, provincial, and municipal levels of government, and might make enforcement simpler. It may also help to circumvent the entrenched local political interests which so notoriously undermine environmental policy enforcement throughout China, and may provide a more accessible structure for local stakeholders to access and engage. Perhaps most importantly, however, greater environmental regionalism might create the necessary political space for local policy entrepreneurship. As several of the Conference speakers pointed out, there are three obvious candidates for greater environmental regionalism: Beijing-Tianjin, the Shanghai/Yangtze River Delta area, and the Pearl River Delta. All face more complex environmental challenges than the nation as a whole, including severe air and water pollution combined with a high concentration of greenhouse gas intensive industries. Given both political support and freedom by the central government, consortia in these regions may well develop innovative solutions to their environmental problems.

There are stumbling blocks, to be sure. Regional structures would most likely require significant financing from the central government, and certainly would need to operate with a degree of political cover from the center. Central government agencies would perhaps sense threats to their own power and influence. But it does seem that many of China's most pressing environmental problems would be better addressed by a regional governance structure. US and other foreign assistance in the environmental area could be shifted towards regional actors; EPA might make it a priority, for example, to help establish a Yangtze Delta air pollution control consortium. Regardless, CGS came away from the conference convinced that both China and its friends abroad should work to strengthen environmental regionalism throughout the country.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Beijing High-Level Conference on Climate Change, Technology Development, and Technology Transfer

Sponsored by both the Chinese Government and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the High-Level Conference was held this past week in Beijing to "promote international technology development and transfer, as well as the international negotiation process on climate change." Underscoring the importance Beijing attached to the event, the conference opened with remarks from senior Chinese officials, including Premier Wen Jiabao and Zhang Ping, Director of the National Development and Reform Commission. According to Zhang, some 600 delegates (including China Greenspace, which weaseled itself in) from 70 countries attended the conference.

Despite all the hoopla, the conference appeared mostly to buttress Beijing's determination to place technology transfer at the heart of its climate negotiating stance (see previous post). The conference comes at a crucial time, following hard on the heels of China's recent white paper on climate change, and little more than a month before the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change- Conference of the Parties. With this timing in mind, the conference positioned Beijing as a leading voice calling for developed nations to take greater responsibility for reducing global emissions, and for accelerating green technology transfer and development in the developing world.

Premier Wen's opening statement set just such a tone: "Climate change is a global issue, and concerns the prosperity and development of all countries. China's government takes climate change seriously, and always asks responsibly. It has made serious efforts to combat climate change, assigned tasks to all levels of government, and changed patterns of production and consumption towards a more sustainable level." Wen cited a number of statistics regarding China's efforts to green its infrastructure, before emphasizing China's status as a developing country. Noting that China's per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are about 1/3 that of developed nations, Wen then alleged that a large proportion of its emissions come from "subsistence" activities necessary to eliminate poverty, as well as from industrial enterprises transplanted from the West. In a further knock at developed nations, the Premier noted that developed nations established environmental regulations in fits and starts over time, while China faces a "compressed timeline" to do so. Wen did, however, pledge that China would strive to create a "low input, high output" economy.

From the outset, then, the conference made clear that it is up to the West to pay for its past climatological sins by financing technology transfer. NDRC Director Zhang proposed a new framework to do so, based on four parameters:

1) A new, specialized agency, set up under the UN Framework Convention, to speed technology transfer. The agency would work with designated technology development agencies in each country to coordinate technology transfer.

2) A new, specialized financing mechanism through which developed nations would provide "stable and predictable" funding for technology transfer and development.

3) A provision in a new climate agreement to review the implementation of parties on technology transfer and development [CGS: essentially an enforcement/compliance provision]

4) Use of private sector to mobilize and leverage resources for technology transfer.

Belief in the need for such a framework is not limited only to Chinese government officials. Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN's Climate Change Secretariat, stated that a "global green economic transformation is inconceivable without green technology at its heart"; Ricardo Lagos, the UN's current Special Envoy on Climate Change, similarly cited the need to ensure that clean energy technology should be available to all countries.

In the conference itself, a number of crucial issues for clean technology transfer and development emerged. Many developing nations stressed the need for greater government involvement, even as developed nations stressed that private-sector capital has to be used to leverage technology gains. There was consensus that while the diffusion of advanced, clean technologies is an urgent priority for the international community, the ultimate objective must be to strengthen green technology development capacity around the world. Some experts, including Cath Bremner of the UK's Carbon Trust, emphasized that this capacity includes strengthening regulations, business environments, academic research bases, and "cultures" that encourage innovation.

Perhaps the most important technical issue with respect to clean technology transfer and development concerns intellectual property rights (IPR). Strict IPR regulations and concerns in the West present a significant barrier to the diffusion of clean technology One German government official involved in technology transfer noted that German wind power companies do not seven want to sell their latest turbine models in China, for fear that they will be reverse-engineered and copied by Chinese producers. A number of experts proposed that IPR regulations, such as compulsory licensing, be loosened with respect to clean energy technology. A South Korean official, for example, noted that the United States provides IPR exemptions for technologies that contribute substantially to public welfare or national security, and proposed that clean energy be added as a third such category. In the humble opinion of CGS, unresolved IPR considerations will nonetheless continue to discourage companies from innovation and diffusion in the green tech arena.

Technical issues aside, the crucial implications of the conference were with respect to developing country commitments to reduce emissions. The conference's closing statement, which affirmed commitment to the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility," appeared to place the onus on the West to both develop and finance the technology to reduce emissions throughout the world. As CGS has argued previously, this stance imperils a global deal on climate change. A promising, if incomplete, way forward was offered by Harvard's Kelly Gallagher, who proposed a global bargain on technology transfer. Developed nations, Gallagher proposed, would created a Carbon Mitigation Fund to pay for all incremental (marginal) costs of implementing low-carbon technology. In exchange, developing countries who wish to access the fund would adopt "concrete, enforceable" emissions reductions plans.

This is just the kind of bargain that might underpin a global climate deal. It addresses developed countries' responsibility to finance adoption of the newest, greenest technology, while also acknowledging that developing countries will soon account for the majority of the world's emissions. Yet this kind of deal also involves much harsher terms than China, on the basis of this conference, appears prepared to accept. We can only hope that the passage of the next few months, and the appearance of new leaders like Barack Obama, will help to change minds.

In the meantime, the conference suggested some new ways that technology transfer can be enhanced without addressing the big, thorny questions. The final conference report claimed that a 70% reduction in global emissions can be accomplished without IPR issues, primarily by financing adoption of energy efficiency technology in developing nations. Richard Bradley of the International Energy Agency had particularly innovative ideas, for example, for improving the performance of consumer electronics. Additionally, many experts highlighted the importance of human capital in transferring technology. New academic and fellowship exchange programs between developed and developing nations could prove a profitable investment in enhancing this kind of social capital.

As the High-Level Conference concluded, CGS was left with the impression that the upcoming UNFCCC negotiations might be rocky indeed. Here's to hoping that China, and the world, looks beyond technology to the great and overarching challenge we all face to live sustainably and responsibly.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It's time

Full disclosure: the title for this post was shamelessly foisted from that of
The Economist's most recent issue, which endorses Senator Barack Obama for the Presidency of the United States.

It's almost midnight, Beijing time, on Tuesday, November 4. By noon tomorrow, the results of America's epic presidential contest should be known to the world. Most observers have all but declared Senator Obama the victor, and Chinagreenspace (CGS) will assume no differently. So in the gravity of the moment, it's worth enduring a bit of mission creep for CGS to consider the world's future under an Obama Administration.

Four hundred years after the first slave ship landed in America, forty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Americans have chosen a black man to lead them through the tumult of war and recession. For their salvation, they have looked to the son of a Kenyan immigrant, brought up in Indonesia with the middle name of "Hussein." Americans of forty years ago, or of only four, would have shaken their heads in stunned disbelief. But today, they have handed Mr. Obama the keys to the White House.

It's almost a wonder that he still wants them. The junior senator from Illinois will face perhaps the greatest set of political challenges since the Roosevelt Administration, and with one of the thinnest political resumes of any modern president. The one decided advantage Mr. Obama is set to enjoy-- an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress-- could prove to be his Achilles' heel. If he proves incapable of resisting Congressional demands to govern from the political left, Mr. Obama may well lead his party to disaster in the 2010 mid-term elections. Mr. Obama has promised Hope and Change to a desperate nation. If he fails to deliver, the bursting of America's financial bubble may be followed by the popping of a psychological one. Challenges, then, all around.

Barack Obama has defied all expectations to become the next President of the United States. He may face even longer odds to be a good one.

Yet for all the uncertainty, we should be grateful that Mr. Obama will soon take the oath of office. On the eve of the election, Senators Obama and McCain wrote opposing editorials in The Wall Street Journal, each endorsing their own respective candidacies. Senator McCain: "we cannot spend the next four years as we have spent much of the last eight: waiting for our luck to change...We have to fight for it." Senator Obama: "If there's one thing we've learned from this economic crisis, it's that we are all in this together...together, we will change this country and change the world." So there it is: curl up your fist, or lend a hand.

Curling up your fist won't knock out the cancer of terror. It won't cow financial markets into docile submission. And it won't pound the global thermostat back to pre-industrial levels. But with a lot of help from your friends-- and you'll need quite a few-- you just might wipe out the root causes of extremism, jump-start global investment flows, and broker a global agreement to build a sustainable society. And after we've all seen the Twin Towers fall, watched our banks crumble, and felt the planetary temperature rise, that's the best hope we have.

Barack Obama deserves our thanks for giving us that much. But all else is now up to him.

It's time.