Friday, February 27, 2009

CGS on vacation

CGS will be on vacation all next week to attend the "Fulbright Research Forum" in Hong Kong. Please help keep us up to date on important events, reports, etc in the coming days.

Momentum on US-China climate cooperation builds; Tsinghua holds "Overcoming Obstacles to US-China Cooperation on Climate Change" Seminar

Following Secretary of State Clinton's visit to Beijing, Ken Lieberthal, co-author of a landmark Brookings Institution report on US-China climate cooperation, headlined a seminar at Tsinghua University on overcoming obstacles to such cooperation. This post offers a brief re-cap of the seminar, and goes on to note some of the ripple effects of Clinton's visit. In general, it's fair to say there's a lot of momentum in US-China climate cooperation; the challenge will be to sustain it even as both countries plunge further into recession.

Dr. Lieberthal mainly elaborated on one of the report's main findings, that climate cooperation should be seen as central to the US-China relationship. Secretary Clinton, Lieberthal noted, raised the climate issue in almost every meeting she had during her visit to Beijing. Washington should sustain this emphasis, Lieberthal continued, and see bilateral climate cooperation as the motor for global action. US-China climate cooperation should in turn be part of a shift in the bilateral relationship which views China as a strategic partner on a range of global issues, as opposed to merely regional ones like North Korea.

Lieberthal was also emphatic that Chinese leaders should understand that their willingness to offer concrete steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions directly impacts Washington's ability to do the same; the chief opposition argument to US action is that it will make no difference unless China takes similar steps. Such political arguments also obscure real advantages in strengthening US-China climate collaboration. Lieberthal cited in particular the relative advantages of using China for clean technology demonstration projects: in America, a carbon capture and sequestration plant requires a 6-year permitting process; in China, the time period is less than 2 years.

The reactions of Chinese panelists, including former People's Congress leader Cheng Siwei and Tsinghua professor Hu Angang, broadly fit under the "cautious optimism" paradigm (see previous post). Cheng agreed that trust and dialogue is essential, but went on to reiterate the familar talking points regarding historical emissions, China's developing country status, and the "embedded carbon" in making exports for the West (this is clearly a spurious argument; see China Environmental Law on this).

Hu was a bit bolder, noting that "If the US does not succeed [in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions], neither will China." Hu also called climate change an integral consideration for 21-st century economic development policy, and called the creation of a green economy an opportunity for China to "leapfrog" the most carbon-intensive stages of economic growth. The US and China have shared dreams, said Hu, including a "green dream." Perhaps most consequentially, Hu argued that China should see action on climate change as part of its responsibility as a global power and leader in the world.

Such positivity was broadly, if more cautiously, echoed across the Chinese bureaucracy. The deputy chief of China's National Energy Administration told a US-China forum on energy efficiency that "The two countries could further cooperate on a wide range of areas in the development of economic and energy sectors against the background of economic globalization" (see Xinhua). China Daily issued a sunny report on the Tsinghua seminar, before concluding with a cautious quotation from Cheng: "Dialogues on climate change are in the interest of both China and the US, but each side should work out a plan to combat climate change according to different national conditions."

Meanwhile, China's National Statistics Bureau announced that the nation's energy intensity fell 4.59% in 2008, slightly higher than predicted (see Xinhua). While this is a step forward, the number more than anything else indicates the scale of the task confronting US-China climate cooperation. China Environmental Law has an excellent post on this, so CGS will do no more than to conclude by saying we must hope that the Hu-Lieberthal view of climate cooperation as a strategic and central issue is sustained over time. It really is nothing less than a test of both nation's ability to be responsible partners in the international community- in America's case, after eight years of reckless unilateralism, and in China's case, as part of coming to terms with becoming an economic giant.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jiangsu acid leak exposes another hole in China's environmental enforcement apparatus

Coming right on the heels of northern China's severe drought, another environmental disaster has gripped newspaper headlines: "Toxic water scare leaves a sour taste" (see China Daily). Water supply to more than 200,000 residents of Yancheng, Jiangsu province, was disrupted after carbolic acid was found to have contaminated the city's water system. Carbolic acid can damage the central nervous system as well as the kidneys and heart.

Local officials claimed to have inspected the water supply and found nothing amiss, but reports from residents suggest a longer-term pattern of incompetence and denial. According to the article,

Petitions calling for action by the government [to curb water pollution] also went unanswered, said fellow villager Zhou Weixiang, who added: "The factory is said to have contributed a lot to the local tax revenue. We could do nothing about it."

None of this is terribly surprising. Local governments are often blamed for severe lapses in environmental monitoring and enforcement (see previous post). But as one in a string of environmental disasters to hit China in recent months, CGS considers that the Jiangsu incident should persuade Beijing that it is right to be worried about environmental discontent in the Year of the Ox (see previous post).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sino-American green stimulus; or, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Report: "Strengthening US-China Climate Engagement"

The US-based environmental NGO Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has recently released a report on strengthening US-China climate "engagement." The report comes on the heels of similar reports issued by the Brookings Institution and the Asia Society (see previous post), and contains many of the same observations and recommendations. Nonetheless, the report frames US-China climate cooperation in a slightly different way, which deserves further commentary.

More so than the other two reports, NRDC observes that the US and China are taking parallel tracks when it comes to investing a large portion of their respective economic stimulus efforts in green efforts. This is new to both governments, and yet the objective, in terms of creating green jobs and expanding the use of green technologies, is remarkably similar. It only makes sense, then, for Washington and Beijing to coordinate the green components of their stimulus packages. NRDC, for example, recommends the creation of a "green jobs forum" to share lessons learned (p 3). It's a good idea, and in principle there's no reason why there shouldn't be a high-level and wide-ranging discussion between the two governments on what works and what doesn't when it comes to green stimulus. Coordination between the two countries could also lead to synergistic investment in specific, highly promising areas of clean technology research and develelopment.

Of course, economic stimulus is politically charged in both countries, and there's a limit to how willing either government will be in disclosing failures to use public money to good effect. In the United States, Washington may take some hits from the political right for talking to China when many Americans are still hurting from the flight of manufacturing across the Pacific. But high-level consultation and coordination between the American and Chinese green stimulus packages is still worth trying.

The NRDC report also suggests one other intriguing idea. Noting that China often lacks the capacity to accurately report its greenhouse gas emissions, the report recommends that the US offer technical assistance to bolster emissions monitoring capabilities (p 11). CGS is tempted to take this one step further, and argue that the US and China should work towards joint reporting of annual national greenhouse gas emissions.

But wait, you may say. Beijing would never go for that, and statistic ambiguity is a time-tested instrument in the government's toolkit. True. But think of the benefits: joint reporting would necessarily bind US and Chinese emissions reductions efforts together. Moreover, it's hard to think of a better way to build mutual trust in the climate arena than to commit to joint, transparent reporting. Finally, joint monitoring could help to bolster emissions data collection and monitoring in both countries, and enhance climate science cooperation.

A coordinated stimulus and joint monitoring are medium-term objectives. In the meantime, several initial steps are of greater importance (see previous post). But in the face of climate change, it's necessary to think boldly and strategically. In this vein, the NRDC report provides some enticing new food for thought.

Approval of foreign investment in China to be linked to environmental index

In a notable step, China's Commerce Ministry announced late last week that approval of "foreign-funded enterprises" will now be based in part on an "environmental protection index" and a "land-use intensity index." According to Xinhua, the environmental index "will include capital input in the areas of environmental protection, annual sulfur dioxide emission and chemical oxygen demand." The land-use intensity index, meanwhile, "will include gross fixed-asset investment and the total area of land used, as well as a breakdown of how that land is used -- for example, for buildings, residential facilities or 'green' areas."

This new regulation, announced jointly by the Ministry of Commerce (MOC) and the Ministry for Environmental Protection (MEP), requires foreign-funded enterprises to submit assessments on these factors prepared by local environmental protection departments. Again according to Xinhua, the regulation is intended to "tighten scrutiny of energy-intensive and polluting facilities funded by foreign investments."

It's a little hard to read this particular regulation. Broadly, it seems like a promising step, but there are obvious difficulties with ensuring uniform enforcement of the regulation. The fact that local governments will prepare the environmental index assessments does nothing to address the rampant corruption that usually attends foreign investment approval at the local level. Nonetheless, given the level of foreign investment in China, the regulation could have a significant impact in terms of forcing foreign investors to pay more attention to China's environmental regulations. The capital input criterion is a clear reference to China's efforts to create a low-resource-intensity economy. The land-use intensity requirement may also help to reduce tensions in areas where industrial development is eating up valuable farmland. At a deeper level, this regulation, and the coordination between MOC and MEP, seems to bode well for MEP's stature relative to other, more established state ministries.

On two points, the regulation is a little disturbing. Most importantly, it says nothing about greenhouse gas emissions, though this isn't surprising given China's hesitancy to take any action that may disadvantage its own industry. Second, the regulation, in applying only to foreign-funded firms, carries a whiff of green protectionism. CGS would never, of course, argue that such firms are entitled to shirk Chinese environmental regulations, but one would hope that this regulation does not signal any less stringent enforcement of environmental regulations for state-owned enterprises or private domestic firms.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Clinton's Visit

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gets two thumbs up for her handling of the climate issue in Beijing. It's worth taking a little step back to think how far we've come in recent months. Just two months ago, the United States demonstrated its familiar reticence to take a leading role of climate at talks in Poznan (see previous post). But when she arrived in Beijing, Clinton placed the climate issue front and center, telling China "we hope you don't make the same mistakes we made" on climate. She also made a smart move in framing the climate issue as one that threatens the security of both nations, saying "This not a matter of politics or morality or right or wrong,” he said. “It is simply the unforgiving math of accumulating emissions” (see New York Times). Indeed, Clinton even went so far as to participate on a webchat, asking China's 300 million Internet users to "work together for a clean energy future" (see China Daily).

China's response to this welcome overture has been one of cautious optimism. China's Foreign Minister pledged that the economic crisis would not derail the country's greenhouse gas emissions reduction efforts, a welcome sign of confidence in the seriousness of the issue. ""The government's resolve to tackle climate change has not changed, and our actions have not weakened," the Minister said, before pledging that "We are willing to work together with the international community to push the Copenhagen talks forward and make sure they yield a positive result" (see China Daily). Elsewhere, however, China's government sought to emphasize the necessity of technology transfer if climate cooperation is to be enhanced. An official at the Ministry of Science and Technology was quoted as saying "China is glad to see that the US has started to take concrete action [on US-China climate cooperation]. But without funding and technology, cooperation would end up as empty talk" (see China Daily). The official went on to reference Beijing's familiar developing-country argument that it is unable to take on concrete GHG reduction targets (see previous post).

Beijing's hesitancy points towards the next step for a promising re-invigoration of US-China climate cooperation. The US and China must come to an agreement about technology transfer and financing the deployment of GHG mitigation technology. Chinese academic Zhang Haibin writes that "Hostility toward Communism excludes China from receiving official development aid from the United States, which could significantly hasten climate-change-related projects" (see New York Times), while a recent essay by Chinese environmental experts notes that international transfer of clean technologies remains underdeveloped (see China Dialogue).

In sum, then, Clinton's push on climate can be considered a success. The real work, though, lies ahead. As Zhang's statement indicates, Washington must build on its climate overture with a series of confidence-building measures to indicate its seriousness, including adopting binding emissions restrictions itself. It must also put its money where its mouth is on technology transfer- something that, particularly in the midst of economic crisis, is an unmistakable sign of conviction to tackle climate change through Sino-American partnership. Two smaller steps will be crucial to achieving these larger goals. First, China and the US need to reaffirm and expand the dialogue on climate and energy established under the Strategic Economic Dialogue (see previous post). Second, a joint task force should be formed at once to overcome the technical obstacles to technology transfer, most crucially intellectual property rights (see previous post).

As these steps are taken, Washington should also make clear to China that it expects reciprocation. The climate and energy dialogue should state at the outset that the ultimate outcome of US-China climate cooperation must be for China to reduce its GHG emissions by a set amount, within the framework of an equitable global agreement that promotes sustainable economic development. All this lies ahead. But it's nonetheless a huge achievement to be underway on the road towards a genuinely sustainable future.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chinese scientists blame early spring on climate change

China's National Meteorological Center isn't pulling any punches: in a statement released early this week, scientists at the Center blamed global warming for rising temperatures and the early coming of spring. See China Daily (nod to Climate Progress for first pointing this out).

We can only hope this helps spread awareness of the potential ramifications of climate change for China.

Climate Sustainability: Getting from here to there

Climate Progress published an excellent piece on how to ramp up wind, biomass cofiring, and energy efficiency efforts to start reducing US greenhouse gas emissions in the near-term- and without resorting to unproven technologies, nuclear, or clean(er) coal. Well worth a read, and let's hope those designing the US-China climate cooperation architecture take a look as well.

Good news for environmental regionalism in China- and sustainable development in Tibet

One of China Greenspace's favorite causes is environmental regionalism in China (see previous posts on international cooperation and regional environmental protection).

It's good news, then that China's Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) is embarking on its "first large scale river basin enforcement campaign," which will cover the Yangtze and 10 tributaries (see China Environmental Law Blog). This kind of regional approach makes a lot of sense, particularly for watersheds (see previous post on Payment for Ecosystem Services for more on this). But the whole point of regionalism is that it liberates local authorities from central control, so we'll have to see whether MEP's role is more as coordinator or more as autocrat.

In addition, a recent post from China Dialogue offers some nice lessons about community-based sustainable development in Tibet. These lessons are worth a read, especially since they seem relevant to environmental protection in traditional-society contexts elsewhere in the world.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More words on water and climate change

Following yesterday's CGS post on water scarcity and security, Green Leap Forward has produced an excellent report on the primary policy and ecological issues surrounding water scarcity in China. Green Leap Forward also highlights an important paper on the relationship between energy and water resources in sustaining China's economic development. CGS agrees with Green Leap Forward that the paper is worth reading in its entirety, but one conclusion seems particularly striking:

By two orders of magnitude, agriculture has the lowest output per unit of direct water use of any sector in the Chinese economy aside from water production and supply... Allowing water to migrate out of agriculture and into higher value added uses will be a necessary condition for sustaining growth in the Chinese economy. (p 11-12)

Diverting a greater share of China's water resources to non-agricultural uses would have enormous political and social implications. While it may be economically and ecologically sensible, such a move does not mesh well with the current leadership's emphasis on rural issues, nor its concern for rising social discontent. The first, necessary step would appear to be water price reform, but even this tentative step seems politically infeasible at present. Nonetheless, if the climate models referenced in yesterday's post are halfway correct, China will have to face these stark realities.

Speaking of stark realities, a recent post from Climate Progress provides another sobering reminder (if one were needed) of the consequences of continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions. Citing a recent study by Danish scientists, the post reports that

Under the worst scenario, warmer seas and a slowdown of ocean circulation would lower marine oxygen levels, creating “dead zones” that could not support fish, shellfish and other higher forms of marine life — and may not revive for 1,500 to 2,000 years.

Let's just stop to ponder that number for a moment: 2000 years. The scale of the climate change problem never ceases to boggle the mind. But these two posts also provide a sobering reminder of the necessity to get to work.

Monday, February 16, 2009

US-China Environmental Cooperation as a Security Issue

Last week, CGS was summoned to coffee by a friend who works within China's environmental protection bureaucracy. The government, said friend confessed, is very worried about the intersection of the economic crisis, political discontent, and its environmental policy goals. Officials, according to this source, are increasingly concerned both that economic considerations might imperil China's transition to a low-carbon economy (低碳经济), and that public discontent over pollution and other environmental issues may translate into protests or worse.

They should be, and said friend's warning provides an impetus to explain why US-China environmental cooperation should be seen not only as an ecological, energy, or economic issue, but also as one bearing on the most hard-core realist conceptions of security. (Full disclosure: CGS has often described the field of environmental security as a little dubious).

The most obvious segue from China's environmental situation to security is via energy. China is the world's third-largest oil importer (see US Department of Energy Country Brief), with much of it passing along vulnerable sea routes through the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Malacca. China presently lacks the capacity to protect these crucial sea lanes, and thus is vulnerable to disruptions in oil production and transport in South, Southwest, and Southeast Asia. The Brookings Report, referenced in yesterday's post, notes that if China were to expand deployment of renewable and low-carbon energy sources, its energy security would be enhanced, probably also lowering tensions with other major oil consumers such as the United States and India in areas like Africa and Central Asia.

But the most serious security threat to arise from China's environmental situation comes from water scarcity. Most of the major river systems that feed and water China, India, and Southeast Asia depend on meltwater from the Himalayan region. Climate change is endangering this vital source of water for 60% of the human population. Himalayan glaciers, which provide some 70% of the flow of major Asian rivers, are melting at an extremely rapid rate; one study predicts that the Himalayan-Hindu Kush region will "run out of water" during the dry season (Barnett, T.P., et al. “Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions.” Nature. 438 (2005): 303-308).

Recent news reports from the present drought in northern China provide some indication of what might occur should this nightmare scenario transpire: "Highest Level of Emergency for Drought Declared" (see China Daily) and "2/3 of China's cities short of water" (see Renminribao, in Chinese only). The present dought, of course, cannot be conclusively tied to climate change, and is exacerbated by wasteful water use in China's northern regions. But as climate change accelerate, we can expect things to get worse.

The security implications for a China, India, and Southeast Asia short of water are obvious. Besides destabilizing massive and volatile populations, such a situation would interrupt economic growth in the very regions economists agree are central to global recovery. In a time when the head of America's Central Intelligence Agency identified unemployment as the primary threat to American security (see New York Times), it's frightening to contemplate a similar situation compounded by thirst for the majority of the human population.

US-China environmental cooperation, then, isn't just an ecological concern. It's not only good for economic growth or mutual understanding. It's also essential for the security of both nations. Combined, these rationales amount not only to a compelling case for investing heavily in US-China environmental cooperation, but a clear imperative. The world must figure out how to grow sustainably without poisioning its environmental commons, and especially its atmosphere. The United States and China must lead the way, otherwise we will all soon be living nastier, more brutal, and shorter lives- a Hobbesian security threat if ever there were one.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The future of US-China climate cooperation

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will soon arrive in Beijing, with energy and climate to figure high on the agenda (see previous post). Two excellent reports from the Asia Society and the Brookings Institution provide a fine illustration of what should be done as Washington and Beijing begin to take the climate crisis seriously. China Environmental Law Blog provides a thorough commentary on both reports; this post will thus not attempt to summarize, instead making only a few additional comments.

As both reports note, one important driver of US-China energy and climate cooperation is the high proportion of coal in each country's energy mix. Both reports thus single out clean(er) coal technologies as being priority areas for enhanced technology collaboration. In particular, the Asia Society report recommends that the US Department of Energy's FutureGEN program to build an integrated gassification-combined cycle coal demonstration plant in China be accelerated (p 30). This is sensible, but it's important that neither the Chinese nor the American side lose sight of the ultimate goal of transforming the energy infrastructure, rather than simply trying to make coal clean(er). Ultimately, coal is not a sustainable energy source, and as a recent Greenpeace report makes clear, its environmental externalities in China are matched by others in health.

One major emphasis in both reports is on supporting sub-national initiatives, something CGS has consistently championed (see previous post). The Asia Society report notes that in the US, energy efficiency standards have been most effectively implemented at the state and local level; the Brookings report similarly notes the dynamism and vitality of local initiatives to combat climate change. It's clear that the sub-national level should receive substantial attention in an expanded US-China climate cooperation agenda. The Asia Society report further delves into cooperative training, recommending (p 42) that

A cooperative training program for the next generation of interdisciplinary energy
and climate specialists in China and the United States should be promoted to develop
technical expertise and promote mutual understanding.

This is an important idea, and it deserves particular attention. The US government already funds a number of programs designed to accomplish similar goals, including the Fulbright program, which supports this author. Creating a dedicated, Fulbright-like program to encourage US-China collaboration targets money where it's most needed: where scientists and technicians labor at the ground level to create sustainable energy alternatives. Even a small such program can reap massive benefits in terms of human capital enhancements on both sides.

Such a program can also have a small but meaningful impact on another key challenge confronting US-China climate cooperation: mutual distrust. The Brookings report insightfully emphasizes the depth of this mistrust, including the widespread Chinese suspicion that US pressure on climate is part of a strategy to "keep China down." This suspicion is amplified by the related Chinese concern that its economy is being locked into a pollution-intensive, low-value industrial niche from which it will be difficult to escape. Indeed, these insights explain a great deal about the state of US-China climate talks so far, and kudos to Brookings for emphasizing these crucial political contexts.

The Brookings report also provides a helpful insight for conceptualizing the institutional and governance challenges confronting climate issues in China. It's best, says the Brookings report, to think of sociopolitical China as a group of relatively developed urban islands, with a total population of 400 million, scattered amidst a sea of poor agriculturalists who total 800 million. China's leaders struggle to understand the depth of this sea. This conceptualization strikes me as a more subtle, intelligent framework than the "state policy breaks down at the local level" model that typically characterizes Western analytical descriptions of Chinese environmental policy. Even China's leaders, the Brookings report suggests, don't fully understand what's going on, a suggestion that meshes well with observations from the ground here in China.

While the report says relatively little about how to overcome this challenge, it's clear that a lot of attention will have to be given to institutional and political capacity building in US-China climate cooperation. Something that should be emphasized are the benefits that can be gained by giving local jurisdictions leeway to develop their own solutions to environmental problems. As explored in a prior post on China's environmental regionalism, delegating authority and responsibility for environmental protection, rather than ceaselessly trying to tighten the center's grip, may help to work around the capacity problem. The US has a great deal of experience in this kind of "environmental federalism," and could contribute a great deal to developing more autonomous environmental protection institutions in China.

In sum, these two reports are smart and subtle outlines of how the US and China can work together to address the greatest challenge of our time. They are particularly valuable in indicating how framing and context matters: climate and energy cooperation also requites work to diffuse Beijing's mistrust of American intentions. But this commentator for one is sadly skeptical that leaders on both sides will fully grasp the potential and imperative for US-China climate cooperation. One avenue, largely unexplored (though referenced by Brookings) in these two reports, is to frame such cooperation primarily as a security issue. That will be the subject of CGS's next post.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Some brief words on ecological resilience to climate change

In one of the more colorful recent developments in the global climate change debate, New York Times reporter Andy Rivkin reports that the identification of an extinct giant snake has fed a debate over the ecological consequences of warming, particularly in the tropics.

Recently discovered vertebrae fossil remains indicate that the 60 million year old snake, termed "Titanoboa," was more than 40 feet long and weighed over a ton. More importantly, however, this giant thrived in a tropical environment with estimated average annual temperatures of 75-79 degrees, significantly higher than in modern times. This finding has been interpreted by some commentators to suggest that ecosystems are more resilient in the face of significantly higher temperatures than previously thought. In addition, Titanoboa has added to the debate over whether the climate system includes a "tropical thermostat" which helps to regulate temperatures in tropical regions. This second debate has significant implications, because the existence of a functional thermostat may ameliorate warming.

Rivkin's post on this issue is well worth a read, both because it encapsulates an important part of the climate debate, and because it includes a pretty awesome artist's depiction of the terrifying Titanoboa.

Exciting Times for US-China Climate Cooperation

After a New Year holiday, CGS is back in action, energized by several important developments in the field of US-China climate cooperation. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will soon arrive in China, and New York Times environment correspondent Andy Rivkin reports that "climate and energy will be high on the agenda."

There will plenty to discuss. The Brookings Institution and the Asia Society have both recently issued major reports probing the way forward for US-China climate cooperation. In the meantime, China is in the process of formulating a new Energy Law and its 12th Five Year Plan for Energy (see China Environmental Law Blog on this).

CGS will be back in the coming days with a fuller analysis of all these developments, but in the meantime, suffice it to say that the coming weeks will be a crucial period for US-China climate cooperation. One can safely say without resorting to hyperbole that the sustainable future we all crave may well hang in the balance.