Tuesday, March 31, 2009

China and America's new climate legislation

The New York Times reported today that two members of the US House of Representatives have released a draft version of a bill intended to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 83% from 1990 levels by 2050. The bill is only a first step; Climate Progress has a good piece on why any such climate legislation will face greater hurdles in the Senate.

Nonetheless, the bill represents another milestone in the long trek towards solving the climate problem. Charles McElwee at China Environmental Law Blog has a good post on the implications of the bill for US-China climate cooperation, technology transfer, and joint emissions reductions. The most significant impact of the legislation, though, is likely to be simply that the United States takes climate change seriously (finally!). It will soon become developing nations' turn to do so.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Against crisis, China attempts to tighten enforcement of pollution laws

Following last month's acid spill in Jiangsu, China's government has acted to tighten enforcement of the country's environmental laws. Charles McElwee's China Environmental Law Blog reports that the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has issued a new Notice containing several innovative policies, including a focus on corrective action, designed to strengthen enforcement of China's environmental laws (see also previous post on problems in the country's environmental enforcement).

This move comes as part of a broader effort by Beijing to improve environmental protection, especially as it concerns water pollution. In February, following the Jiangsu disaster, a senior MEP official acknowledged that despite several previous attempts to control pollution, "The general situation of environmental pollution does not allow us to be optimistic" (see Xinhua).

This month appears to have brought redoubled efforts to redress the situation. An MEP circular issued last week castigated local authorities for lax enforcement of water pollution laws, and to improve water quality monitoring (see Xinhua). Officials also announced today (March 30) that thirteen officials in Henan province were punished (one with a prison sentence) for failing to stop arsenic contamination on a stretch of the Dasha river, which news reports said was some 899 times healthy levels (see Xinhua).

Such efforts to strengthen the enforcement of environmental laws are necessary, but they illustrate an important failing in China's environmental policy: its obsession with the idea of a centralized "policy cudgel." What I mean by this is the insistence that the central government's policies would indeed improve China's environmental situation, if only local governments could be cowed into following orders (this appears to be a primary motivation behind recent MEP Regional Supervision Centers- more on this later). This approach is far too blunt an instrument, particularly when China's legal system doesn't bear anything like the enforcement capabilities wielded by, say, the US Environmental Protection Administration.

Instead of focusing on building a bigger and more potent cudgel, Beijing should focus on the longer-term tasks of enhancing citizen participation and NGO monitoring capabilities to aid in environmental enforcement, while also pursuing political and legal reforms that will make it easier to take polluters, and the corrupt officials that protect them, to court. Promotion of officials based on economic growth statistics should be ended. Moreover, less coercive, market-based approaches like Payment for Ecosystem Services should be pursued aggressively.

Robust environmental protection requires an expensive, resource- and bureaucracy-intensive edifice. But the public interests it protects- clean air, clean water, healthy people- are vital to a prosperous, sustainable society.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Climate impacts in China

We're all in for a rocky road ahead if climate change continues apace. But China, as a large, still mostly poor, ecologically diverse region, faces a special set of challenges, as the government acknowledges (see "China's Policies and Actions in Addressing Global Climate Change"). This post draws on some recent news reports to illustrate some of the various impacts China is likely to confront as the climate changes.

One is disease: as many high-altitude and high-latitude areas warm, the viable ranges of pathogens and disease vectors (like mosquitoes) increase. Zhao Linnuo, Deputy-Director of the China Applied Meteorology Office, explained to Xinhua that atmospheric warming produces conditions favorable to the spread and propagation of insect-borne diseases. "If pathogens formerly confined to the south were to spread to the north," Zhao said, "diseases [formerly confined to the] wild may spread into inhabited areas; at the same time, the incidence of food-borne diseases is likely to increase as a result of warming." Climate change would also impact human health, Zhao noted, via secondary impacts on precipitation, wind velocity, and pollution concentrations (see Xinhua, in Chinese only).

Another expert, Jin Yinlong, explained that climate change will increase the incidence of both flooding and drought; in the former case, it would also lead to the spread of water-borne disease. "Climate change is likely to impact all people in different ways," Jin said.

In a separate interview, the Vice-Director of China's Meteorological Bureau warned that "from now on, extreme weather events will grow more frequent." Because China's population density and GDP total will also increase, Xu Xiaofeng noted, its vulnerability to extreme weather events, including flooding, hurricanes, etc., will become more acute. The article also noted that from 2001-2008, the cost of natural disasters is estimated to have accounted for some 2.8% of China's GDP (see China Economic Weekly, in Chinese only).

Perhaps most importantly, the officials also offered prescriptions on how to counter the threats posed by the spread of disease and extreme weather. The former article noted that atmospheric experts "call on businesses and the people at large to take steps to increase their awareness of climate change, safeguard the air we breathe, make a habit of saving energy to reduce emissions, sparely use wooden chopsticks and plastic bags, and rarely drive cars." Vice-Director Xu also noted that America has a robust disaster-warning system in place, one that China would do well to adopt.

These two articles nicely illustrate two of the key strategies for dealing with climate change: mitigation (as by driving fewer cars) and adaptation (warning people of natural disasters, which are likely to become more frequent). It's heartening to see so much talk of climate in the Chinese press; a few years ago, there was almost none. The high profile of expert discussion on climate also bodes well; it's much the same kind of citizen-science that has been so crucial in pushing the climate agenda forward in America.

But of course all of this means little unless China's elite agrees to do more to reduce its emissions. A recent editorial in China Daily nicely sums up the situation:

With nobody but ourselves to blame for increasingly frequent extreme weather conditions, it is high time we did something to reduce the greenhouse emissions we discharge. The convening of the United Nations' conference on climate change at the end of last year was a sign that increasing numbers of countries and politicians have come to realize that climate change is something that nations must jointly deal with. We cannot afford to wait until it is too late - when the rising seas have submerged continents and the disappearance of glaciers has dried up our rivers. This annual day [World Meteorological Day] should be a reminder to all that we have an impact on world weather, and that global warming is a matter of life and death.

Word. It's long past time to bicker about things like the amount of carbon embedded in China's exports, or even the admittedly stronger argument about the West's high levels of historic emissions (see previous post). China must move beyond its fixation on its developing-country status, to the more pressing issue of how it will be affected- in terms of disease, weather, water, etc- if it does not act to reduce its own emissions, which account for so much of the global total. China Daily hits exactly the right note- we hope it's one China is willing to sing at Copenhagen come December.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Focus on water in China

The World Water Forum, which convened last week in Turkey, may not be the sexiest of international environmental gatherings. But it is likely to become one of the most important, for the chief human impact of climate change is likely to be profound changes in the availability and distribution of fresh water. Mindful of such importance, this post focuses on China's water situation in an age of climate change.

The devastating drought which hit northern China in recent months, affecting some 10.3 million hectares, was a potent reminder of the nation's precarious water situation. One farmer was quoted as saying, "I haven't seen such a severe drought in my life" (see Xinhua). Overpopulation, exacerbated by decades of disastrous, yield-maximizing agricultural policies, has devastated large portions of northern China, leaving it vulnerable to desertification, which climate change in turn is accelerating. Poor soil management results in extensive erosion; one recent report claimed that China loses 1 million mu (about 0.6 acres) of arable land annually to soil erosion (see Renmin Ribao, in Chinese only). In the meantime, climate models, while subject to significant uncertainty, suggest that seasonal runoff from the Himalayan plateau is likely to decrease precipitously in the coming years, affecting nearly all of China's major river systems (see previous post).

The gravity of the situation has not gone unnoticed by China's government. Its response to the drought was swift, issuing a "red alert" in some areas of the country, and providing emergency assistance. Meanwhile, experts issued a string of announcements focusing better on water management and efficiency. The President of the China Agricultural University emphasized water-saving irrigation techniques: "To deal with climate abnormalities, a growing water shortage, and the threat to food security, we must speed the use of farming and irrigation methods that save water" (see Xinhua). In early March, the powerful National Development and Reform Commission vowed to lower industrial water consumption by 5.6% and to increase the utilization of industrial wastewater to some 66% in 2009.

At the World Water Forum itself, China's Minister of Water Resources, Chen Lei, vowed to increase China's efforts to develop water resources for sustainable development. Chen highlighted ten areas where the government would ramp up water infrastructure investment:
"the reinforcement of risky reservoirs, rural drinking water security, water saving facility upgrading in large-scale irrigation areas, comprehensive management of major rivers and lakes, rehabilitation and upgrading of large-scale irrigation pumping stations, key water projects and water sources, water infrastructure construction in farmland, water and soil conservation, rural hydropower development and electrification, as well as capacity building" (see Xinhua).
At the Forum, China also issued a joint statement with Japan and South Korea pledging cooperation, information sharing, and "trilateral cooperation" on water issues (see Xinhua). There are a great many areas of fruitful cooperation on water management issues, including eco-compensation and watershed management.

The attention being devoted to water issues is welcome, but it's likely to be insufficient, for three primary reasons. First, China's main approach to water resource management so far has been to conduct giant engineering projects, like the South-North Water Transfer effort to bring water from the south to the arid north. But engineering alone is little more than a stop-gap measure, which a recent reservoir project in Shanghai illustrates. The Shanghai region, being a low-lying coastal estuary, is vulnerable to salt tides, which contaminate freshwater supplies. As the sea level rises, salt tides are a growing concern in coastal areas around the world. The government's response to salt tides has been to construct the giant Qingcaosha reservoir, with a capacity of 7.2 million cubic meters. But as the Shanghai Daily article announcing the reservoir notes, "A new reservoir is by no means the long-term answer to the city's chronic lack of clean water." Silt from the Yangtze (another result of soil erosion), the article notes, is likely to clog the reservoir. Moreover, if runoff to the Yangtze declines as propitiously as predicted, Shanghai may have to resort to expensive desalinization to supply adequate freshwater. Despite the temptation to think so, humanity can't simply engineer itself out of water shortages.

Which leads to the second challenge confronting water management in China: the shamefully low price of water. Despite continual pledges to raise it (see China.org.cn), the Chinese government has found it difficult to make poor peasant farmers, who account for the majority of wasteful water use in China, pay significantly more for water. As a result, the price remains too low to encourage the most advanced water saving techniques. According to one water expert, "Although water-saving measures are used in northern China, many mature technologies aren't popular because of the high cost and low awareness of saving water" (see Xinhua). So the impasse continues: as long as the government remains undecided about how to encourage rural economic development without raising the price of water, China's agricultural sector will continue to waste large amounts of water.

This is a dangerous path to tread, since there is likely to be less and less of it, at least in northern China. Climate change means that droughts and flooding are both likely to become more severe, and while the distribution of precipitation will undoubtedly change in many regions, it's likely to be for the worse. Engineering projects, like reservoirs and desalinization plants, will help with adaptation and the stabilization of drinking water supplies, but ultimately such engineering will not compensate for the shifts in water availability. That requires tackling climate change. So far, as CGS has continually documented, China has taken a very conservative position on climate issues (see previous post).

However, as a recent China Daily editorial illustrates, China is re-evaluating its stance as the crucial Copenhagen climate conference approaches in December. Climate change, the editorial notes, "is hitting the Asian continent already." Repeating a standard Chinese government line, the editorial emphasizes that Asian nations should push for more money for adaptation, but then goes on to note that "The focus on adaptation...should not distract us from also paying attention to the other major building block, mitigation, and formulating a clear strategy on the issue." While the focus should remain on pushing developed nations to reduce emissions, the editorial also says that calls for "urging larger developing countries to take whatever actions they can to reduce theirs without hampering their development aspirations." Most importantly, the editorial hits the right note in concluding that the Copenhagen agreement "will determine the fate of the world, in particular Asia, for decades to come."

Water is a key environmental issue for China, Asia, and the world, making its management one of the foremost considerations for policymakers everywhere. This requires negotiating thorny issues of access, fighting important agricultural constituencies, and many other issues. But it also entails solving the climate problem- the over-arching, all-important wildcard on the fate of which all other environmental issues will ultimately rest.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

How to make international environmental cooperation work; Or, Report from EU Workshop on Carbon Capture and Sequestration Regulation

This past Wednesday and Thursday, CGS attended a workshop on the European Union's Support to Regulatory Activities in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) (STRACO2) and Cooperation Action Within CCS EU-China (COACH) projects. The former, STRACO2, is devoted to gathering lessons for China from CCS regulatory regimes in place elsewhere, while the latter, according to its website, has as its main objective
"to prepare the ground for developing large-scale facilities for zero emission electric power using coal as a feedstock. Options for hydrogen production as well as for production of synthetic fuels, and provisions for heat integration with surrounding industries will be investigated too. In this endeavour CO2 capture and permanent storage - including use for enhanced oil or gas recovery (EOR or EGR) - constitute an inherent and decisive prerequisite."

Because they focus on a key climate change mitigation technology- CCS- the STRACO2/COACH projects represent an important case study in international environmental cooperation, hence CGS's interest. Briefly, CCS is a technology that envisions capturing carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion and "storing" it in impermeable geological formations, preventing its escape to the atmosphere. CCS is typically envisioned as a major "wedge" in reducing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, since it theoretically permits the use of abundant fossil fuels without contributing to the change in the planet's carbon balance. As one workshop speaker noted, many GHG reduction scenarios envision almost 30% of reductions coming from the large-scale deployment of CCS (see Rob Socolow and Steve Pacala's classic wedge paper on this). Problem is, it's far from a commercially-viable technology, hence the importance of the workshop. Deployment of CCS entails overcoming a number of challenges, including finding suitable geologic formations and developing an adequate regulatory framework for storing the carbon.

The STRACO2/COACH project is wide-ranging, including carbon storage site qualification and certification and financing. A particularly interesting feature of the STRACO2 project was the use of questionnaires to survey the CCS field in China, and which provide interesting insights into the prospects for China. Some 60 forms with questions on policy and finance, technology outlook, etc., were sent to a variety of environmental, energy, research, and consultancy firms in China, with 35 responses. These indicated that 43% of respondents see CCS as an "extremely important" technology for combatting climate change, while an additional 57% ranked it as "important." Respondents listed (in ranked order) high cost, unproven technology, underdeveloped law and policy, and underdeveloped technology as the most important barriers to CCS commercialization in China. Large majorities of respondents also reported that developed nations for pay for the development of CCS projects before commercialization, and that emissions trading offers the best prospect for long-term CCS financing. Notably, a significant majority also indicated that EOR technology, which involves injecting CO2 into oil wells as oil is withdrawn, represents the best storage option. Finally, respondents listed safety and responsibility as the most important considerations for developing a CCS regulatory regime in China.

The workshop also revealed a number of more general considerations and points of interest. There is a significant degree of suspicion over whether carbon can be safely stored underground, and whether "leakage" of carbon dioxide may pose a health risk to surrounding communities. China's geological storage potential also appears to be less favorable than in other countries, calling the widespread deployment of CCS into question. Several gaps were assessed in China's CCS capabilities, particularly in modelling technologies. The question of financing is also thorny; while most Chinese respondents indicated that developed countries should pay for the development of CCS technology, it's unclear how this might occur. Several experts, for example, spoke against inclusion of CCS in the Clean Development Mechanism, an important means of expanding clean technology in China. Perhaps most notably, one workshop speaker assessed the future of CCS as "uncertain," stating that its capabilities are "often assumed, not assessed."

In addition, the STRACO2/COACH project points out several significant issues for international clean technology cooperation. First is the need for robust stakeholder consultation: many in China remain suspicious of CCS. Second, governments will have to engage in significant discussion over intellectual property issues, and ensure that broader industrial and science/technology policy is aligned with clean technology cooperation. Much more attention will also have to be given to the details of financing and incentivization for clean technology.

Finally, the workshop highlighted the utility of person-to-person exchange in enhancing clean technology cooperation. Debbi Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute described a program that gathered an interdisciplinary team of experts from China and the US to explore the various issues involved in CCS deployment, and then organized a US study tour for participants, to be followed soon by a parallel China tour. By linking the people working on the ground in China with their counterparts in the US, the program helped to highlight important issues and challenges in CCS deployment, and stands a good chance of catalyzing long-term international partnerships.

In sum, then, the workshop illustrated several important lessons for international environmental cooperation. First, as China, America, the EU, and other nations struggle to ramp up clean technology deployment, such expert exchange programs will need to become a more common feature of the international landscape. Second, economists and policymakers should prioritize the issues of stakeholder consultation, financing, and intellectual property. CGS has been blessed to witness a sea change in the prospects for international environmental cooperation- but the hard work is yet to come.

Dealing with transboundary water pollution in China

Most water pollution by nature crosses boundaries; in China, incidents like February's acid leak in Jiangsu indicate the inability of local authorities to deal with contamination. A good recent post on water security by Ma Jun on China Dialogue reports that, on average, there's an environmental incident in China once every two days, 70% of which involve water pollution. A delegate to China's People's Political Consultative Committee highlighted the trans-boundary water pollution issue by calling for the development of a compensation system, a first step toward establishing clear liability for water polluters.

The delegate, also the Vice-President of Anhui University, Wu Cunmei, noted that it is impossible to prevent contaminated water from flowing through watersheds. The national government should, Wu said, quickly establish a dispute-resolution and compensation mechanism for transboundary water pollution (see China Environment Report, in Chinese only).

As Wu noted, regions near the headwaters of river systems often garner economic benefits by polluting watersheds for downstream users, who must bear the costs themselves. This kind of "local protectionism," (地方保护主义) Wu said, damages the whole national system for preventing water pollution, making it an imperative to develop new mechanisms for transboundary dispute resolution and compensation.

None of this is really news, but it's heartening to hear a delegate to one of China's important "two meetings" (两会) speak so forcefully about environmental protection, and to single out watersheds for the development of an eco-compensation framework. Many experts agree that eco-compensation is particularly suitable for use in watersheds, where the benefits of clean water are clear for both upstream and downstream users (see previous post). Providing local governments with a means to "sue" other jurisdictions might also provide a potent secondary-enforcement mechanism, by deterring areas that may be tempted to adopt lax enforcement.

Nonetheless, creating a robust compensation and dispute-resolution system will be thorny. As long as local officials are rewarded chiefly for effecting economic growth, there will be strong incentives to "pass the cost along" by allowing industry to pollute with minimal enforcement and mitigation (see previous post). Moreover, a compensation regime should be carefully designed to encourage watershed management, not just to compensate downstream users for pollution. It's difficult to include the benefits of, for example, preserving forest cover near river system headwaters in any compensation regime.

Here's an opportunity for an enterprising NGO (or even friendly foreign government?) to step in and offer to provide expertise to the Chinese government in constructing a durable watershed pollution compensation and dispute resolution mechanism. As water scarcity increases and the pollution problem becomes more ingrained, China's leadership will surely be grateful for all the help they can get.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

More mixed messages on climate as NPC Continues

Given the importance of China's annual National People's Congress (NPC), it's worth expanding on yesterday's post to cover a few other signs of the direction China's climate policy will take in the coming year.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told the NPC that China will continue its efforts to increase energy efficiency, thereby decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, Wen said, ""We will implement energy-conserving measures for power generators, boilers, automobiles, air-conditioners and lighting products" (see Xinhua). The official English-language news article covering Wen's speech also carried quotations from several government officials vowing that environmental protection efforts will continue despite the economic crisis.

A China Daily editorial painted a similarly robust picture of China's efforts to reduce emissions, gushing that

Reducing carbon emissions by weaning industries off oil will not only "green the globe" but also spur growth, spark an employment boom and help combat climate change. And China is best poised to not only effect the new deal but also to reap the benefits of it.

The editorial even gave a nod to the positive atmosphere surrounding US-China climate cooperation by claiming that "As US President Barack Obama's administration pushes for an economy that provides both economic and environmental security, China can ride and contribute to the potential lush wave of inventions and initiatives." This kind of perspective is, of course, what CGS has always pushed for.

One more positive piece of news comes from a member of China's People's Political Consultative Committee, Zhang Guobao. Zhang, noting that Obama has devoted a large portion of America's economic stimulus package to developing new energy sources, called for China should do the same. "If we continue not to take new energy seriously," Zhang warned, "I predict that in another ten years we will be in the same situation as Japan" when it comes to that country's dependency on imported energy (see Renmin Ribao, in Chinese only).

On the other side of the coin, a recent editorial in China Daily exemplifies the old "don't blame China" school of thought when it comes to climate issues. Entitled "Don't blame China for the world's eco-woes," the editorial complained that

Critics still blame China as it builds new cities with modern homes, running water, sewage systems, transport infrastructure, schools and hospitals, just as their countries did. They blame China as it serves the needs of hundreds of millions of farmers moving from the land to the cities in the biggest urbanization program in human history. No nation has ever had to do this before, and the challenges are highly complicated.

There's some truth to this complaint (see previous post), but the real tragedy is that anyone, either in China or abroad, still thinks of the climate issue as a blame game. We're all responsible for changing the planet's carbon balance (though admittedly to differing degrees), and we'll all bear the consequences. The fact is, times have changed and nobody, in China, the United States, or elsewhere, can build new cities without making them sustainable.

Nonetheless, this kind of retrograde thinking appears to be winning out when it comes to China's stance on climate. The leadership appears to be consumed with concerns over jobs, stability, and restive minorities. When it comes to the low-hanging fruit and the "general principle" of climate sustainability, Beijing appears to be committed. But when it comes to making hard decisions, and paying a price, the message appears much more mixed.

Once again, it seems to CGS that foreign leadership will be crucial. The pieces cited above all reference Washington's actions in pushing green stimulus. If America can figure out how to drive economic growth with climate-sustainable features, you can bet that there will be plenty of receptive ears at next year's NPC.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mixed messages on environment as National People's Congress convenes

Every March, China's National People's Congress (NPC), the nation's highest legislative body, convenes in Beijing to ratify the decisions of the nation's leadership. It is often an occasion to announce major shifts in policy, and so it's an important context in which to consider discourse on environmental protection. On the basis of two admittedly incomplete measures, the message is very mixed: while official media continues to highlight the severity of environmental issues, the portion of China's economic stimulus package devoted to environmental protection has decreased.

This week's China Daily includes a number of articles devoted to environmental issues, including one entitled "Innovation needed in alternative energy field," and another noting that "Sino-US talks turning to action" on climate change. The former article editorialized that "developing a low-carbon economic is a must as China continues to industrialize, not only for the nation's energy security, but also as part of an urgent international responsibility to address global climate change." This language, from two professors of public administration at Hunan University, is a noticeable shift from the standard government position that tackling climate change should be a developed-nation task. The latter article, depicting joint US-China efforts to improve energy efficiency, emphasized the co-benefits that could result from greater collaboration on energy matters. In general, the message seemed to be that environmental sustainability must remain a central goal of government policy, and that China should see action on environmental issues as part of its responsibilities as an emerging global power.

Sadly, this welcome news did not seem to be reflected where the rubber meets the road. According to China Environmental Law Blog and Caijing, the percentage of China's economic stimulus package to be devoted to environmental efforts is set to decrease. The amount of stimulus money devoted to "sustainable environment" will decline by over 120 billion RMB, with most of that amount being redirected to social welfare spending.

It's understandable to redirect stimulus money to ease the economic pain being faced by so many laid-off workers in China (and indeed, around the world). But this "readjustment" indicates just how difficult it will be for leaders around the world to implement green stimulus packages. As is so often the case, short-term economic considerations and long-term environmental sustainability stand at political odds.

Nonetheless, international coordination and consultation on implementing green stimulus could help governments keep their stimulus packages relatively green. Because initiatives to create green jobs and expand clean energy have never been attempted at such large scales, sharing best practices is a natural way for governments to enhance international financial and environmental cooperation (see previous post).

Here's to hoping Beijing, Washington, and governments around the world can their acts together and push green stimulus packages even as legislators push narrow self-interest.