Category Archives: Environment

China’s Pressing Need To Prevent Industrial Accidents

Landslide at industrial zone in Shenzhen, December 2015

The deadly landslide that engulfed part of the Hengtaiyu Industrial Park in Shenzhen was, on the basis of the early reports, a man-made disaster. It would appear that a mountain of mud composed of illegally dumped construction waste piled up over a quarry over the past two years became unstable. It then, in the parlance of civil engineers, ‘spilled over’.

A torrent of soil slammed into 33 industrial and dormitory buildings just before noon, and also ruptured the West-to-East natural gas pipeline causing an explosion. Some 900 people evacuated. Three are said to have been injured, but at least 91 were reported missing as of Monday morning, presumably buried under the mud that is estimated to cover more than 60,000 square meters to a depth of 6 meters (see photo above).

The attention the massive rescue effort is getting from the highest levels —  President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have sent urgent instructions to provincial and local authorities — indicates the political threat such disasters potentially hold — and underlines the shortcomings in the approach to hazard management.

Complaints by residents about illegal dumping went unheard or were ignored by Shenzhen officials. Shoddy building compounded the damage. The two factors exacerbate a view that untrammeled economic development has been at the expense of citizen well-being.

That is not a view that the Party can tolerate. In this case, local officials will, no doubt, be found to take the blame. In the longer-term, industrial safety legislation will have to be enforced to prevent industrial accidents taking the toll they currently do.

The Shenzhen landslide was just as much a man-made disaster as the series of massive blasts at a hazardous-materials warehouse in Tianjin that killed more than 100 people in August or the explosion that ripped through a chemical factory in Changzhou in Jiangsu Province earlier in the month. Or the fireball at a petrochemical factory in Rizhao in Shandong Province the previous month. Or the succession of accidents in China’s mines stretching back. At least 750 people have died in industrial accidents in the construction, manufacturing and mining sectors this year.

Employers will always push the boundaries of health and safety legislation — of which China has plenty. But it requires diligent local officials to enforce those rules. Of those, China is lacking.

The most effective industrial safety policy is a preventative health and safety culture.  Good practice on work safety standardization is more prevalent than it was a  decade ago, but it remains the exception rather than the rule. And it requires resources and political will at the local level to enforce it. We wish the extraordinary rescue effort in Shenzhen every success, but residents would have been better served by it not being necessary in the first place.

Sadly, we fear we will be saying the same after the next large industrial accident, and repeating it until the political attitude changes to one that says the Party best shows that it is looking after citizens by preventing preventable industrial accidents in the first place rather than by rushing to clean up the mess afterwards.

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COP21: Follow The Money

Paris skyline

THE PARIS CLIMATE talks — formally the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) — starting on November 30 will be a political bun fight in which China as the world’s biggest polluter will be at the centre. But the how, who and who pays arguments over environmentally sustainable development are only another front in the wider competitive-cooperative struggle between North and South for global influence.

Whatever the outcome of the Paris meeting, China will come off a winner.

The goal of COP21 is for more than 190 countries to agree a global and legally binding treaty that will let the world avoid the worst impacts of climate change. In practice, this means an enforceable plan to keep global warming below 2℃ by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The countries that account for 80% of the world’s emissions, three-quarters of which are accounted for by China, the United States, the 28 European Union members and India, have submitted plans for how they will play their part. However, these Intended Nationally Determined Contributions in aggregate fall short of what is needed to meet the 2℃ target.

China’s INDC’s are conventional enough: a speeding up of the transformation of energy production and consumption to mitigate increasing greenhouse gas emissions; continuing improvements in energy efficiency as the economy is rebalanced in a sustainable way; and increases in forest carbon sinks.

In hard numbers:

  • Peak CO2 emissions to be reached by 2030 at the latest;
  • Cut carbon intensity by 60-65% from 2005 levels;
  • 20% of energy produced by renewables by 2030 (10% in 2013); and
  • Increase forest coverage by 4.5 billion cubic meters compared to 2005.

These targets build on ones set out in 2009. That year, Beijing said that by 2020 it would lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% from 2005’s levels, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15%, and increase forests by 40 million hectares and the forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters compared to 2005 levels.

In its INDC, Beijing claimed that by 2014, it had achieved:

  • 33.8% lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP than the 2005 level;
  • 11.2% non-fossil fuels share in primary energy consumption;
  • Forested area and forest stock volume increased by 21.6 million hectares and 2.188 billion cubic meters respectively compared to the 2005 levels;
  • 300 gigawatts of installed hydropower capacity — 2.57 times of that in 2005;
  • 95.81 gigawatts of on-grid wind power capacity — 90 times of that of 2005);
  • 28.05 gigawatts of solar power installed capacity of — 400 times of that of 2005; and
  • 19.88 gigawatts of nuclear power installed capacity — 2.9 times of that for 2005.
  • Also, China has initiated pilot carbon-trading markets in seven provinces and cities and low-carbon development pilots in 42 provinces and cities, with a goal of having a nationwide cap-and-trade market in place by 2017.

All of which is real progress, though not sufficient to have kept up fully with the growing economy, as the skies over Beijing bear daily witness.

China’s COP21 targets still look ambitious, unlikely to be achieved without either technological advances both to improve energy intensity (units of energy required per unit of GDP created) and to help nuclear energy replace coal-fired power generation, or a slowdown in the economy to reduce power demand. On some estimates, the later would mean China’s GDP growth rate slowing to at least 4.5% a year for a sustained period in the decade to 2030.

All of which helps to explain why the politics of climate control will be so confrontational at COP21 behind the feel-good words the politicians will spout.

As de facto spokesnation for developing economies, China wants the rich nations to carry the much more of the burden of reducing emissions than poor ones. Its argues that historically the developed countries have gone through their industrial revolutions and so should not expect developing economies to have artificial constraints put on them as they now go through theirs.

The motives for such a position fall along a spectrum running from fairness — developed nations shouldn’t get a ‘free ride’ on pollution just because it occurred centuries ago — to nefariousness — the old world powers are using climate change to hold back the development of new rivals arising in the East and South.

Thus, China wants ‘ambitious economy-wide absolute quantified emissions reductions targets’ for developed countries, while calling only for ‘enhanced mitigation actions’ on the part of developing economies such as itself. Furthermore, it wants developed countries to provide the finance, technology and capacity-building for developing nations to do so.

The proposed financing is scarcely chump change. Beijing wants it to start at $100 billion in 2020 and then increase yearly, with the monies coming from the West’s public purses, not private sources. It proposes that this financing is channeled through the UN’s Green Climate Fund, a somewhat misbegotten five-year-old UN agency that would be made directly accountable to COP21.

So far, the fund has barely raised more money than needed to cover its set-up costs and is wracked by internal disagreements over what it should be funding and how. As of May this year it had received pledges of only $10.2 billion towards its own $100 billion-by-2020 target.

Developing nations don’t like the fund’s focus on private investment, which in practice means Western investing institutions. Environmentalists don’t like its acceptance of fossil-fuel investments, and no one likes the fund’s governance, hence Beijing’s effort to switch it to public funding and put it under COP21’s authority.

The third area of contention at Paris beyond targets and where the money is coming from will be technology. Beijing wants COP21 to impose a clear requirement on developed nations to transfer technologies and R&D to developing countries ‘based on their technology needs’. That would give developing economies, including China, carte blanche to demand virtually any technologies from the developed nations that it wants.

China has need of such technologies, given the challenges of its COP21 proposals. It will not be able to displace coal from the central place it now occupies in the energy mix without a significant increase in nuclear power generation. China is developing an indigenous nuclear industry apace, but its third-generation technology remains unproven, its capacity for making key components for reactors is uneven, and it has limited abilities in spent fuel reprocessing and storage.

Free licence to demand technology transfers from Washington and Paris to tackle any and all of those problems so its nuclear industry can make itself internationally competitive is not going to be acceptable to the West.

However, COP21 will likely yield an agreement, not the vague promises of previous UN climate summits. China will, of course, not get everything it is calling for going in. Binding hard 2030 targets on developed nations are unlikely, as are commitments by the West to any significant public funding of the Global Climate Fund or carte blanche technology transfers.

A mechanism for strengthening national carbon reduction targets every five years is likely. Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama agreed when they met in September to support such an approach, calling for COP21 to establish reporting and accountability that would strengthen emission reduction targets over time.

That, along with some concrete steps towards mobilizing financial and technical resources to assist the power countries to develop sustainable low-carbon and climate resilient economies would be achievement enough in Paris.

These outcomes would give Beijing plenty of advantages. It would get flexibility in recalibrating its tough 2030 domestic emissions targets and constrain Western efforts to impose a World Bank IFC-type private-sector financing model on climate mitigation.

At the same time, it would be free to expand its bilateral climate lending channels such as its South-South Climate Fund. Through its other burgeoning channels such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRICS’ development bank, and its Silk Road Fund, it can position itself as a key player in global low-carbon investment through its overseas infrastructure and project finance.

With that would come another broad, long-term ratcheting up of Beijing’s global clout, and especially if the next U.S. administration is a more isolationist and climate-change-rejecting Republican one.

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Clean Air And Safety First At War Parade

THE CELEBRATION IN in Beijing on September 3rd to mark the 70th anniversary of the ending of World War Two in Asia will be a breath of fresh air.

Heavy industry, power plants and construction sites in the capital, along with more in Hebei, Tianjin, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shandong and Henan, are being shut down or curtailed between August 28th and September 4th to make the air less polluted. Some 10,000 factories and 9,000 construction sites will be affected, state media say.  The goal is to cut pollution on the day by 40% in the capital and 30% in the surrounding region.

The measures are similar to those taken during the 2008 Olympic Games and last year’s the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings so that visitors wouldn’t have to breathe in the filthy atmosphere residents have to suffer the rest of the year. The tail end of the Athletics World Championships due to start in Beijing on August 22nd and run until September 6th will also get some benefit from this year’s effort.

One difference this time is that Beijing authorities have also ordered a complete halt to production at explosives plants and the sealing under guard of all toxic chemicals in the city. In the wake of the Tianjin disaster, Beijing wouldn’t want the 70th-anniversary parade going off with the wrong sort of bang.

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Tianjin Blasts: Shaking Up Environmental Disaster Denial

THE CITY OF Tianjin is facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions following the double explosion at the Ruihai International Logistics warehouse on Wednesday. The presence of sodium cyanide, which combines with water to form deadly hydrogen cyanide gas, has been acknowledged along with calcium carbide, potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate — all industrial chemicals whose impact on the population of the northeastern port city may be felt through illness and shortened lives for generations to come.

For the leadership, failure to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy that has cost at least 112 lives with hundreds more injured could be just as toxic. At risk is public trust in the Party to look after the people.

Industrial accidents are commonplace in China, even in large cities. Yet the power of the second blast in particular and the amount of dramatic video footage seen on social media before the inevitable media clampdown puts this one into a class of its own.

By way of comparison, the Jilin chemical plant explosion in 2005, one of China’s worst comparable man-made disasters, killed six and the injuries were in the dozens. However, pollution of the Songhua River was severe. Harbin, 400 kilometers downstream, had to cut off the public water supply to avoid poisoning its residents. Environment agency minister Xie Zhenhua was eventually sacked.

The initial official response to Jilin was to cover it up. That has been the go-to response for authorities to any environmental disaster until the evidence can no longer be ignored. Officials did not admit to the Bohai Bay oil spill in 2011 until a month after it had happened.

A nationwide check ordered on dangerous chemicals and explosives following the Tianjin blasts and a blanket order to officials to enforce safety regulations seems like bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Even worse will be if authorities react in their customary way and pursue a carefully managed information blackout.

Signs are not encouraging. Social media accounts and websites are already being closed down; state media is starting to craft a narrative around the laxness of businesses and workers that officials will address.

Even in these early days a finger is being pointed at Ruihai for keeping inadequate records of what was on site, following inadequate storage procedures or turning a blind eye to what safety regulations there are. Regulations keeping public transport and housing at a specific distance from dangerous industrial sites were ignored or flouted by officials.

The first-responder firefighters were ill-informed, inadequately trained and equipped, or all three. Suggestions that attempts to put out an initial fire with water inadvertently caused the chemical reactions that produced the subsequent blasts seem well founded, though, again, this Bystander cautions against early judgments on limited information. Whatever the circumstances turn out to have been, firefighters have paid a heavy toll in human life.

Assurances by officials that air and water quality levels in Tianjin are safe have been met with incredulity by residents. The 3-kilometre evacuation zone imposed on Friday will have done nothing to diminish concerns, any more than the earlier shutting off sewers to stop discharge into Bohai Bay. Many residents already know the water they drink and the air their breathe are polluted enough.

China has long disregarded environmental and public health whenever untrammelled economic development was at risk. Pockets of populations with abnormally high cancer rates in some of the most polluted areas bear silent testimony to that. The Party has seen the delivery of ever higher living standards to the broad population as the basis of its claim to a monopoly on political power.

For most Chinese, higher living standards increasingly include quality of life, not merely the quantity of material well-being — simple things like clean air and water and neighbourhoods that don’t explode.

This Bystander would like to think that the legacy of the Tianjin disaster would be that it was the one that caused that penny to drop for the authorities. That is likely wishful thinking. Scapegoats will again be found; rescue efforts will be lionized; online critics will be silenced. The policy and institutional reforms needed to ensure there is no repeat will not be carried out with the same vigour.

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Drought Diplomacy In North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Farm No. 1116, under KPA (Korean People's Army) Unit 810, in this undated file photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on June 1, 2015. KCNA

CORN AS HIGH as Kim Jong Un’s thigh. That, at least, is what the picture above released by North Korea state media on June 1 shows.

The reality is likely to be different.

The isolated regime is suffering its worst drought in a century — probably its fourth ‘worse drought in a century’ of the past decade. Pyongyang’s news agency, KCNA, reported last week that paddies in the main rice-farming provinces of Hwanghae and Phyongan were drying up for lack of rain. Food supplies, never plentiful, are now at risk of falling — again — to the level of famine.

The devastation wreaked on the economy by the drought s compounded by the fact that 50% of the country’s electricity is generated by hydropower. Reports finding their way to this Bystander suggest that most parts of the economy are already feeling the effect of power shortages.

North Korea was hit by severe and fatal famine in the 1990s and relied on international food aid to get through. However, Pyongyang’s suspicion of humanitarian workers and reluctance to allow independent monitoring of food distribution, makes international agencies reluctant donors.

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are arguable at their lowest ebb. China even rebuffed North Korea’s putative interest in joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Nonetheless, China’s foreign ministry said last week that the country was willing to help its drought-stricken erstwhile ally avoid a humanitarian disaster.

One set of questions is what price, if any, Beijing can extract from Pyongyang in return over its controversial nuclear program, and whether Pyongyang is ready to grasp an excuse providently offered to it by nature as an opportunity to back down from the nuclear tests and missile launches that have brought international sanctions down on it.

Another is whether Pyongyang can get food aid from Russia or Cuba, both places recently visited by senior North Korean officials, as an alternative to China, and even whether the regime is over-egging the pudding in regard to the severity of the drought. Last year, according to North Korea’s news agency, food production increased by 48,700 tons compared to 2013 — regardless of reports of severe drought.

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China’s Environment And The Slowly Expanding Pockets Of Dissent

OFFICIALS IN THE southern Chinese town of Luoding in Guangdong province have cancelled plans to build an incinerator plant following mass protests this week. This volte-face followed more citizen concern about an explosion earlier in the week at a PX petrochemicals plant in Fujian that triggered some of China’s biggest environmental protests in 2007. The week also brought news that the environment ministry on March 30 had vetoed the construction of the $3.75 billion Xiaonanhai hydroelectric dam on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River 40 kilometres upstream of Chongqing.

The proposed dam threatened scores of species of endangered freshwater fish. Its cancellation marks a rare victory for Chinese environmental campaigners over the country’s powerful state-owned dam-building industry.

Environmental issues are highly sensitive for the Party. They are increasingly becoming the locus of social activism and dissent, and constitute the largest class of ‘mass incidents’ involving more than 10,000 people. As such, they are a potential source of that most feared threat to the political status quo, instability. Worse from the authorities point of view, environmental non-government organizations are a seed that could grow into political movements able to challenge the Party’s institutional monopoly of political power.

Beijing is managing this dissent by tolerating it in limited areas, and increasingly allowing spontaneous (i.e., no coordinated collective action) small-scale local activism. It has controlled labour unrest in much the same way. Worker incidents are not allowed to be coordinated by preexisting groups. They have to be specific to an individual enterprise. And they can’t have a life beyond the resolution of the specific incident, i.e. they can’t spawn a lasting organisation. The same blueprint is being applied to environmental protests.

The continuing clampdown on academia and on the media, including social media, which is a potentially powerful way to ‘organise without an organisation’, indicates that this tolerance will not be extended to any bigger thinking dissent or organisation against central government. Ideology remains inviolate.

There is to be no joining of the dots between economic development, environmental degradation and social inequalities. Witness the quick censorship of the online documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome, produced by Chai Jing, a former TV presenter and CCTV investigative journalist, once it had gone viral on social media. Such an approach acts as a social safety valve, allowing a build-up of pressure to be blown off and the system to return to its pre-existing stable state.

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A Rare Win For China’s Rare Freshwater Fish

Environmentalists can celebrate a rare triumph. The environment ministry has stopped the Xiaonanhai hydroelectric dam project on the Yangtze River. The dam is being built by China Three Gorges Corp. Its site lies 40 kms upstream from Chongqing and 700 kms upstream of the company’s eponymous dam that has become a poster child for the environmental damage that can be wreaked by large-scale infrastructure projects.

The location is significant. The dam was championed by disgraced Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai, who redrew the boundaries of a nature preserve so construction could go ahead. Environmentalists have campaigned vigorously against damming the river at that point. Its waters contain 189 species of freshwater fish found nowhere else, two score of which are endangered. Economists have condemned the dam for its cost — $3.75 billion to build and electricity generation at more than three times the cost per gigawatt of other hydroelectric dams along the river.

Both are good reasons to call a halt to the project. However, the ministry does not have a reputation for being the most fearsome prosecutor of its brief to protect the environment in the face of the power of the ‘hydro-industrial complex’. Would it have vetoed the dam if its sponsor had been someone in better political standing than Bo?

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