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China’s Disastrous Pollution Problem Is A Lesson For All

V.T. Polywoda via Flickr CC

This is a guest post by David Suzuki.

Beijing’s 21 million residents live in a toxic fog of particulate matter, ozone, sulphur dioxide, mercury, cadmium, lead and other contaminants, mainly caused by factories and coal burning. Schools and workplaces regularly shut down when pollution exceeds hazardous levels. People have exchanged paper and cotton masks for more elaborate, filtered respirators. Cancer has become the leading cause of death in the city and throughout the country.

Chinese authorities, often reluctant to admit to the extent of any problem, can no longer deny the catastrophic consequences of rampant industrial activity and inadequate regulations. According to Bloomberg News, Beijing’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says that, although life expectancy doubled from 1949 to 2011, “the average 18-year-old Beijinger today should prepare to spend as much as 40 percent of those remaining, long years in less than full health, suffering from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis, among other ailments.”

China’s government also estimates that air pollution prematurely kills from 350,000 to 500,000 residents every year.* Water and soil pollution are also severe throughout China.

The documentary film Under the Dome, by Chinese journalist Chai Jing, shows the extent of the air problem. The film was viewed by more than 150 million Chinese in its first few days, apparently with government approval. Later it was censored, showing how conflicted authorities are over the problem and its possible solutions. The pollution problem also demonstrates the ongoing global conflict between economic priorities and human and environmental health.

Rather than seeing China’s situation as a warning, many people in Canada and the U.S. — including in government — refuse to believe we could end up in a similar situation here. And so U.S. politicians fight to block pollution-control regulations and even to remove the power of the Environmental Protection Agency, or shut it down altogether! In Canada, politicians and pundits argue that environmental protection is too costly and that the economy takes precedence.

The Global Coal Boom Is Going Bust: Report

A new report by CoalSwarm and the Sierra Club provides compelling evidence that the death knell for the global coal boom might very well have rung some time between 2010 and 2012.

Based on data CoalSwarm compiled of every coal plant proposed worldwide for the past five years as part of its Global Coal Plant Tracker initiative, the report finds that for every coal plant that came online, plans for two other plants were put on hold or scrapped altogether.

The failure-to-completion rate was even higher, as much as 4 to 1, in Europe, South Asia, Latin America, and Africa, according to the report, which also says that the long decline in coal-fired energy production in the United States and the European Union can be expected to speed up in the near future.

“From 2003 to 2014, the amount of coal-fired generating capacity retired in the US and the EU exceeded new capacity by 22 percent. With most new capacity plans halted and large amounts of capacity slated for retirement, reductions in coal capacity are expected to accelerate.”

American and Chinese Youth Take Diplomacy Into Their Own Hands At Lima COP 20

Back in November, President Obama took a Beijing stage, shoulder-to-shoulder with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and pretty well shook up the geopolitics of climate change.

The presidents of the two largest polluters of greenhouse gases announced a game-changing climate deal that few saw coming.

Even the most plugged-in climate policy experts—and many Capitol Hill politicians—were stunned. 

The bilateral climate agreement—which basically says that the U.S. will cut greenhouse gas emissions by a little over one-quarter (from a baseline in 2005) by 2025, and that China will peak its emissions by 2030—was met with remarkably consistent praise.

Advocates for a strong international climate treaty liked that the bit of diplomacy took away the “waiting for China to act” argument from American naysayers. 

And coming as it did in the run-up to the United Nations climate talks in Lima, Peru, the timing of the announcement invigorated the typically sputtering negotiations.

Some of the toughest criticism came from the youngest commentators. A partnership of youth from both the U.S. and China delivered their critique in the form of a joint letter to Presidents Jinping and Obama.

New Report Highlights Fracking's Global Hazards

A new report, issued the same day the latest round of global climate negotiations opened in Peru, highlights the fracking industry's slow expansion into nearly every continent, drawing attention not only to the potential harm from toxic pollution, dried-up water supplies and earthquakes, but also to the threat the shale industry poses to the world's climate.

The report, issued by Friends of the Earth Europe, focuses on the prospects for fracking in 11 countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America and Europe, warning of unique hazards in each location along with the climate change risk posed in countries where the rule of law is relatively weak.

“Around the world people and communities are already paying the price of the climate crisis with their livelihoods and lives,” said Susann Scherbarth, climate justice and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. “Fracking will only make things worse and has no place in a clean energy future.”

The 80-page document describes plans for fracking in Brazil's Amazon rainforest (and the deforestation that would go along with that drilling), highlights the hazards the water-intensive process poses to already-disappearing aquifers in arid regions of northern Africa, and notes that licenses for shale gas drilling have been issued in the earthquake-prone zone at the foot of the Himalaya mountains in India.

It comes as representatives from 195 countries gathered Monday in Lima, with the goal of negotiating new limits on greenhouse gasses and staving off catastrophic climate change. Prospects for those talks seemed grim, with The New York Times reporting that it would be all but impossible to prevent the globe from warming 2 degrees.

State Department Keystone XL Contractor ERM Bribed Chinese Agency to Permit Project

Environmental Resources Management (ERM Group), the consultancy selected by TransCanada to conduct the environmental review for Keystone XL's northern leg on behalf of the U.S. State Department, is no stranger to scandal.

Exhibit A: ERM once bribed a Chinese official to ram through major pieces of an industrial development projectERM was tasked to push through the project in Hangzhou Bay, located near Shanghai.

Accepting the bribe landed Yan Shunjun, former deputy head of the Shanghai Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau, an
11-year prison sentence.

Yan “allegedly took bribes of 864,000 yuan (126,501 U.S. dollars), 20,000 U.S. dollars and 4,000 euros from seven contractors,” explained Xiuhuanet. “Yan was also accused of illegally setting up a channel to speed up environmental impact assessment processes, which are essential for companies wanting to build factories.”

BP, one of the companies standing to gain if Keystone XL North receives a presidential permit from the Obama administration as a major Alberta tar sands producer, was also mired in the Chinese ERM Group scandal. 

“Two firms on ERM's bluechip client list, BP and Sinopec, are big investors in a petrochemical complex on the site, but the Chinese authorities apparently saw no conflict of interest in awarding the environmental evaluation to ERM,” explained London's Sunday Times.

In a sense, history has repeated itself.

China-U.S. Climate Deal Is Historic, But On Its Own Is Not Enough

Despite the fact that they've been using the “climate action is useless because China won't act” canard as one of their favorite arguments for years now, Republicans' outraged response to the historic climate deal between China and the U.S. probably took noone by surprise.

Because that's the thing: it is historic. For the first time ever, China has agreed to put a cap on the emissions produced by its rapid, voracious economic expansion. While it's certainly not true that the U.S. taking responsibility for its share of global warming pollution wouldn't have had a meaningful impact anyway, it also can't be ignored that averting runaway climate change would be nearly impossible if China's emissions keep growing unabated.

But to say it's historic that two of the world's biggest economic superpowers—and the world's two largest carbon polluters, together responsible for nearly half of global emissions—have agreed to begin to lower their respective contributions to global warming is not the same thing as saying that the deal President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping struck is enough to get the job done.

The most important issue, of course, is the emissions targets themselves, which come nowhere near what climate scientists say are needed to prevent catastrophic warming. We must lower global warming pollution 80% below 1990 levels by mid-century, yet the US is still using 2005 as its baseline, and has only committed to lowering emissions 26-28% by 2025. China, meanwhile, needs to see its emissions peak by 2020, climate scientists say, but has only committed to doing so by 2030.

Peabody Energy Goes On Offense With New PR Campaign Designed To Sell Same Old Dirty Coal

Despite what you may have heard about the death of the coal industry, Peabody Energy is ramping up mining activities and going on the offensive, pushing “clean coal” on the world’s poor with a disingenuous but aggressive PR campaign. And for good reason: Peabody has got to sell the coal from the world's largest coal mine to someone.

Speculation is rife that the new GOP-led Senate will join with its similarly fossil fuel-beholden House colleagues to usher in a new era of coal. Peabody, the world’s largest privately held coal company, isn’t waiting around to find out.

The company has teamed with public relations firm Burson-Marsteller—the notorious PR giant that helped Big Tobacco attack and distort scientific evidence of the dangers of smoking tobacco—to launch Advanced Energy for Life, a desperate attempt to shift the discussion around coal away from its deleterious effects on health and massive contributions to climate change and instead posit the fossil fuel as a solution to global poverty.

The aim of this PR offensive, according to a piece by freelance journalist Dan Zegart and former DeSmog managing editor Kevin Grandia (one of Rolling Stone’s “Green Heroes,” and deservedly so), the reason for Peabody’s charm offensive is simple: there’s money to be made selling coal in Asian markets, and Peabody aims to make it—as long as initiatives to combat global warming emissions don’t intervene. Which makes Burson-Marsteller the perfect ally:

Burson-Marsteller, which has a long history of creating front groups to rehabilitate the images of corporate wrongdoers, helped Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro, tackle the Asian market, where Burson fought anti-smoking regulations and developed crisis drills for Philip Morris personnel in Hong Kong on how to handle adverse scientific reports.
 

As the US produces a glut of cheap natural gas, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan seeks to set emissions standards that would make building new coal-fired power plants all but impossible impossible, and the domestic demand for coal drops, Peabody’s value as a company has dropped as well, from $20 billion to just $3.7 billion in the space of three years. The company is in desperate need of new business if it’s to even stay afloat.

World’s Major Banks Poured Over $80 Billion into Coal Last Year Alone

At least $83 billion USD in financing was provided to 65 coal mining and energy companies last year by 92 of the world’s leading commercial banks, according to a Dutch report published Wednesday.

Leading banks provided $500 billion in financing for the coal industry through 2,283 lending and underwriting transactions between 2005 and April 2014, said the report Banking on Coal 2014, which was released by BankTrack in Nijmegen.

The top 20 financiers provided 73 per cent of this amount alone, added the report, released just days ahead of the publication of the fifth United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment.

The report said JPMorgan Chase was the top financier between 2005 and this year, lending more than $27 billion, while Citi, in second place, lent $25.8 billion and third-place RBS provided $22.9 billion to coal-related borrowing.

Bank finance for coal is increasing rapidly, the report said, adding 2013 was a record year for coal finance, with commercial banks providing more than $88 billion to the main 65 coal companies – over four times the amount provided in 2005.

Tide Turning Against Global Coal Industry: New Report

Coal plant

Coal, the fossil fuel that largely sparked the industrial revolution, may be facing the beginning of the end — at least in terms of generating electricity.

There are increasing signs of the demise of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, from a global oversupply to plummeting prices to China starting to clean up its polluted air.

Last week, the Carbon Tracker Initiative published an analysis — Carbon Supply Cost Curves: Evaluating Financial Risk to Coal Capital Expenditures — identifying major financial risks for investors in coal producers around the world.

Saying the demand for thermal coal in China, the world’s largest emitter of toxic greenhouse gases, could peak as early as 2016, the analysis also highlights $112 billion of future coal mine expansion and development that is excess to requirements under lower demand forecasts.

China To Create National Cap-And-Trade Program As Obama Admin Must Bypass U.S. Senate On Climate

The Obama Administration is pursuing an international climate agreement that would be “politically binding” but would not be a treaty requiring ratification by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, China has announced it will create a national cap-and-trade program.

These two facts amount to a stunning juxtaposition. China, currently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas pollution, is taking decisive action to lower its emissions, while the leader of the United States, historically the world’s largest climate polluter, must circumvent his own government to take even modest first steps towards dealing with climate change.

According to the latest Global Carbon Budget report, CO2 emissions rose 2.3% in 2013, with China responsible for 28% and the United States contributing 14%.

Emissions are projected to increase by another 2.5% in 2014, according to the report, which also notes that the world is on track for a temperature rise somewhere between 3.2 and 5.4 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by 2100—well above the 2-degree mark scientists say we must limit warming to in order to avert the worst effects of climate change.

The New York Times reports that negotiators for the Obama Adminstration are calling an international agreement that bypasses the treaty ratification process in the Senate the only viable path forward:

Lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill say there is no chance that the currently gridlocked Senate will ratify a climate change treaty in the near future, especially in a political environment where many Republican lawmakers remain skeptical of the established science of human-caused global warming.


This is not the first time Obama has gone around Congress to take action on the climate. The centerpiece of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan uses authorities granted to the EPA under the Clean Air Act to limit carbon emissions on a state-by-state basis and requires states to come up with plans to achieve those cuts.

But even the Obama Administration admits that this type of measure is not, in and of itself, a solution to the climate crisis we’re facing.

“The point is, that this is a start,” White House science and technology advisor John Holdren recently told the House Science Committee. “The carbon-action plan is a start, and if we do not make a start, we will never get there.”

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