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This post is from Andy Homan, a third year JD student at VLS and a joint research project (JRP) student for 2013-2014 with the US-China Partnership for Environmental Law. The JRP students recently traveled to China to meet their research partners and further their projects. These posts share the student’s experience on the research trip and provide insight into their substantive areas of research.

Of the four participants in this year’s Joint Research Program, I was the only one who had never traveled to China or studied Mandarin. While this led to some uneasiness, particularly during the days leading up to the trip to China, I felt certain that my areas of research—consumer protection law and food labeling—could contribute to improvement of the environmental impacts of food production in China. The Joint Research Program paired me with my Chinese research partner, Ding Tingting, and together we developed a research project to explore the question of whether strong enforcement of consumer protection laws, combined with third-party certification of “sustainable” farmed fish and seafood in China, could effectively reduce the environmentally harmful effects of this sector of food production. Tingting and I communicated by email and developed a first draft of our paper, “Making Aquaculture Accountable Through Consumer Protection Law and Third-Party Certification in China and the U.S.”

Aquaculture—the farming of fish and seafood—originated in China thousands of years ago. Today, China leads the world in the production of farmed fish and seafood. Inland aquaculture in China occupies hundreds of millions of acres. The average Chinese consumer eats well over 30 kilograms of fish and seafood per year, and the worldwide appetite for fish and seafood is increasing. Meanwhile, the supply of “wild caught” seafood is being depleted. As a result, the demand for fish has led to increasingly intensive forms of aquaculture, including marine-based “open net” systems as well as land-based ponds. Additionally, most fish consumed in the U.S. originates in China, and much of it comes from fish farms.

While farmed fish and seafood arguably decrease pressure on the world’s depleted wild fisheries, aquacultural production in its current, concentrated forms results in negative environmental impacts. While aquaculture encompasses a wide variety of practices, most commercial aquaculture involves heavy use of food and pharmaceutical inputs, which combined with the waste from the fish result in high levels of water pollution. The most common form of inland aquaculture, a simple pond system, involves filling a manmade pond with water, raising hundreds of thousands of fish it, then discharging the water, along with excess nutrients and antimicrobial pharmaceuticals, when the fish are harvested.

For this reason, both the U.S. and China require permits to operate large-scale inland fish farms, and aquaculture falls under the regulation of a variety of government agencies in both countries. Nevertheless, many facilities fall under the minimum size for permitting under the Clean Water Act in the U.S., and in China, many fish farms simply never acquire a permit. Recent food safety scandals—including contamination with pharmaceuticals banned in the U.S.–have raised public awareness of aquaculture—driving demand for certified, “eco,” or “sustainably farmed” fish in the U.S. But because the supply chains for fish are so opaque—recent studies have revealed widespread mislabeling of species of fish for sale in the U.S. –consumer can hardly know that the fish they are buying are the correct species, let alone from the claimed source. Indeed, a single container of fish imported from China may contain fish from hundreds of sources, and with millions of aquaculture ponds in China, traceability to the source is unlikely. And while the FDA has regulatory authority to inspect imported fish, it lacks the resources to inspect more than a few percent of the fish entering the marketplace. It is safe to say that while the governments of China and the U.S. regulate the safety and environmental impacts of farmed fish, for whatever reasons the regulation does not effectively result in raising the bar to encourage fish farmers to engage in practices that are safer and cleaner. Because aquaculture depends on clean water yet at the same time causes high levels of water pollution, without regulation, it will ultimately destroy the very conditions of its productive operation. Frankly, at the culmination of this research into the regulation of aquaculture, I was shocked at the discrepancy between the apparent care and regulation on the part of government, and the inability to provide the desired outcomes—safe food, produced without extreme environmental harm.

Having completed the preliminary research, I traveled to China for the last weeks of December, 2013. Upon our arrival in Beijing, Adam Moser, Assistant Director of the U.S-China Partnership for Environmental Law, greeted us at the airport and brought us to our hotel, directly across the street from the Chinese University of Political Science and Law (CUPL). The first evening, I experienced an initial taste of China that I will never forget—a spicy Sichuan-style hotpot, complete with organ meats and varieties of mushrooms and greens that defied translation. Observing the enthusiastic dining all around the busy restaurant, I felt comforted by the central, noble place of good food within a country that at the same time struggled to produce so much food in a safer and more environmentally responsible manner. I also resolved to fully appreciate food in China by eating everything—even unfamiliar and extremely spicy foods. (In full disclosure, I had “trained” myself on chili peppers for nearly two months before the trip—an effort that paid off in dividends.

The following morning, I finally met Tingting. She is a postgraduate student at CUPL, studying environmental law. At the time, she was finishing her exams for the semester and interning with a judge at the Supreme People’s Court—the highest court in China. We had a lovely time getting to know each other, and it was enlightening and fun to discuss the differences between the legal systems in the U.S. and China. Tingting showed me around the CUPL, which is an interesting counterpart to Vermont Law School because, like VLS, it is a school entirely devoted to law and policy. Tingting and I focused our paper on consumer protection law, and we looked at the ways existing consumer protection law in China and the U.S. would regulate—and motivate—third-party certifications and seals of approval which would effectively raise the bar for safer and more ecological aquaculture.

For all our research on the topic of aquaculture and its regulation, Tingting and I had never seen a working fish farm. She arranged for a very special opportunity for both of us—a visit to a lab operated by the National Engineering Research Center for Freshwater Fisheries. Director Wang, an official from the administrative section of the Research Center, drove us to the warm-water lab, which was over an hour away. During the drive—during which I was taking in the experience of Beijing traffic!–we discussed aquaculture in China, and Tingting translated as Director Wang explained the efforts taken by the Research Center to promote cleaner aquacultural practices. At the lab, we saw massive breeding tanks for ornamental fish as well as Nile tilapia, one of the varieties of farmed fish popularly consumed in the U.S.. Employees of the lab and Director Wang showed us the various systems they have developed for cleaning the water in recirculating systems, the technology they implement for monitoring water quality, and some (drained and frozen) outdoor ponds of the conventional “fill-and-drain” variety. Tingting’s advisor, Professor Hu, met us at the lab and we discussed our project with him. It was a rare experience to be shown this research facility, and in just a few hours, Tingting and I were able to see many aspects of the systems about which we had only read articles. It is one thing to read about a pond containing 200,000 fish; it is another matter to actually see one, and I was grateful for the experience.

After the visit, Professor Hu invited Director Wang, Tingting, and I for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Professor Hu cautiously inquired if I was a vegetarian or had other eating restrictions and I replied that I would eat anything. “Even very spicy?” he asked. “Especially very spicy!” I replied to his delight. We enjoyed dumplings, sweet fried squash coated in nuts, and the spiciest fish that I have ever eaten. Our conversation drifted from fish and water pollution to soil conservation. On the drive home, Director Wang pointed out a huge facility for indoor, winter growing of strawberries, subsidized by the government. I was struck once again by the cultural centrality of food, and by the scale and intensity of food production in China.

The trip also included other opportunities to hear perspectives on the state of environmental law in China, and to get feedback on my research from individuals on the ground in China. The research fellows visited the U.S. embassy and met with Phillip Gatins, who graciously offered feedback on our research. Another highlight was a dinner with Gillian Wong, an AP correspondent with an interest in food safety issues in China.

While the opportunity to meet Tingting in person and to develop our project further was undoubtedly the highlight of the trip, I cherish a panorama of illuminating pictures of China: A grandmother bouncing a plump baby on her leg while she ate dimsum in a Guangzhou restaurant. An enormous, posh, and largely empty shopping mall in Beijing. The hazy smog of Beijing. The numbing spices of food on Ghost Street in Beijing; the stacks of dumpling steamers in Guangzhou.  Aged citizens playing pingpong in a small park only a few blocks away from where the Emperors sat on thrones in the Forbidden City.  The Emperors’ collection of exotic clocks. Beautiful, efficient, clean subways. The warmhearted conversation among students, professors, and environmental lawyers at a dinner; duck heads and pungent soup and so much laughter. The enthusiasm of the students and professors at CUPL and at Sun Yat-sen University (in Guangzhou), the heartfelt camaraderie at the end-of-year party at the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims in Beijing, and the engaged work of Tingting and the other research partners will remind me of the human beings whose efforts are striving to make improvements in the midst of economic forces that drive environmental impacts in China.

I have a new post up at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institue Blog. The post is a critical examination of how we define and diagnose China’s – and the world’s – environmental governance challenges.

During China’s annual two sessions meeting in March, delegates gave low approval ratings to the Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Granted, China’s judicial system and its environmental governance regime leave much to be desired. But attributing such shortcomings to these two government bodies alone is derived from either a serious misunderstanding of China’s governance system or counterproductive finger pointing that obscures the root problems. More 

 

This post is from Heather Croshaw, a rising 3L at Vermont Law School (VLS). This summer she interned with WWF in Hong Kong. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect those of WWF or VLS. 

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about how the poor air quality and visibility in Hong Kong marred the beautiful skyline and affected the quality of life for residents. Well, the air pollution got a lot worse, which I witnessed right before Typhoon Vicente and then again for Tropical Cyclones Damrey, Saola and Haikui. About a whole week passed with smog as the norm, as the typhoons churned out in the Pacific Ocean. While typhoons and poor air quality are not directly connected, the thick, heavy smog signals the approach of a tropical cyclone, as the air is trapped.

My first glimpse of how poor the visibility can get occurred right before Typhoon Vicente struck Hong Kong, one of the most intense typhoons in 13 years. I was amazed at how bad the visibility had degraded. On way to Victoria Harbor for a ferry trip, I spoke with the taxi driver about the poor visibility. He said this always happens before a typhoon (I didn’t even know one was approaching at the time!). I could barely see Victoria Peak from the Harbor. The smog created an eerie haze around Hong Kong.

A few days later, the severe Typhoon Vicente struck Hong Kong, even making international press as Hong Kong Observatory issued the typhoon signal 10 for the first time since 1999 and the farthest tropical cyclone since 1946.

Although the storm landed south of Macau (or 69 miles south of Hong Kong), the typhoon did disrupt Hong Kong with damaging winds and drenching rainstorms, but fortunately no one was killed. Typhoon Vicente even delayed the opening of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. After the storm passed, the air quality and visibility improved.

Interestingly, the summer in Hong Kong usually produces more brilliant “blue sky days than during other parts of the year,” due to winds blowing from the south. This weather pattern basically means that the air pollution is pushed out of the city, leaving the air seemingly cleaner than during other parts of the year. The absence of smog, however, does not equal clean air.

Meanwhile, another three tropical cyclones that passed north of Taiwan changed the weather patterns again. While Hong Kong did not feel the direct effects of the storm, the presence of the typhoon trapped the air pollution within Hong Kong. The smog had no where to go but sit in the downtown area rather than move out to sea. As a result, Hong Kong experienced the worst air pollution in two years, not since the dust storms struck the city in March 2010 and the worst since 1999, when the government began to monitor air quality. The air pollution indices topped 200, topping at 212 in Central.

The main causes of air pollution originate from regional sources in Guangdong Province (factories and coal-fired power plants in China) and local sources (coal-fired power plants and automobile exhausts, particularly from diesel engines). According to ECA International, Hong Kong has the third worst air pollution behind Beijing and New Delhi, and ranks world-wide with along with Santiago, Mexico City and Cairo for poor air quality. Additionally, Hong Kong has the second-worst road-side air pollution in China—only Urumqi in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region outranks Hong Kong. Despite Hong Kong being the third most livable city in Asia, international businesses and financial centers frequently cite the worsening air pollution as a block to not only recruiting talent, but also keeping current employees in Hong Kong. Singapore has become the more desired work location with its clean air and easy living conditions.

The poor visibility and air quality does lead to an increase in (non-accidental) deaths, according to researchers at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. The concentration of PM 2.5 and 10, as well as NOx, combined with the humidity and heat (temperatures were 30º C), creates a hazardous combination.

The month of July experienced only 12 “clear days,” and so far 47 days out of 219 days have had pollution levels under WHO standards. As I am writing this post, the sky is somewhat blue, but the Hedley Environmental Index measures the air quality as “very dangerous,” meaning that the short-term measurements exceed the WHO annual interim target level 1 for roadside and roof-top pollutants (PM 2.5 and 10) and will have an impact on public health.

The Hong Kong Government knows this air quality is a problem, and has tightened air pollution standards. However, many of Hong Kong’s green groups believe these modest standards are not enough to improve the environment. Tellingly, the Hong Kong Government has not tightened their air quality standards in 25 years.

The impact of tropical cyclones on air quality demonstrates how Hong Kong relies on favorable weather to keep out the smog. Even when the storms passed, unfortunately the air pollution will not disappear without significant overhaul to local emission regulations for automobiles (i.e. old diesel buses) and fossil-fuel power plants.  The clearly visible air pollution and its physical effects on residents at least raise the awareness that Hong Kong has to take action to improve air quality. Not only will Hong Kong experience a “brain drain,” but also the long-term health of its citizens will be significantly impacted.  In this case, cleaning up the air pollution not only makes sense for environmental protection, but also for the financial and public health of Hong Kong, the Pearl of the Orient (東方之珠).

The latest report from the “PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) show that per capita emissions in China increased by 9% in 2011 to reach 7.2 tonnes per person, only a fraction lower than the EU average of 7.5 tonnes.” More at the Guardian.

The report only measured emissions from fossil fuel use and energy production. Such things as international air travel were not included. But the picture that this report paints is a bleak one indeed.

This post is from Heather Croshaw, a rising 3L at Vermont Law School (VLS) and currently interning at WWF in Hong Kong. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect those of WWF or VLS. 

This summer I decided to partake in an internship in Hong Kong at World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) to work in their Climate Change program.

I had a few days to explore the Hong Kong area before beginning work. Considering the amount of activities and sites in Hong Kong, I decided to do some of the real touristy ones first. One particularly popular activity sits directly outside WWF’s Central office, the Victoria Peak Tram, or just known as the Peak Tram.

The Peak Tram services millions of tourists each year, who clamor to witness the famous Hong Kong city view from the summit (well, almost the summit) of Victoria Peak. The tram climbs at a very steep incline, where the buildings look practically sideways. Not a fan of heights, I just kept looking up and not down!

Once the tram reached the top, the views were indeed impressive. The observation deck was especially wonderful for seeing the different sides of the island. While it was a warm day (28 or 29 C), a slight haze marred the picturesque cityscape. The smog was ruing the impressive view of the cityscape. Indeed, air pollution is a problem in Hong Kong SAR and the Pearl River Delta region.

After I left the observation tower, I wandered along to another viewing point where a bunch of tourists gathered. After taking in the view for a few minutes, a young woman asked for my attention. She asked me if I wanted to take a survey. I agreed. After I glanced at the survey, I realized that it was about air pollution and the city skyline. As an environmentalist, I understand more about air pollution than the average layperson- I’d like to think- especially on causes of air pollution, regulatory controls, policy options and legal duties to protect clean air and the right to health. I was feeling in my element.

The student held up 5 pictures of Hong Kong’s skyline and asked me to compare the picture to today’s view. It was definitely smoggy compared to 3 other pictures, but two other pictures were worse, which actually demonstrated how bad the air pollution can be in Hong Kong.

The survey asked questions about the causes of air pollution and possible health effects; rankings on what kinds of natural hazards are “worse” than others; whether people would be willing to change behavior (i.e. drive less); and how much money would people be willing to pay to clean the air. I found it hard to answer some questions, especially about ranking the natural disasters. Do I think Climate Change is the number one priority or today’s air pollution or water contamination? What about maintaining affordable electricity while implementing SOx, NOx, VOCs, PPMs and CO2 emission controls? How much would I be willing to pay to clean the air?

After I completed the survey, I briefly told her about my professional background, as a way to connect as people interested in protecting the environment. I had a nice discussion with the environmental science student from University of Hong Kong about her studies and what she hopes to do after school. She finishes her university degree in August. I wished her luck.

Based on background reading, I knew that air pollution was particularly problematic in China as well as in Hong Kong. What I didn’t know was that Hong Kong’s air pollution violated WHO standards.

In 2011, Hong Kong only had 59 clear days in which all 5 categories of air pollutants (NO2, PM10, SO2, O3 and PM2.5) satisfied the WHO short-term air quality guidelines (AQGs).

Before, Hong Kong could blame development and uncontrolled air pollution in China. When the wind blows from the mainland, pollution definitely settles into Hong Kong’s city area. Power plants, industry, buildings and motorized vehicles emit the majority of emissions causing the air pollution. However, Hong Kong cannot blame mainland China for all the air pollution, as Hong Kong’s motorized vehicles and power plants emit a significant amount of pollution. Thus, Hong Kong suffers both local and regional air pollution in the Pearl River Delta (not to mention water pollution as well).

So, how does Hong Kong fix the air pollution? They have an Air Pollution Ordinance, but the law has to go further. The policy-making arena has made some progress. In 2012, the Hong Kong Government finally updated their Air Quality Objectives for the first time since 1987, but actually offered little improvement.

Policy-makers face tough choices as they have to deal with the short term versus long term issues, while satisfying their constituents.

Protecting the environment does not have to be a hard choice though, which can be a difficult concept for some policymakers to understand.  Hong Kong faces similar policy decisions as in the U.S., where people claim that protecting the environment kills jobs and hurts economic growth.

In March, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a very quality book that brings together over 30 leading Chinese academics and environmentalists, who author 20 chapters on nearly every aspect of China’s environmental situation. The book, Green China: Chinese insights on environment and development, is available as a free download and will be of value to anyone trying to better understand China’s environmental challenges and governance.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog will be the chapter by Professors Wang Jin and Wang Mingyuan on environmental rule of law in China. The two professors provide a scathing critique of what ails China’s environmental law regime, from inadequate rule of law and insufficient protections for public participation to the legislative process.

I’m sure that almost every country has someone like John Stossel – a self-righteous media personality who depicts the world in black and white, and whose appeal, to a section of the population, lies precisely in his over-simplified take on very complex matters. I’m usually able to keep such media at bay, but the title to Mr. Stossel’s latest editorial, “Keeping Nature Exactly As Is… Forever” in Reason Magazine was too hard to pass up.

Let’s start from the end of Stossel’s piece.

Most of us don’t think civilization is evil, but we worry about what environmentalists say. We don’t have the time to do complicated calculations about economic trade-offs. It’s easier to just recycle something, buy a Prius and donate to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Today, we put up with amazing intrusions in the name of environmentalism. A million petty regulations mandate surtaxes on gas, separation of garbage into multiple bins, special light bulbs, taxes on plastic bags and so on.

Yet these things are of so little ecological consequence that the Earth will never notice. For this, we must surrender our freedom?

And there it is: environmental protection versus freedom. That’s about as black and white as it gets.

Don’t concern yourself with the facts that inform us that if everyone did separate their trash or use energy saving bulbs we could save billions of dollars not digging new landfills and not building new power plants. The U.S. government’s Energy Star program saved Americans $16 billion in utility bills in 2007 alone. Not bad for a “petty regulation.”

If Stossel were persuaded by facts he might see the collective savings such individual actions have. I know Stossel is all about saving money, because that’s why he’s against “green schemes.” “The green schemes make energy cost more,” he says.

Of course, some who push “green jobs” want the price of energy to rise. Then we will live in smaller homes, drive less and burn fewer fossil fuels. But if the environmental lobby wants Americans to be poorer, it ought to come clean about that.

Gotta love his ability to boil it down for us, i.e., striving for conservation and efficiency means you’re poor.

Let’s apply Stossel’s logical reasoning to another issue near and dear to his heart, social welfare reform.

According to Stossel, individual actions don’t matter in light of the billions of tons of carbon and waste that must be dealt with to solve the problem. So why should any American care if one of their fellow citizens doesn’t have a job and relies on welfare? They’re just one person getting a few thousand dollars in taxpayer money. How is eliminating their welfare check going to solve America’s 15 trillion dollar debt problem? Right, John?

Stossel gets at least one thing right. Green energy and green jobs do not come cheap. Indeed, achieving a truly sustainable economy would require fundamental changes to the dominant notion of free-market Capitalism for both those on the left and the right.

But what Stossel fails to appreciate is that the cost of ignoring our responsibilities to future generations could very likely result in a less prosperous and more dangerous world. Indeed, he fails to understand that economic actions have externalities, and that the “tragedy of the commons” even exists.

Perhaps it is Stossel’s American-centric view that permits his misunderstanding. America’s geography blesses it with abundant natural resources and a relatively small population. But China lacks such advantages. China’s ecological limitations: water shortages, severely polluted water, soil pollution, and the collapse of costal fisheries – just to name a few – don’t allow it the luxury of entertaining rhetoric like Stossel’s.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese die annually from deaths related to China’s water crisis. Air pollution in its cities, from coal plants and individually driven cars, make American visitors cringe when they first arrive. (Many of these Americans forget that without regulation in the U.S., their cities would look the same.)

Laudably, China has recently raised the price of gasoline and electricity to levels that are on average higher than those in the U.S., and began to ban incandescent light bulbs. Did the country that raised more people out of poverty than any other in history do this to make its people poor again? Probably not. Rather, it was because its growing demand for fossil fuels is making all fuels more expensive, and hopefully to encourage efficiency.

If Stossel thinks that environmentalists are making U.S. energy prices rise, his understanding of markets and world events is skewed beyond belief. I invite him to come to China, so that he might understand why global energy prices are rising.

China will struggle with leaving a dirty economic model behind, because it is always easier to preference short-term economic growth over investments in value creating conservation for the future. But at least China realizes that there are real physical constraints to its landfills and to its fossil fueled growth. If it doesn’t realize this, then American environmentalists should be the least of Stossel’s concerns.

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