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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.

This post is from Nat Green, a second year law student at Vermont Law School and a joint research project student for 2011-2012 with VLS’ U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law.

On February 27, 2012, China’s National Development and Reform Commission announced a new plan to develop a national quota regime intended to encourage renewable energy development.  This system will require that electrical grid operators purchase electricity from renewable sources to fulfill quotas that vary according to region.  The planned regime, which bears resemblance to portfolio standards employed elsewhere in the world, signals a departure of sorts from China’s renewable energy policies.  While China’s renewable energy development has shown great success, the systems used to this point to encourage the development and integration of such sources continue to face significant challenges. Given the special focus of central government planners on wind generation, any shifts in renewables policy will manifest especially strongly in this sector.

In a sense, China’s wind power industry is a victim of its own success.  In 2010, installed wind capacity was estimated at 42 GW.  While this is still small compared with China’s hydropower capacity, it represents remarkably rapid growth given that the vast majority of this generation capacity has only been installed over the past decade.  Moreover, in the 12th Five Year Plan and associated policy circulars, the Chinese government projects that this growth will continue for decades, with the ultimate target calling for 17% of national electricity production being accounted for by wind generation.  However, this growth has come too quickly for existing grid operators to entirely accommodate the new industry’s particular needs.

While the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has historically provided much of the capital for China’s wind power sector, China’s Renewable Energy Law (REL) provides the policy and financial backbone of the industry.  The REL established what essentially is a feed-in tariff, meaning that renewable energy developers are guaranteed a fixed rate of sale into existing electrical grids in order to provide a certain return on investment.  Unfortunately, the strong incentive that the REL provides developers is not mirrored by strong enforcement where grid operators are concerned.  The REL requires that grid companies connect renewable generators and that they purchase their electricity, but these requirements place significant burdens on grid operators given the limitations of existing technology.  As a result, enforcement of the grid-connection requirement is uneven.

Recently, The China Renewable Energy Society, a China-based NGO, estimated that generators wasted 10 billion kilowatt hours of wind-generated electricity at installations across China in 2011.  This comes as somewhat of a surprise.  In 2009, many international media outlets reported that as much as 30% of wind capacity went unconnected to electrical grids, and Chinese policy-makers appeared eager to solve this problem in part through strengthened central government oversight.

However, the wind sector’s massive growth in the past two years has simply outrun the grid’s ability to incorporate the new types of load and the new requirements of long-distance transport.  As a result, policy-makers intend to slow wind power growth to a manageable rate.  A Oct 31, 2011 article in the China Energy News, a newspaper put out by the People’s Press and focused on China’s national energy industries, predicted just such a cool-down phase.  In this piece, Han JunLiang, board chairman of the HuaRui Group (a major state-owned renewable energy developer), claimed that wind power in China had come to a “re-adjustment period,” where annual increases of 100-200% are simply not sustainable.

An article in the same publication, published in February 2012 by Wang Xiuqiang, connected this cool-down stage of development with the new need for a quota system.  The quota system, according to Wang, will require that markets incorporate a specific percentage of electricity from renewable sources, varying by region.  In the process, generators and grid operators will earn credits, which in turn they can trade on a domestic market.  According to Wang, this system will serve to better unite the interests of generators and grid operators through both market forces and the threat of greater penalties where grid operators fail to connect renewable sources.

China’s renewable energy quota system, now only in its early development, appears to offer a potential solution of some of the problems associated with enforcement of the REL.  Unfortunately, the technological difficulties associated with China’s wind-generation goals still exist.  New grid technologies and long-range high-voltage transport do not come cheap, and ultimately Chinese policy-makers may need to develop yet more market mechanisms simply to deal with the associated costs.

It was a beautiful spring day in Beijing – a real blue-sky day. I went for a long bike ride, a portion of which followed the Nanhucheng “River,” which runs parallel to the South Second Ring Road. The Nanhucheng is a mostly manufactured waterway. Its banks are solid concrete and there are at least two locks along the portion I rode.

The river’s fabricated state does not seem to deter the local population from flocking to it. Fishermen were everywhere along its banks. Migrant workers lived in temporary housing under its bridges. Workers in bright orange vests scooped algae and trash from it. In one of the less algae clogged sections, there was a group of swimmers bathing in the cool water, just below a sign that read “no swimming.”

But the oddest sight was when I came across a mother and her teenage daughter trying to corral two very large freshwater turtles into the river. The mother said that they had just bought them for 1000 yuan (US$160) from a man on the street near the Temple of Heaven and that they were going to set them free.

Buying animals to set them free is popular amongst many Chinese with Buddhist leanings. The practice in Chinese is called “fangsheng” which can be translated as releasing life. Unfortunately, in many places, e.g., near temples, there is so much of this activity that it actually encourages sellers to capture the animals just so they can sell them to be set free. In this way it increases demand beyond the existing demand for such animals as pets or food. Clearly the mother meant well, but was completely inexperienced at animal rescue.

The turtles instinctively tried to go to the water, however there was a fence that they were too big to fit under. The only way to get them into the river would have been to pick them up and drop them eight or so feet into the river. My guess is that they would have survived the fall into the river. But considering all the fishermen, many with large nets, I surmised that the turtles would be lucky to last the rest of the day without getting caught again. I shared my opinion with the mother, who then struggled with what to do.

My comments and a growing group of bystanders put the mother into a semi state of urgency.

The bystanders shared opinions freely – they ranged from: “eat them” to “take them home and raise them.”

Getting the turtles back into their sack proved difficult and almost dangerous – the turtles were snapping. After several failed attempts to call her husband for advice, the mother said that she would get a large tub and take them home. I helped her re-bag the turtles and suggested that she search online for an appropriate environmental group or institute to take the turtles to. She thought that this was a good idea. So here is hoping that such a group exists.

The mother and daughter carried the turtles up to their SUV, placed the turtles in the back and off they drove.

I usually go weeks, sometimes months, without thinking about turtles. But yesterday, I read an article about how demand for turtles in Asia is impacting turtle populations in the US, which seemed to add more meaning to this encounter and bring it full circle. Kind of.

Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on the 8th day of the fourth lunar month, that’s May 10th, this year. But today was the 8th day in the fourth month of the Gregorian calendar, which happens to be Easter, this year. Full circle? Maybe, like a jagged oval snapping turtleshell.

2 April 2012

China To Reduce Dioxin Pollution From Pulp And Paper Industry With GEF Grant
Asian Scientist Magazine

China proposes environment protection projects with Japan in E. China Sea
Mainichi Daily News

1 April 2012

Conoco pays Chinese fishermen for oil spill-report
Reuters

Cnooc, ConocoPhillips Agree On CNY345 Million Compensation For Chinese Fishermen
Fox Business

30 March 2012

Sri Lankan conservationists battle national park highway
The Guardian

US and China Joust for Influence in Myanmar
New York Times

Mainstream Renewable Looks to China as West Lends Less
Bloomberg

Two Sides to Labor in China
New York Times

29 March 2012

China to flood nature reserve with latest Yangtze dam
Reuters

Apple suppliers’ conditions in China still touchy
San Francisco Chronicle

28 March 2012

Apple CEO Tim Cook meets with next Chinese leader
Los Angeles Times

Japan Urges Cooperation, Dialogue With China on Rare Earths
BusinessWeek

27 March 2012

China Beats US With Power From Coal Processing Trapping Carbon
Bloomberg

China’s Surprising US Buying Spree
BusinessWeek

This post is by Heather Croshaw, a second year law student at Vermont Law School and a joint-research project student with the US-China Partnership for Environmental Law for 2011-2012.  

Since September, Wang Ye and I had been skyping and written numerous emails for our Joint Research Project (JRP) on USA-China participation in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) for Energy Security Cooperation. We had talked for countless hours, emailed questions and research, and drafted a paper and presentation. All of this work was in preparation for my penultimate trip to China, where I would visit his university, China University for Political Science and Law (CUPL) in Beijing.

Before December 23, 2011, I had never been to China. Sure, I read numerous books and National Geographics and travel books about China, including the history, philosophy, and the best tourist sites. However, being in China in person cannot compare.

Hong Kong

My fellow VLS travel companions arrived in Hong Kong on December 23rd. Despite being jet lagged, we ventured out into the city to experience the nightlife and grab a bite to eat. This included a rather amusing experience trying to eat some kind of noodle soup with chopsticks. The whole time I was pining for my spoon… My chopstick skills improved greatly by the end of the trip! Anyway, wandering through the busy night-market was quite a change from snowy, dark, cold Vermont. Eventually we wandered over to the famous Hong Kong Harbor, which was a sight to behold.

Guangzhou

The next day we left Hong Kong for Guangzhou to begin our journey into Mainland China to Sun-Yat Sen University. We walked a lot, which made my feet sore for the first couple of days, basically exposing our sedentary life-style as law students! The campus was filled with historic buildings and many green spaces and trees. We wandered to the Pearl River, where we watched people play games and socialize. Professor Czarnezki showed us the local market, where the fruit stand amazed me with all the different varieties. Dragon fruit was particularly my favorite! As my JRP partner was not located at Sun-Yat Sen University, I met up with the other students to tour the city. However, we explored the Western Han Nanyue King’s Tomb Museum, known China’s version of the King Tut tomb discovery. Also, we walked through a city park, exploring the sites Yuexiu Park, which contains the Zhenhai Tower, a part of the Ming Dynasty City Wall, and scenic views of the city. Also, I tasted the local cuisine, from the local exotic fruits to spicy Sichuan hot pot to bubble tea.

On the last day in Guangzhou, the Vermont Law Students and students from Sun-Yat Sen University met on the school’s satellite campus for the JRP presentation.  After the presentation, we headed to the airport to begin part II of our JRP journey.

Beijing

I didn’t know what to expect when we left Guangzhou for Beijing. I’ve read and heard so many stores about Beijing, that many pictures were painted in my mind. However, experiencing Beijing for the first time really brought all those stories to life and I added my own. Beijing is so full of history, stretching back thousands of years. As a native of a “young” country, accessing these famous historical sites maximizes my intellectual curiosity! Also, with China being such a diverse country, there was so much food to taste.

Upon our arrival, Wang Ye, and a few other JRP students meet the VLS contingency that evening at our hotel. After Skyping for so many months, it was nice to finally meet Wang Ye in person. As we had a presentation to give in a few days, my trip transformed from tourist to business. Wang Ye and I had places to go, a preparation to prepare, and people to interview!

The next morning, I met with Jason Tower from the American Friends Service Committee. Pertaining to Wang Ye and my topic, Jason and I discussed China’s foreign investments abroad and their impacts on local communities. Then, in the afternoon, I met up with Wang Ye to meet with Professor Che’Er from Peking University to discuss the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and implications for Chinese foreign investment abroad and domestically. Wang Ye and I gained valuable insights into China’s foreign direct investment, particularly in the extractive industries, and how even EITI can impact China’s domestic energy governance.

Over the next two days, Wang Ye and I worked on our paper and preparing for our presentation on US-China participation in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.  On the third day, Wang Ye and I delivered our presentation at the CUPL in front of 20 students. We were both nervous, but overcame any butterflies to talk about our research. Of course, after the presentation was over, we felt like we had reached a milestone in our JRP.

With the presentation at CUPL, my business trip to China had closed and I returned to my tourist persona. As I mentioned earlier, I had never visited China before but had studied Chinese history and politics. Other VLS students and I wandered around the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the famous Pearl Market, and the Great Wall of China, to name a few examples. The view from the Great Wall was fantastic! Also, I got to know the Beijing Metro very well, which is very impressive for its efficiency and newness.

Harbin

After a few extra days in Beijing, a few VLS students and I traveled from Beijing to Harbin to see the famous Harbin Ice Festival. The ice spectacle definitely lives up to the hype! So much work and creativity goes into designing the ice sculptures and castles and buildings. I had never seen anything like this ice festival before! However, it was very, very cold with negative 13 celcius temperatures at night. As we toured the ice festival, we took as many pictures are possible before our feet froze. It was worth it! Harbin ended up as one of my favorite places to visit, as a unique blend of Chinese and Russian cultures. I would like to visit this place again in the summer, as I imagine it is just a beautiful.

At last, my trip ended back in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong harbor at night is truly a sight to behold. I still cannot believe the number of shipping crates carefully stacked throughout the different ports! I wish I had more time to explore Hong Kong, as it is an amazing city, before I returned to the States.

I cannot wait to return to Hong Kong this summer for my internship, as there is so much more to explore in the city. Also, I will try to return to Mainland China, as it captured my imagination and affection for its people, culture, food, and scenery. Hopefully, Wang Ye and I can meet up again soon, whether in China or in the United States!

25 March 2012

Mike Daisey and Empathy
Forbes

23 March 2012

China National Nuclear in Talks With Areva to Buy Uranium Stakes
Bloomberg

22 March 2012

China’s foreign policy is playing catch-up with its new status
The Guardian

China to Restrict Coal Demand, Output to 3.9 Billion Tons
Bloomberg

China may miss new target to cut coal output growth
Reuters

21 March 2012

Aldonas on US-China Trade Ties, Bo Xilai (Correct)
Washington Post (Video)

EU mulls ‘green lawsuits’ against China
EurActiv

20 March 2012

US govt sets new tariffs on China solar panels
Associated Press

U.S. Sets Duties of as Much as 4.73% on China Solar-Gear Imports
Bloomberg

US to impose tariff on Chinese solar panels in victory for domestic makers
The Guardian

19 March 2012

If the Durban Platform Opened a Window, Will India and China Close It?
Huffington Post (blog)

Pollution the big barrier to freer trade in rare earths
Reuters

Winds of change blow through China as spending on renewable energy soars
The Guardian

18 March 2012

China’s challenges: political change, pollution and protest
The Guardian

Change is coming to China – but will Beijing lead a social revolution?
The Guardian

China angers the world as battle for rare earth metals escalates
Telegraph.co.uk

Chinese move to their eco-city of the future
Telegraph.co.uk

Reuters brings some analysis to the rare earth trade debate and provides some additional support for arguments I made in a previous post on the issue.

 

Reuters – China’s message has been consistent: it deserves to profit more from its dominant role in the supply of the 17 vital elements used in a wide range of advanced electronics, and should no longer be expected to pay the full environmental costs of providing more than 90 percent of global supplies.

Environmental campaigners point to studies done in both New Jersey and China showing that thorium radiation emitted during the refining process and by plant waste can cause cancer, leukemia, birth defects and chronic lung diseases.

The government says the whole sector has been producing more than 20 million metric tonnes (22.05 million tons) of poisonous waste water a year, and in the major Chinese production regions of Inner Mongolia in the northeast and Jiangxi in the east, mining has created bubbling streams of toxic tailings that contaminate water supplies and render farmland worthless for decades.

Beijing has shut hundreds of small private operators accused of neglecting health and safety standards in the quest for quick profits – but pollution from giant state-owned producers such as Baotou Rare Earth is just as severe.

“We believe there are legitimate environmental concerns in the issue of rare earth mining and many actions taken on the Chinese side, like shutting down rogue mines, are based on such concerns,” said Ma Tianjie, a Beijing-based campaigner with Greenpeace.

“Big consumers of rare earths such as the United States, the EU and Japan should see this as a shared responsibility and should refrain from just pointing fingers at China.”