Trying to count the number of ‘environmental catastrophes’ between last winter’s Airpocalypse and this winter’s seems staggering. To help us enumerate the year’s wonderful PM2.5 overdoses, water foulings, and gas explosions, author and researcher Sam Geall rides in through the smog with his list of the 10 Biggest Environmental Headlines of the year.
10. The Persistent Pall
2012 had seemed like something of a turning point for air-pollution control, particularly when a public outcry led to more than 60 cities starting to publish real-time information about concentrations of the harmful small-scale particulate matter known as PM2.5. But in 2013, the question asked by many, including the prominent environmentalist Ma Jun, was “where next?” After all, the smog didn’t go away: northern China bore the brunt in January this year; the haze hit Harbin in October; while in December, air pollution in Shanghai reached record levels, with the city authorities advising children and the elderly to stay indoors. This year also saw the release of the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s long-awaited five-year action plan for air pollution. This included significant investment and a target to reduce PM2.5 levels in the North China Plain by 25%. But some analysts worried about the creation of pollution havens: “exporting” the pollution to China’s west, for example, where regulations are more lax; others expressed concern that the plan supports electricity generation from synthetic natural gas converted from coal, an extremely water-intensive process that releases more greenhouse gases than burning coal. Are people convinced that the air pollution problem is finally turning a corner? In October, a Pew Research Center survey found 47% of Chinese said air pollution was a “very big” problem facing the country. But a cynical suggestion for the phonetic translation for Max Baucus, the likely new US envoy to China, summed up the mood even better: 包咳死 (Baokesi), “guaranteed to cough to death.”
9. “Ecological Civilization”
Like many people, I followed the Chinese Communist Party’s Third Plenum in November, hoping for hints at the new leadership’s future environmental approaches, but the outcome document contained little detail about green policies. Still, it did indicate the further institutionalization of one top-level slogan that has been kicking around since 2005 or so, with a notable peak in 2007: “Ecological Civilization.” According to a China Daily commentary, this “is not a term the Party has coined just to fill a theoretical vacancy in its socialism with Chinese characteristics, but rather a future-oriented guiding principle based on the perception of the extremely high price we have paid for our economic miracle.” Doris Fischer, of University of Würzburg, said the Plenum showed a desire, “to create an environmental policy using market instruments and universally applicable rules… a departure from the state-led green industrial policy pursued under the leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao”. Certainly the question of which rules are in place will come under scrutiny in the coming year: in 2013, a new draft Environmental Protection Law was discussed by Chinese policymakers, and was heavily criticized for restricting the rights of NGOs to take environmental cases to court.
8. Microbloggers Making Their Mark
Citizen journalism and online protests around environmental issues aren’t new in China, but 2013 was a particularly strong year for netizen-led green campaigns: from the entrepreneur who offered 200,000 yuan to his city’s environmental protection chief to take a 20-minute dip in his polluted local river; to the farmers near Hangzhou, who set up a Weibo account to bring attention to the severe pollution from paper and electroplating factories in the area. It was an interesting year for government engagement with green themes on social media, too. On the one hand, municipalities like Chongqing became models of networked governance: the Environmental Protection Bureau there has an individual microblog for each of the 40 districts, which release environmental alerts, air quality information and more; on the other, in September, the authorities went after Dong Liangjie, as part of a nationwide “anti-rumour” crackdown. The co-founder of a water-purifier company, Dong had more than 3 million followers on Sina Weibo, but police said many of his posts contained sensational or false information that exaggerated the problem of environmental pollution in China.
7. Nuclear Shutdown
In July, street protests by residents – typically dubbed as local “strolls” – forced the local authorities in Jiangmen, Guangdong province, to cancel the construction of a 4 billion yuan uranium processing plant. The city government continued to defend the project until the last moment, finally issuing a one-line statement on its website cancelling the project “to respect people’s desire.” One of a number of so-called “NIMBY” protests this year (an unreasonably pejorative description, in my opinion, since there’s little wrong with being concerned about the health of your community, especially if you feel you haven’t been granted a stake in the planning process), the shutdown mattered because it’s a sign of likely conflicts to come: China plans a four-fold increase in the country’s atomic energy capacity by 2020, a plan described as “green” by policymakers, but which the prominent physicist He Zuoxiu, for example, criticized this year as rash and unsafe.
6. PX Protests
Protesters in Kunming demonstrate against a proposed PX petrochemical plant.
In May, protestors in southwest China opposed the construction of a petrochemical plant manufacturing paraxylene (PX): the industrial chemical that has become something of a signifier for environmental concerns among networked citizens (though which the People’s Daily said is no more carcinogenic than coffee). Again, the story was important in terms of what it might portend: while Chinese laws and regulations require environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and public consultation before developments take place, in practice these are rarely implemented. Until residents feel they can exercise their right to oversee and participate in transparent local decision-making processes, this sort of social discontent is only likely to increase. Encouragingly, the Kunming protests led the city government to publish the full EIA for the project – and the mayor even joined Sina Weibo in an attempt to increase local engagement in the decision-making process.
5. Toxic Cover-Ups
Less encouraging in terms of transparency, in January, the city of Handan, home to 9 million people in Hebei province, cut off water supplies after Tianji Coal Chemical Industry’s factory in Changhzhi, in neighbouring Shanxi province, leaked 39 tonnes of toxic aniline into the Zhuozhang River and a disused reservoir. The incident wasn’t made public until five days after the spill occurred. In the face of public anger (one blogger wrote: “We’ve been drinking contaminated water for five days, it’s hard to imagine the consequences. Who will take responsibility for this?”), a Changzhi government official defended the cover-up, saying that it was “not necessary to report to anybody, including the provincial government, as long as the pollutants have not yet spread to regions out of our jurisdiction.” The incident underscored how, despite China’s Open Government Information Regulations, the country still has a long way to go in improving transparency. The following month, the lack of official openness also became the focus of a campaign around water pollution in Weifang, Shandong province.
4. Tragedy in Tibet
In April, a massive landslide at the Gyama gold mine, operated by the China National Gold Group, east of Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region, buried 83 workers. The bravery of the rescue teams that recovered many of the miners’ bodies is not in dispute, but controversy later came to rest not only on the causes of the tragedy but also the social and environmental inequalities it may have exposed. “The Tibetan plateau is considered the lungs of Asia,” one Tibetan scholar in Lanzhou was quoted as saying. “Those short-sighted mining activities chase after quick benefits but ignore the environment for future generations.” It’s an issue that was covered in depth by Gabriel Lafitte in his book Spoiling Tibet, published in 2013. Regarding the causes of the disaster, censorship directives made it difficult for the debate to play out fully in China, but Dave Petley, Professor of Hazard and Risk at Durham University, became a must-read. His blog set out the complexities and contradictory narratives around assigning the mudslide’s causes, but concluded it was unlikely to have been an entirely natural “act of God”.
3. Green Light for Carbon Markets
Always a trailblazing city, Shenzhen launched China’s first major municipal carbon-trading scheme in June, covering more than 600 companies and 38% of the city’s overall emissions. The plan, which puts a cap on participating companies’ overall carbon emissions and requirs them to buy credits if they exceed their allowances, aims to reduce the city’s emissions by 21% over a five-year period. Shanghai and Beijing followed suit in November. Although significant questions remain about the design of these markets and the accuracy of China’s energy data, the pilot schemes are aspects of China’s 12th Five Year-Plan (2011-2015), which has enshrined sustainable development targets as core state policy – targets which the country still seems to be far from meeting – and an important step towards the country’s longer-term pledge to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions per unit of GDP to 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020.
2. Explosions in Qingdao
In November, two huge explosions caused by leaking oil from a ruptured pipeline belonging to Sinopec killed 66 people in the port city of Qingdao, in Shandong province. The blasts shattered windows and ripped open the streets, overturning vehicles. The city’s Environmental Protection Bureau said that barriers had been set up to contain the oil as it flowed out into the sea – more than 3,000 square metres of sea surface were later reported to have been contaminated – but that the oil caught fire in a storm sewer, and had also seeped into underground utility pipes. Again, media silence and a focus on maintaining “social stability” in the face of disaster sparked public ire: Sinopec’s chairman made a public apology on CCTV, but local media in Qingdao ran no coverage at all in the next day’s newspapers. Residents also asked why the local area had not been evacuated after the leak occurred – there was a seven-hour gap between the pipeline rupture and the explosions. Residents protested outside local government offices in Huangdao District. The incident underscored the extent to which environmental disasters, when poorly handled, will do lasting damage to public trust (a point that has been demonstrated across the world).
1. The Pigfestation (AKA Hogwash)
In March, when more than 10,000 pig carcasses floated down the Huangpu River, a major water source for Shanghai, the country had surely experienced the most visibly shocking reminder of its ecological crisis. On the lighter side, this inspired netizens to riff darkly on the Ang Lee film Life of Pi, with posters circulating online for a new horror film, Life of Pig. More significantly, the case pointed to the potentially huge environmental and public health impacts posed by the rapid expansion of pig farming in China. With the causes of the pigfestation still murky, the only thing that’s certain that the social debates around these uncertainties aren’t going away anytime soon, with speculation that everything from avian flu to genetically modified corn caused the pig die-off. And as this year’s litany of grim headlines suggests, simply trying to put a lid on these discussions is a losing battle.
Sam Geall is editor of China and the Environment: The Green Revolution, published by Zed Books in 2013. He is a Research Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), at the University of Sussex, UK, for Low Carbon Innovation in China: Prospects, Politics and Practice, an international research project led by Lancaster University, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and an affiliate project of the STEPS Centre, and Executive Editor of chinadialogue.net, a bilingual online journal devoted to open discussion of all environmental issues, with a special focus on China.