Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Air Quality in Urban China Is Often Worse Than Smoking Areas in Airports

Photo by Zhanyanguange. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Zhanyanguange. Some rights reserved.

Here in Seattle, especially around this time of year when snow may be in the mix, a lot of folks will end up checking Cliff Mass’ Weather Blog for laser-accurate and regionally specific updates on the weather of Puget Sound (and beyond). The local weather guru has been at it for years and offers much deeper and more thoughtful insight into weather patterns and trends than your average local news station. In fact, I started checking Cliff Mass’ blog again this week as rumors and whispers of snow have been whipping up over the last week, and it lead me to this disconcerting post.

In short, Mass compares a study done by the CDC last year of nine large US airports to determine what effect a designated smoking area will have on air quality in and surrounding the area itself. It comes as no surprise that airports with smoking areas were found to have worse overall air quality, but what is extremely disconcerting is that Mass then compares the figures from this study with recent air quality data from China’s largest and most industrialized cities. Now, we’ve talked about air quality in China before so we know that the air quality in most Chinese cities is far from ideal. But Mass’ report indicates that many Chinese cities have particulate levels well above what you’d find in a smoking lounge or bar in a U.S. airport. For instance, the air quality rating (by particulates per cubic meter) in Beijing on the day of measurement was 327 micrograms per cubic meter, while Changdou, Suzhou, and Nanjing all reported numbers above 300 micrograms per cubic meter (311, 325, and 351 respectively). Meanwhile, while Shanghai only reported 168 micrograms per cubic meter that day (under the reported average for smoking-permitted areas in airports in that CDC report, which was 276.9), but as Mass points out, Shanghai has reported days in which its total has surpassed 600 micrograms per cubic meter, so it seems Shanghai just got lucky on the date of measurement.


That’s One Way to Clear the Air

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

I was perusing photography websites the other day and came across an article on DP Review describing Hong Kong’s latest efforts to give tourists a nice clean view of the city. Hong Kong has stunning vistas, but they are often obscured by smog. Hong Kong, being on the ocean, has somewhat less lethal air pollution than Beijing or Shanghai, but tourists’ dissatisfaction has prompted authorities in Hong Kong to make lemonade out of the lemons they’ve been handed. In a novel solution, the city has erected giant photo murals depicting the city as it might appear on its rare clear days. Instead of photographing your sweetheart in front of the Hong Kong skyline as it actually is, you can snap a picture in front of a billboard showing how it would look if the air wasn’t so filthy.

The word “smog” doesn’t really begin to describe the air pollution which has reached staggering levels in many cities in China. In Beijing, where the hazardous air is literally off the charts, they talk of an “airpocalypse“.

The Chinese government has come under tremendous pressure, especially from urban elites who have grown increasingly alarmed by what they are forced to suck into their lungs. In August, Chinese leaders went to the resort town of Beidaihe where they have traditionally gone to discuss national policy since the days of Chairman Mao. Der Spiegel reports that, with little fanfare, the national government has announced a dramatic shift in its development and environmental policies. The world’s second largest economy and biggest environmental polluter is poised to radically realign its economy to boost the environmental sector to the rank of a “key industry,” on par with steel production, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology.  According the government’s plans, the sector is expected to earn $728 billion dollars in just the next two years.  The plan is to use tax breaks, government subsidies, and investments (foreign investment is expressly encouraged) to boost the production of more efficient power plants, the use of liquefied natural gas, and dramatically boost renewable and nuclear energy. Above all, the plan relies on economic incentives. Says Zou Ji of the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, “Environmental protection can make you rich!” The government is determined to shift from a reliance on manufacturing to a more environmentally sustainable urban service economy.

Der Spiegel, being a German publication, points out the enormous opportunities the new policy presents for German businesses which are flocking to China to take advantage of the country’s need for Germany’s advanced technology and manufacturing prowess. In fact, 80 percent of all the machinery used in China to manufacture solar panels comes from Germany.

China has shown that when it sets itself a national goal, it tends to pursue it relentlessly, for better or for worse. This new and fundamental shift in energy policy may not only present profit making opportunities for foreign business investors, but it promises to curb the ever growing emissions which are choking the life out of the Chinese people and their economy. It’s certainly a more sustainable and substantive solution than Hong Kong’s Potemkin billboards.

China Is “All Out of Love” For Its Air Supply

Photo by Erik Charlton. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Erik Charlton. Some rights reserved.

Last summer, we reported on a Twitter account operated from the U.S. embassy in Beijing (@BeijingAir) which tweets hourly reports on the air quality levels in Beijing. We noted in our report that the Chinese government was hoping to get the account shut down and, while it is still up and running at the time of writing this, a cursory glance at any of its tweets makes it easy to see why. The pollutant levels are almost always deemed “Hazardous,” and at certain times, the quality is pushed into the category “Beyond Index,” which, to me, is utterly terrifying.

This week, the AP reported extensively on the worsening air quality in Beijing and northern China in general, where thick blankets of hazardous smog got so bad this week that airports were forced to cancel flights due to poor visibility, and 103 factories were also temporarily shut down by the Beijing government to prevent further pollution of the air. Hospitals saw a 30% increase in patients seeking treatment for respiratory issues over the past month. In some areas, visibility in the streets was less than 100 meters, causing landmarks and skyscrapers to disappear behind the curtain of fog.

The U.S. embassy Twitter account monitors PM2.5, a fine particle pollution of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, and posted an hourly high of 526 micrograms per cubic meter, which is more than 20 times higher than the maxim set by World Health Organization safety levels. Even the figure reported by the Beijing city government (which consistently reports levels lower than those reported by @BeijingAir) for the same hour block was 433 micrograms per cubic meter, still considered highly dangerous by the WHO. A poll created by Chinese real estate mogul Pan Shiyi calling for a Chinese Clean Air Act to deal with some of these issues and prevent the situation from worsening even further received over 32,000 affirmative votes in under 10 hours.

China Asks U.S. Embassy in Beijing to Quit It With the Twitter, Already

Photo by SeemsArtless. Some rights reserved.

Reuters reports this week that the Chinese government, and specifically the vice minister of environmental protection Wu Xiaqing, has called on “foreign embassies” in Beijing to stop publicly reporting air pollution figures. Based on the U.S. embassy-run Twitter feed @BeijingAir, which has been posting hourly updates on Beijing’s air pollution collected from the embassy’s rooftop since 2009, it seems easy to tell that the Chinese government is targeting the U.S. with these statements (and how bad does the data look, you ask? This morning’s tweets are tagged as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” while yesterday’s figures range from “Unhealthy” to “Very Unhealthy”). While Mr. Wu did not call out the U.S. in particular, he stated that reporting these figures violates certain portions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

The BeijingAir twitter monitors several parameters of air pollution data: pollutant type; concentration; AQI; definition. Specifically, the feed pays special attention to PM2.5, or fine particle pollution of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, as this type of air pollution is thought to be the biggest threat to public health. The Twitter feed already played a role in strong-arming Hong Kong into making their PM2.5 pollution data publicly available earlier this year. If Hong Kong is able to reach its stated goal by 2014 as outlined here, they will still exceed the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines by 300%. Shanghai will begin releasing their data publicly this month, but there is still no plan to do the same for Beijing.

China Huffs and Puffs and Blows its Global Competition in Wind Power Away

Photo by auws. Some rights reserved.

According to a new report released by Brussels-based wind industry lobby group Global Wind Energy Council, the global wind energy market rose a total of 6% in 2011, up to 41 gigawatts per year from last year’s 38.8 gigawatts. Most notably, the report’s handily colored charts and graphs highlight that China was the clear leader in wind power in 2011, as it was responsible for 18 of those 41 gigawatts (44% of the global total), nearly three times the amount contributed by the good ol’ US of A (who contributed 5.8 gigawatts/17% of the global total). Behind China and the US were, in order, India (who contributed 3 gigawatts but have been adamant that they will catch up with China in this market), Germany (2 gigawatts) and the UK and Canada (both ~ 1.2 gigawatts).

The Chinese wind energy market has nearly doubled each year since 2005, thanks to credit loans from China’s state-controlled banks like China Development Bank Corp. (who recently signed a 35 billion yuan agreement with Xinjang Goldwind Science Technology that will run through 2013) and the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd., who benefit from funding these market expansions and increasing overseas business while European governments cut such subsidies as cost saving measures. Just as we reported on the solar panel business earlier this year, this foreign competition in new energy markets will likely hurt American wind power manufacturers who can’t compete with the low costs of our Chinese competitors. President Obama announced last week that he would be creating a new trade enforcement group to combat such trade practices domestically. As reported today by Bloomberg, China has also contributed to a blossoming wind farm market in Eastern Europe, as Chinese turbine manufacturer Ming Yang Wind Power Group recently signed an agreement with W. Power Ltd. supply 125 megawatts of wind power in Bulgaria, a project that will commence later this year.

One undeniably sunny (sorry, windy) bit of good news from the GWEC report: at this rate, wind power will provide 20% of the U.S.’s electricity by 2030!


Competition Over Solar Panel Costs Sparks Escalating Energy War

Photo by Bert van Dijk. Some rights reserved.

The Obama Administration has always been vocal about its support for renewable energy and, even in the wake of the Solyndra debacle earlier this year, are moving forward with new solar and wind projects on both coasts that would help push the U.S. to the forefront of the green energy movement. Or so it would like to think…

New research shows that, while solar energy only currently accounts for a little over 1 percent of total U.S. electricity consumed, that we may be at a tipping point for the green movement where the reality of cheap solar energy is finally realized across the globe. Joshua Pearce, associate professor of electrical engineering and materials science at Michigan Technological University, explains that consumers and researchers have been vastly overestimating the rate at which solar panels would drop in productivity: instead of dropping at a rate of 1 percent per year, “if you buy a top of the line solar panel, it’s much less, between 0.1 and 0.2 percent.” Beyond this misconception, and perhaps more importantly, Pearce comments that “since 2009, the cost [of solar panels] has dropped 70 percent… the costs have been pushed down enough that [solar energy] can compete.” Who can we thank for such a drastic reduction in manufacturing costs? The answer shouldn’t surprise you.

Earlier this year, the United States International Trade Commission (USITC) determined that American solar panel manufacturers were correct in their complaint that the American market was being flooded with cheaper models imported from China being sold at aggressively low prices that the American manufacturers could not compete with (we posted about U.S. solar energy company SolarWorld’s original complaint to the ITC in October). While no clear decision was reached, this initial vote clears a path for the Commerce Department to open an investigation and, in theory, impose tariffs on exported panels to level the playing field for American manufacturers. Of course, the availability of Chinese panels has everything to do with the aforementioned costs of solar energy being drastically reduced. It also has a lot to do with why American solar companies like Solyndra have been forced to declare bankruptcy. Understandably, this complex issue has already created a rift between American manufacturers (who have taken to labeling themselves the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing) and a group of American installers and distributors (as well as anti-tariff manufacturers) who are calling themselves the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy.

Both sides make extremely fair points (CASM: “Domestic production creates high-paying manufacturing jobs and builds national economic health while advancing energy independence” vs. CASE: “Protectionism drives up the price of solar electricity and negatively impacts more than 5,000 American solar companies, mostly small businesses, and more than 100,000 American jobs”), and its worth investigating both sides of the argument for yourself. Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce has responded to the December 2nd ruling of the U.S. Commerce Department, arguing that their decision was made “without sufficient evidence showing the U.S. soalr panel industry has been harmed,” and has announced its own investigation into whether American subsidies of renewable energy sources have compromised China’s development of the same areas. It was also reported yesterday that India may itself look into joining the growing “energy war,” and impose its own taxes on imported panels.

We like cheap goods! No, wait, we hate cheap goods!

Photo by Dominic's pics. Some rights reserved.

SolarWorld Industries America Inc., represented by law firm Wiley Rein, has filed petitions with the U.S. Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission (ITC), requesting antidumping and countervailing duty investigations into imports of solar cells from China.

Specifically, the petitions claim that Chinese manufacturers of solar products are “illegally dumping crystalline silicon solar cells into the U.S. market,” and “are receiving massive illegal subsidies from the Chinese government,” according to a news release from the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing – a group made up of the seven U.S. producers of solar cells and panels that are behind the petition, led by SolarWorld (SolarWorld is the only manufacturer involved in the kerfuffle whose name has been released).

The news release goes on to claim that, “[a]s a result of the dumping and illegal subsidies, the U.S. industry is suffering severe harm to employment, pricing, production and shipment.”

Following the petition came a notice from the ITC, announcing the institution of antidumping and countervailing duty investigations to determine whether “there is a reasonable indication that an industry in the United States is materially injured or threatened with material injury, or the establishment of an industry in the United States is materially retarded, by reason of imports from China of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells and modules, […] that are alleged to be sold in the United States at less than fair value and alleged to be subsidized by the Government of China.” The ITC must reach a preliminary determination in antidumping and countervailing duty investigations in 45 days. You can follow the ITC’s investigation here.

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