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February 20th, 2009:

Beijing’s New Year Lunacy

Zhuang Pinghui, SCMP – Updated on Feb 20, 2009

After the capital’s disastrous celebrations, there is public support for a ban on fireworks. But not everyone agrees it will be effective.

Because of her job, Wang Qunying has not been able to have a relaxed Lunar New Year celebration for four years. As a security officer in the Zhonglouwan neighbourhood service centre, which includes Beijing’s historic Drum and Bell Towers, Ms Wang had to patrol the hutongs between 5pm and midnight to keep an eye out for potential fires.

“My heart was right up in my throat during the holidays,” she said. “Our neighbourhood is composed of only single-storey houses with dead weeds on the roofs. They could easily catch fire because of the fireworks.”

With fire extinguishers at hand, she was stationed in the open space between the two towers on Lunar New Year’s Eve where a huge crowd, many of them foreigners, celebrated by setting off fireworks.

One foreigner fired a rocket that landed on a roof and caused a fire, and another set off a floating lantern that ignited a tree. Neither incident caused injury or financial loss.

But that was not the case with the inferno that engulfed the Mandarin Oriental building at the new CCTV complex, killing a firefighter, almost destroying the hotel and setting off a debate about whether the mainland authorities should reimpose a ban on fireworks.

The authorities said the fire, which burned for nearly six hours, was caused by CCTV illegally setting off fireworks so powerful they required municipal government approval. But even to Ms Wang, whose job is fire safety, it’s an unnecessary debate.

“Without fireworks, Lunar New Year would never be the same. You can’t deprive people of their right to celebrate the occasion in its traditional way. We should come up with other methods to reduce the danger,” she said. Ms Wang said she supported having organised fireworks shows in open spaces so that the public could still have the flavour of traditional celebrations while pollution, noise and danger could be kept at acceptable levels.

There are signs that this is a minority view, however. With the images of raging flames and showers of red ashes still fresh in the minds of many, nearly 70 per cent of people in an online survey said fireworks should be banned because of the noise and danger.

According to official figures, there were 75 fires with 46 people injured in Beijing on Lunar New Year’s Eve because of fireworks. Many also complained about the lingering smell and heavy smog after the fireworks frenzy of the Lantern Festival – the last day of the Lunar New Year.

The city’s environment watchdog confirmed that the air pollution index, which measures major pollutants, hit 307 in the 24 hours to noon on February 10. That level equates to “very polluted” by national standards and was the worst for the capital since June.

The Beijing People’s Congress has listed a study of whether to change the Beijing Fireworks and Firecrackers Safety Management Regulation in this year’s work plan, prompting talk of a ban being reintroduced.

For 13 years, the city banned fireworks but the prohibition was lifted for the Lunar New Year holidays in 2006 after public consultation. More than 200 cities imposed the ban in the 1990s but, by 2005, at least 106 cities, including Shanghai and Hangzhou, had relaxed it.

But sociologists, people in the fireworks industry and even security officers such as Ms Wang said a ban would not solve the problem, and could make it worse.

“It’s like giving up eating because you might choke,” said Zhang Hui, president of the Tourism Development Research Institute under Beijing International Studies University.

“Lighting fireworks is a traditional celebration that brings special family joy. The government should strengthen inspections to ensure supplies are of good quality and people follow safety rules to fire them. The problem is not the fireworks.”

Wu Youcheng, Beijing sales manager of Dou Dou Fireworks, one of the three official fireworks distributors in the capital, agreed that a blanket ban was no solution.

“From past years’ experience, people would still set off fireworks even when there was a ban and they would try to sneak fireworks in from unofficial channels, raising the risk of them being substandard and causing accidents. The consequences [of a ban] would be much worse than lifting the ban and ensuring the fireworks on the market are of good quality,” he said.

Even when the city government urged residents to buy fireworks through official channels – temporary shops set up in designated areas and selling products from the three official distributors – many still drove to counties in Hebei to buy supplies. Across the border, fireworks stands were set up on roadsides near highways and prices were at least one-third below those in Beijing.

The demand for fireworks has been rising steadily over the years, indicating greater general enthusiasm for the pyrotechnics, said Wu Liyu, general manager of Beijing Fireworks, another of the three official distributors and the official supplier to national ceremonies such as the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies.

The company had seen sales soar from 400,000 boxes in 2006 to 500,000 boxes this year, well above the 50,000 or so it sold during the years of the ban. A box contains around 30kg of fireworks.

Residents have also been more willing to pay high prices, in some cases thousands of yuan for a box of fireworks with special effects such as the “smiling face” and “big footprint” made popular during the Beijing Games.

“Apparently, residents have the money and enthusiasm for fireworks celebrations. A complete ban would cause social resentment,” Wu Liyu said.

It would also be a catastrophic blow to the fireworks companies and some sectors of the industry, which was vital to the economy of some cities, he added.

Industry insiders said 80 per cent of fireworks were manufactured in Liuyang and Liling in Hunan province, and Pingxiang, Waizai and Shangli in Jiangxi, and were economic mainstays in those areas.

Both executives said it would be more sensible and practical to solve the problem by stricter inspection of the industry and better education of consumers. They said there were already strict regulations on the production, storage, transport and use of fireworks, and the problems were caused by people not respecting them.

Hundreds of registered factories manufacture or process fireworks in Hunan, in addition to the many small-scale workshops that employ manual labourers and often cause deadly accidents – 22 people died in four separate factory accidents across the country last month.

Even in big operations such as Dou Dou’s, workers still need to mix and fill powder by hand – the most dangerous link in the production chain. Big companies have established inspection procedures or separate production into stages, to reduce risk, but these precautions are seldom seen in small workshops.

Beijing, with its abundance of sites of historical and political importance, has strict regulations on fireworks but they are poorly enforced, the executives said.

“You are allowed to put no more than 20 grams of powder in a cylinder up to 40mm in diameter and if the firework creates a bloom in the sky, it should be between 25 metres and 70 metres high,” Wu Liyu said. “But from my observation, many fireworks must be outside the regulations or they could not produce such magnificent effects.”

Beijing also forbids all fireworks within 100 metres of important sites such as historic buildings, kindergartens, nursing homes, hospitals and roads. But the mountains of ash and rubbish on Beijing’s streets were clear evidence that these rules were flouted.

As well, fireworks can only be used during certain hours. Nevertheless, explosions rocked the capital late into the night. “I think it’s better to control the damage from the consumers’ end,” Wu Liyu said.

“Say a family budgets to spend 500 yuan on fireworks, they can start by buying them through official channels, buying less dangerous ones if they are for children and strictly following the regulations.”

He said the most effective way was to educate people about the right way to set off fireworks, to prevent tragic consequences. It would also save on the costs of monitoring the annual extravaganza. More than 750,000 people, including police, city inspectors, neighbourhood service officers such as Ms Wang and volunteers, were deployed during the first six days of the holidays.

Wu Youcheng said there should also be greater awareness of environmentally friendly fireworks, which have a less overpowering powder smell and no noise.

“There are many stubborn habits that among Chinese have been corrected, such as spitting. I believe recklessly setting off fireworks will also be corrected, given time,” he said.

Nation’s First Emissions Exchange Likely To Start Trading By End Of Year

Reuters in Beijing, Updated on Feb 20, 2009

The nation’s first emissions exchange is expected to begin trading by the end of this year as it works out trading procedures and recruits more member firms, a senior exchange executive said yesterday.

The Tianjin Climate Exchange was established in September, but acceptance has been slow among the small mainland companies that the exchange is trying to attract.

“We hope the exchange will start trading sulfur dioxide, COD [chemical oxygen demand] and energy intensity credits by the end of this year,” exchange assistant chairman Jeff Huang said.

The exchange was working on operational details with the central government and potential member companies before trading could kick off, Mr Huang added.

Beijing has long vowed to save energy and reduce emissions, setting a goal to reduce all emissions by 10 per cent from 2006 to 2010.

But to initiate active trading on the country’s only emissions exchange, Mr Huang said the mainland needed to change the way it allocated emissions credits.

Mr Huang is also vice-president of the Chicago Climate Exchange, which owns 25 per cent of the Tianjin exchange. An asset management unit of China’s top oil and gas firm, China National Petroleum, owns more than 50 per cent of the venture and Tianjin Property Rights Exchange owns the rest.

Emissions credits on the mainland are allocated by the central government to the provinces, which often ignore environmental regulations to focus on economic growth, which produces tax revenue.

Mr Huang said Beijing should hand out emissions credits to companies directly, bypassing local officials and, more importantly, giving firms the incentives to bring emission credits to market.

“Polluters can now cash in on their emissions credits at the exchange,” he said.

The Chicago exchange, run by Britain’s Climate Exchange, is a voluntary market that aims to reduce emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide that scientists blame for global warming.

The Tianjin exchange has about 20 member companies, which include the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Delong Steel, a unit of Singapore-listed Delong Holdings.

The Chicago exchange had 13 member firms when it began trading in 2003 and now hosts more than 400 members. Mr Huang declined to forecast future trading levels at the new exchange, pointing instead to the Chicago exchange’s history, where total trading volume surged to 110 million tonnes last year from only 2.2 million tonnes in 2003, he said.

The Tianjin exchange’s success could hinge on Beijing’s official support for environmental goals, something the Chicago exchange does not enjoy as the US is still not a party to the Kyoto Protocol.

“The current overall conditions in China for trading emissions are much better than in the United States when the Chicago exchange started up,” Mr Huang said.

Hillary Clinton’s Visit Unlikely To Yield Breakthrough Over Global Warming, Say Analysts

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing, SCMP – Updated on Feb 20, 2009

As US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives in Beijing today, the global media will watch closely to see if Washington’s new-found interest in climate change will result in closer ties between the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

There has been much talk in the US about setting aside differences over global warming responsibilities and working together towards a solution ahead of a key December climate meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Climate change, one of the most talked about but least acted upon world issues, is expected to be high on Mrs Clinton’s agenda during her first official trip as secretary of state.

It is even described by US officials as a new focal point in Sino-US ties, which have often been marked by political and economic rifts.

China has responded with a cautious welcome, calling on the US and other developed countries to “take the lead in cutting emissions, and providing funds and technical help”.

Despite positive, yet vague diplomatic rhetoric, mainland experts said neither side had offered much to end the impasse in the international climate talks and ignite change.

Renmin University professor Zou Ji said Mrs Clinton’s visit was just the first step towards further communication, and the Beijing talks were unlikely to yield a substantial outcome.

“It will prepare the way for the G20 summit in London in early April, which will see the first meeting between President Hu Jintao and [US President Barack] Obama,” Professor Zou said.

He said recent academic reports in the US suggested closer co-operation between the world’s two biggest polluters but failed to present concrete measures.

“Compared with the much more sophisticated economic co-operation such as the strategic economic dialogue mechanism between the two countries, climate co-operation has just begun,” he said.

Tsinghua University climate expert Liu Bin said the recent US remarks reflected the new American administration’s diplomatic strategy of playing the climate card to put China at a disadvantage ahead of the Copenhagen talks.

“Mounting international pressure has already pushed the US to the brink of accepting its responsibility for climate change, which is long overdue. It wants to use China as a scapegoat,” Ms Liu said.

The US has been fiercely criticised for its refusal to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which subjected industrialised countries to mandatory carbon emissions caps and was supposed to help developing countries adapt to rising temperatures.

Washington has long argued that the existing climate pact, which exempted large developing countries such as China, Brazil and India from emission reduction targets, was unfair and harmful to its economy.

Representatives from nearly 200 countries will meet in the Danish capital to agree on a successor climate treaty to Kyoto, which expires in 2012.

However, talks in recent years have reached a stalemate, with developed and developing countries wrangling over key issues such as carbon targets, technology transfer and funding for adaptation in poor countries.

Lin Erda, a veteran expert from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences said developed countries should take much of the blame for the “we will only take on commitments if they do” stalemate.

Although developed countries are obliged to provide finance and technology to developing countries under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a parent pact of Kyoto, little funding has been made available and hardly any technology has been transferred.

Experts agreed that funding shortages, which have plagued international co-operation for years and have been exacerbated by the unfolding financial crisis, would further delay bilateral collaboration.

“The previous US administrations, including those of George W. Bush and his predecessor Bill Clinton, offered little funding support for the international effort to address climate change. I don’t see any possibility for a turnaround in US policy in the near future given the current economic situation in the US,” Ms Liu said.

The deadlock on technology transfer also proved difficult to break.

Ms Liu said developed countries and businesses were more concerned about losing their competitive edge than the disastrous effects of global warming.

“There has been much talk about the China threat. Why would industrialised countries be willing to offer China the latest climate-friendly technologies?” she said.

Ms Liu said the US and China were more likely to join hands in fields such as research on clean coal and renewable energy, and the development of electric cars.

Mainland experts said the extent of each country’s commitment to tackling climate change should be decided by the level of economic development, and should not lower the living standards of ordinary citizens.

Although China was rumoured to have overtaken the US as the world’s top carbon emitter, it was developed countries, including the US, that had contributed the most to global warming historically, Professor Lin said.

“The stalemate in fund-raising and technology transfer has already prompted questions about whether developed countries intended to contain China and other developing countries,” he said.

His views were supported by other mainland experts, who pointed out that per capita carbon emissions for China’s 1.3 billion people were a fraction of that of rich countries.

Professor Zou said China did not have much room for compromise in Copenhagen. “China will eventually accept the limits, but it is definitely not now or in 10 years. I think it will probably happen in 20 years when China’s urbanisation is basically complete and most people lead decent lives in their houses with water and power supplies,” he said.

Jin Canrong, a Renmin University Sino-US affairs specialist, said Washington’s new-found willingness to address climate issues was largely a result of pledges Mr Obama made during his election campaign.

Although both sides expressed intentions to improve co-operation, Professor Jin agreed that it was difficult to see how far the two countries were willing to go.

But he agreed that compared with a host of sensitive political, economic and financial issues, climate change was a good choice for both countries to foster closer ties.

Waiting To Inhale

Hong Kong’s worsening air quality has many looking for the exit.

By Matt Driskill – GlobalPost – Published: February 20, 2009 13:35 ET

HONG KONG – Air pollution in Hong Kong is so bad that one-in-five residents in a recent poll said they were considering leaving the city. That has some here calling that exodus the biggest brain drain threat since the British handed the city back to China in 1997 when 450,000 people are estimated to have left.

The poll, conducted by the Hong Kong Transition Project at Baptist University on behalf of the Civic Exchange non-governmental organization, showed public concern about air pollution rose dramatically from 2001 to 2008. It also showed that people believe air pollution is making Hong Kong an “undesirable location for both locals and prospective international talent.”

“People from all sectors of society know that air pollution is making them sick,” said Prof. Michael DeGolyer, director of the transition project. “However, almost no one is expressing their concerns to government leaders or the media. This silence indicates a serious breakdown in communication and trust and a need to review the public consultation system.”

The survey was taken during September and October 2008 and polled 1,020 Hong Kong adults in Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and the Chinese dialects of Hakka and Fujianese.

“If there are people who still think poor air quality is mainly a concern of the expatriate community, they need to look at the evidence,” said Christine Loh, chief executive of the Civic Exchange. “The survey shows local people are extremely concerned about the bad air they have to breath every day. It is also no comfort to them to know that our air is better than that in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.”

For its part, the government of Hong Kong says it is working to improve air quality. In his 2008 policy address, similar to a U.S. president’s State of the Union speech, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Donald Tsang, said the government was reviewing its air quality objectives and would adopt targets in line with those proposed by the World Health Organization.

Those targets however, fall within the so-called “entry level, interim target 1” objectives, which Loh says will not offer any meaningful improvement.

“The government is concerned tighter standards would lead to Hong Kong failing them by an even larger margin” than the standards currently employed, Loh said. “This mindset sees the air quality objectives as administrative hurdles rather than health-based standards,” he added.

“The government’s view on this needs to be brought in line with international thinking.”