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March 4th, 2015:

Stop blame game on China’s air pollution, environment minister says

13 February, 2015

Nectar Gan

Mainland cities should stop blaming each other for air pollution and shoulder their own responsibilities, the environment ministry said yesterday.

Some cities suffering bad air quality were too quick to highlight the influence of neighbours when analysing the source of pollution, said deputy environmental minister Zhai Qing.

“Mutual influence does exist, and is relatively serious in some places.

“But at this stage, cities must not overstress the influence of others and pass the buck. If it is emphasised too much, it will affect our strict implementation of countermeasures,” Zhai said.

In a bid to find solutions to the country’s smog problem, authorities have ordered 35 major cities and municipalities to release detailed analyses of sources of PM2.5 by the end of the year. PM2.5 are superfine particles which lodge deep inside lungs and are considered the most dangerous to human health.

Beijing’s environmental protection department published a report last June that found 28 to 36 per cent of the capital’s PM2.5 particles came from neighbouring areas. Last month Shanghai released a similar report, which found that 16 to 36 per cent of the city’s air pollutants came from surrounding areas.

Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said regional influences could not be ignored. However, he added: “This does not mean that cities don’t need to control their own pollution, because they also influence others, especially those cities with large levels of emissions. In fact, emphasising regional influences means cities should shoulder even more responsibilities.”

Ma said that while cities should deal with their own pollution, joint prevention and control on a regional level was a more difficult task that needed to be coordinated by the central government.

China has exercised strict controls on regional pollution by shutting down factories and construction sites and taking vehicles off the roads during international events such as the Beijing Olympics, Shanghai Expo, Guangzhou Asian Games and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

The measures were effective but unsustainable, Ma said. “Those were administrative orders imposed regardless of the specific situations of the enterprises. They won’t work in the long run. We should use the legal approach, relying on environmental laws and regulations to regulate the factories.”

Ma said that the problems with current regional environmental regulations were how to implement them fairly and strictly, and how to guard against local protection of illegal polluters.

“Regional cooperation should be based on mutual trust, which in turn depends on open information on the cities’ emission data,” he said.

China produces about a third of plastic waste polluting the world’s oceans, says report

13 February, 2015

Li Jing

Plastic bottles, barrels, bags, toothbrushes and even syringes are piled high around rural villagers and migrant workers tasked with recycling it.

They sort, clean and break up the rubbish before putting the pieces into furnaces where they are melted and remoulded, eventually to be processed into small granules.

The scene is typical of many family-run plastic recycling mills clustered in rural areas of Hebei, Shandong and Jiangsu provinces, to name a few, according to independent documentary director Wang Jiuliang, who has been filming the business for several years.

Yet the tale shows just one side of China’s huge plastic footprint. A study published this week in the journal Science said China was responsible for nearly 30 per cent of the plastic pollution clogging the world’s oceans.

The environmental and health impacts of China’s unregulated plastic recycling business were immense: the cleaning process pollutes waterways, melting and burning the scraps released toxic pollutants into the air, and leftover pieces unfit for recycling were dumped directly into riverbeds, Wang said.

His documentary, Plastic Kingdom, tells the story of how an 11-year-old girl almost became one such plastic recycler spending three years helping her parents – who wanted to make enough money from the business to send her to school, but failed.

According to the new study, led by Jenna Jambeck, an assistant professor of environment engineering at the University of Georgia, an estimated eight million tonnes of waste plastic enters the oceans each year from the world’s 192 countries with coastlines, based on 2010 data.

China’s heavily populated coastal cities contributed between 1.3 million and 3.5 million tonnes of the waste, the study found.

Chen Liwen, a researcher with the environmental group Nature University in Beijing, who has focused on the problem in her research, was not surprised by the findings.

“Plastic waste that has no value for recycling is either burned directly or dumped in waterways and eventually ends up in the sea. This is very common in China’s rural areas, where there is no waste management in place,” she said. Such waste includes thin plastic bags and plastic foam, used for food packaging.

China banned such bags in 2008, but enforcement is lax. The prohibition on plastic foam was lifted in 2013, sparking criticism from environmentalists, but even when the ban was in place, about 15 billion disposable plastic lunch boxes were produced every year, official statistics say.

Meanwhile, China was also the world’s largest importer of plastic waste, much of it from the United States, according to Wang, the filmmaker. Some plastic waste was even smuggled into China, as some areas of the business had become very profitable.

The study, published on Thursday, also found eight of the top 10 biggest contributors to the problem were in Asia, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh.

The US, the only wealthy industrialised nation in the top 20, ranked at No20. Coastal European Union nations combined would rank 18th. This is mostly because developed countries had systems to trap and collect plastic waste, Jambeck said.

The findings mark the most detailed assessment yet of the scale of plastic waste circulating in the oceans, imperiling wildlife and blighting once-pristine sites.

Jambeck projects that by 2025 the total accumulated plastic waste in the oceans will reach around 155 million tonnes. That’s based on population trends and continued waste management disposal problems, although there may be some early signs of change, she said. “We need to wake up and see our waste,” Jambeck said. “I think the problem in some ways has sort of snuck up around us.”

Researchers estimated more than nine million tonnes would end up in the oceans this year.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Associated Press

India’s filthy air is cutting 660 million lives short by three years, research claims

22 February, 2015

Filthy air reducing lifespan by more than three years for hundreds of millions of citizens – and it’s likely to get worse, study reveals

India’s filthy air is cutting 660 million lives short by about three years – while nearly all of the country’s 1.2 billion citizens are breathing in harmful levels of pollution, new research reveals.

The study, by a team of environmental economists at US universities, highlights just how extensive India’s air problems have become after years of pursuing an all-growth agenda with little regard for the environment.

While New Delhi last year earned the dubious title of being the world’s most polluted city, the problem extends nationwide, with 13 Indian cities now on the World Health Organisation’s list of the 20 most polluted.

That pollution burden is estimated to be costing more than half the population at least 3.2 years of their lives, according to the study led by Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago and involving economists from Harvard and Yale universities.

The most polluted regions, falling generally in northern India, are also among India’s most populous.

“The extent of the problem is actually much larger than what we normally understand,” said Anant Sudarshan, the India director of the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago and one of the study’s co-authors.

“We think of it as an urban problem, but the rural dimension has been ignored.”

Added up, those lost years come to a staggering 2.1 billion for the entire nation.

Greenstone said that while “the conventional definition of growth has ignored the health consequences of air pollution … this study demonstrates that air pollution retards growth by causing people to die prematurely.”

For the study, published in Economic & Political Weekly, the authors borrowed from their previous work in China, where they determined life expectancy dropped by three years for every 100 migrograms of fine particulate matter, called PM2.5, above safe levels.

PM2.5 is of especially great health concern because, with the particles having diameters no greater than 2.5 micrometres, they are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs.

The authors note, however, that their estimations may be too conservative because they’re based in part on 2012 satellite data that tend to underestimate PM2.5 levels.

India has a sparse system for monitoring air quality, with sensors installed in only a few cities and almost unheard of in the countryside.

Yet rural air pollution remains high courtesy of industrial plants, poor fuel standards, extensive garbage burning and a heavy reliance on diesel for electricity generation in areas not connected with the grid.

Wind patterns also push the pollution on to the plains below the Himalayan mountain range.

India sets permissible PM2.5 levels at 40 micrograms per cubic metre – twice the WHO’s safe level. Still, the study says, 99.5 per cent of the population is living with air pollution levels above the WHO’s limit.

While India has pledged to grow its clean energy sector, with huge boosts for solar and wind power, it has also committed to tripling its coal-fired electricity capacity to 450 gigawatts by 2030.

Yet there are still no regulations for pollutants like sulfur dioxide or mercury emissions, while fuel standards remain far below Western norms and existing regulations are often ignored.

To meet its goal for coal-fired electricity, the Power Ministry says the country will double coal production to a billion tonnes within five years, after already approving dozens of new coal plants which experts say will double sulphur dioxide levels.

Hong Kong rural leader denies waste dumping in HK$1.3m claim

A rural leader denied illegally dumping waste on one of his villagers’ properties, claiming he was being set up for money, the High Court heard yesterday.

Sheung Shui rural committee chairman Hau Chi-keung denied allegations by farmer Lau Oi-kiu that he instructed property agent Man Chun-shing, another defendant in the case, to carry out fly-tipping on Lau’s two fields. The court heard that Hau and Man allegedly damaged Lau’s two farming fields in July, 2009. She is claiming HK$1.3 million in damages from Hau.

Hau told the court yesterday: “All they need is money by taking this to court.”

Cross-examined by Lau’s barrister Yeung Ming-tai, Hau said: “I have so much land. Why do I need to occupy others’ land?” The court heard that Hau was a landlord in Ho Sheung Heung in Sheung Shui. “I have a big fortune,” he said. “People say I will get rich if land resumption is carried out. Yes, I will get rich, and it is out of my control.”

Hau said that after mid-July in 2009, government officials informed him of illegal waste dumping in Ho Sheung Heung. He said as a rural representative, he was duty-bound to remove the waste and restore the land to its original condition by planting grass and fruit trees.

He said he did this on behalf of the rural committee.

Court heard earlier that Man had admitted his liability for fly-tipping but disputed the compensation amount.

Lau’s son, Hau Tai-lok, told the court that the two defendants had threatened his family several times in hopes of scaring them away.

He claimed that outsiders dared not to carry out large-scale waste dumping in Ho Sheung Heung unless they were assisted by “people who had power in the village”.

During cross-examination, Hau often brought humour to the four-day trial by repeatedly calling Lau’s counsel “lawyer So” [his surname is Yeung] and asking for the surname of his own counsel.

Judge Mr Justice Paul Lam Ting-kwok also had to remind Hau, who often gave lengthy yet irrelevant answers, to listen carefully to counsel’s questions and answer accordingly.

In response to the judge’s reminders, Hau said: “If I had paid attention to what my teachers said, I would have become a judge today.”

Both parties are due to give their closing submissions today.

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