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Writing Yunnan a Rubber Check

Writing Yunnan a Rubber Check

Is An Environmental Crisis Brewing in Southwest China?

Our van stopped at a scenic vista on the contour road where verdant mountains undulated southward toward China’s border with Laos. Stepping out to take some photos, I was overcome by an acrid, unpleasant odor. I asked my local travel partner, Xiao Guan, what the stink was.

“Money,” he said with a wry smile. “That’s the smell of money, my friend.”

He pointed to a small rubber plantation where latex was being processed. After I took some photos and boarded the van, I noticed rubber plantations everywhere we went.

It was late 2010, and I was traveling through the countryside in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, a tropical area roughly the size of New Jersey in Southwest China’s Yunnan province, primarily populated by the Dai ethnic group. In addition to being home to eight of China’s minority ethnic groups, Xishuangbanna is known for pu’er tea, wild elephants, and the Lancang River, which flows out of the region as the Mekong to form the border between Laos and Myanmar. According to a recently released report, land under rubber cultivation in Xishuangbanna nearly tripled between 2002 and 2010 to account for more than a fifth of the area’s total land. On each of my several visits to Xishuangbanna since 2010, rubber’s positive impact on local livelihoods, especially among ethnic minorities, has become increasingly pronounced, with traditional wooden homes giving way to modern concrete and rebar edifices and cars replacing motorcycles. But recent research by Chinese and Western ecologists suggests the industry could collapse in the near future if new management strategies are not applied.

Rubber’s improvement of the fortunes of this former economic backwater was evident to me most recently when I attended the wedding of my friends Eddy and Tingting in February of this year. The newly married couple lives in Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, where Eddy, an Italian, works as a consultant and Tingting, an ethnic Hani originally from Xishuangbanna, manages a restaurant.

iconYi Zhuangfang
Rubber trees on a hillside in Xishuangbanna.

The final stretch of the ten-hour bus ride from Kunming followed a small country road lined with rubber plantations extending up and over mountains in both directions, until at last we arrived at Tingting’s home, a small rural cooperative growing—you guessed it—rubber.

The next day, 800 people attended the wedding banquet, including Tingting’s local friends and family, the couple’s friends from Kunming and other Chinese cities, plus Eddy’s friends and family from Italy. Most of the locals I spoke with said they had invested in the new rubber economy. Eddy even received a small plot of rubber trees as part of Tingting’s dowry.

Looking up from the basketball court where happy diners washed down an opulent feast of plate after plate of spicy Hani- and Dai-style meat and fish dishes with beer, Chinese grain alcohol called baijiu, and Italian wine, I couldn’t help but feel that the rubber trees towering above us on the surrounding hillsides were the dinner’s silent VIP guests.

The previous night, in the nearby town of Damenglong, two men of the Akha ethnic group invited me for a drink. When I asked them what they did for a living, they told me they had low-paying day jobs in local companies, which they supplemented with income from their rubber tree holdings. One of the men boasted to me that he was making six figures in U.S. dollars every year from his rubber holdings. How were the people in this remote corner of one of China’s poorest provinces making so much money off of rubber? The answer was right outside in the parking lot filled with the wedding guests’ cars, all made in China by domestic and international manufacturers.

In 2009, China overtook the United States as the world’s largest market for new automobiles. The China Association of Automobile Manufacturers predicts seven percent growth in 2013, fuelled by continued economic growth and growing demand for Chinese cars overseas. In 2010, there was roughly one automobile for every 17.2 Chinese, compared with one for every 1.3 Americans. Today, China is the world’s largest manufacturer of automobiles.

China’s car boom has not only created extensive auto-focused supply chains on the banks of the Yangtze and Pearl rivers, it also has changed the fortunes of farmers in Xishuangbanna. Cars need tires, and this mountainous, lush pocket of southwestern tropical China is a crucial producer of natural rubber for China’s massive tire market, which constitutes about one-quarter of global tire demand.

Around forty-two percent of the rubber consumed worldwide in 2013 will come from rubber trees, while the rest, according to Singapore-based International Rubber Study Group, will be synthetic rubber made from petroleum.

Natural rubber is derived from latex, a viscous substance produced beneath the bark of the tree Hevea Brasiliensis, which, after being treated with acid and rolled out, can be used to make a wide range of consumer goods.

Rubber trees must grow for about seven years before they can produce latex. Once mature, a tree can be tapped once a day, every two or three days, for around twenty-five years.

Today, it is difficult to travel in Xishuangbanna without encountering rubber plantations. Mountains covered by nothing but rubber trees are a common sight throughout the area. This is not Xishuangbanna’s first experience with cash crops, but it is the first time that so much of its land has been converted to grow just one species.

Rubber Plantation Coverage

Xishuangbanna rubber map

Monoculture rubber plantation coverage in Xishuangbanna, seen in orange; and nature reserves, outlined in green.
Map Credit: Xu Jianchu, R. Edward Grumbine, and Philip Beckschaefer

Xishuangbanna is home to some of China’s most renowned tea mountains. The ethnic Bulang, who traditionally managed the tea trees of Xishuangbanna’s mountains, integrated tea planting with forest ecosystems using principles of what is known as agroforestry. This approach facilitated tea cultivation with minimal impact on the region’s ecosystem and biodiversity.

Although portions of many mountains in the area were clear-cut to maximize tea production, many locals claim the best tea comes from the oldest plants, some of which, they say, are more than 1,000 years old. One of the more famous mountains, Nannuo Shan, is dotted with such tea trees, scattered throughout a sea of plant diversity. Many of these trees supplied the ancient Tea Horse Road network of trade routes that for centuries connected Xishuangbanna with thirsty tea drinkers in China, Tibet, and beyond.

Xishuangbanna covers only 0.2 percent of China’s land area, yet it contains sixteen percent of the country’s vascular plant species, and is home to more than one-fifth of its mammals and well over a third of its birds—a spectacular biodiversity now threatened by rubber’s spread. In domestic terms, the prefecture’s rubber output is second only to that of Hainan, an island province in the South China Sea.

Native to Brazil, the rubber tree has grown in Xishuangbanna for more than seventy years. In 1940, government researchers planted the first rubber trees in the area. These initial plantings were followed in the mid-1950s by the first state-run plantations. Under the land reforms of the 1980s, the local government allocated plots to farmers for the first time since collectivization.

Since rubber tapping isn’t particularly labor intensive and yet yields a high-return, many farmers enticed by growing demand have felt justified creating slash-and-burn farms consisting solely of rubber trees. Monoculture plantations maximize rubber tree coverage, but they are green deserts; compared with natural forests, massive stands of rubber trees do little to sustain other plant or animal life, according to R. Edward Grumbine of Prescott College in Arizona, who, as a senior scholar with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), has researched recent land-use shifts in Xishuangbanna.

According to data from the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, annual average free market prices for blocks of benchmark TSR20 rubber (the light sweet crude of the latex trade) rose to nearly $5,000 in 2011, up from $1,000 per metric ton in 2003. “Rubber cultivation has made ethnic minority farmers really rich in the context of China,” says Janet C. Sturgeon, Associate Professor of Geography at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Sturgeon has been studying rubber’s impact on the ethnic minorities of Xishuangbanna since 2002.

“Rubber farmers I interviewed across Mengla county [one of Xishuangbanna’s three counties] averaged about $30,000 in annual household income,” she said. “I was totally astonished. Rubber farmers had better incomes than workers on state rubber farms.” Annual income at this level would put a family firmly in the middle class in China’s more prosperous coastal cities, but in Yunnan, one of the country’s poorest regions, it affords a very high standard of living.

Xishuangbanna’s rubber boom is driving monoculture rubber plantations into areas previously considered too steep or too high for planting rubber trees. Plantations also are encroaching on protected areas and many local rubber farmers are expanding their holdings over the border into Myanmar or Laos and importing half-processed rubber back to Xishuangbanna.

In a recently released report, Grumbine and his CAS colleagues Xu Jianchu, and Philip Beckschaefer examine the spread of monoculture rubber plantations throughout Xishuangbanna from 1992 through 2010. Working at the Kunming Institute of Botany’s Centre for Mountain Ecosystem Studies, the team used satellite imagery to track changes in land use. It found that Xishuangbanna’s rubber plantation coverage had exploded over the eighteen-year period. In the ten years from 1992 through 2002, the total area covered by rubber farms in Xishuangbanna jumped seventy-seven percent, to 154,000 hectares, up from 87,000 hectares. In the following eight years, up to 2010, rubber coverage jumped 177 percent to 424,000 hectares.

By 2010, more than twenty-two percent of Xishuangbanna’s land was growing rubber, a calculation that doesn’t account for the crop’s intrusion into the Xishuangbanna and Nanbanhe Nature Reserves, which Grumbine describes as “significant.” Grumbine, Xu, and Beckschaefer’s findings show that Xishuangbanna’s rubber industry at present is anything but sustainable.

Rubber plantations sequester less carbon than natural forests and their spread has led to a substantial net release of carbon dioxide. Because after the first few years the plantations require chemical fertilizers that often contaminate nearby bodies of water, oxygen-sapping algae can bloom and kill off fish and other aquatic species.

In addition, since rubber trees use more water than native vegetation or other crops, especially during the typically hot months from November through April, the area’s dry season is growing longer.  According to the trio’s report, both the number of foggy days and the amount of fog on those days is declining, affecting other agricultural production and regional food security.

The team’s paper concludes that if the local climate continues its hotter-and-drier trend, it could become unsuitable for growing rubber altogether, a development that would devastate the local economy.

Rubber is drastically altering Xishuangbanna’s landscape. For residents of an inland area largely left behind as much of coastal China got rich as the result of the reform and opening-up policies of late 1970s, the change to the land is a sacrifice many have been willing to make.

Small-hold rubber farms now cover more of Xishuangbanna than do state farms. In addition to being less productive than state farms, small-hold farms often use land that is not suitable for rubber trees. Local officials have encouraged small farmers to convert their plantations back to natural forest, but local government also benefits from increases in regional GDP and has provided few economic incentives for farmers to change course. In the meantime, rubber farmers continue to tap their trees and make money.

“Rubber farmers are now able to build huge new houses, buy the latest model cars, get bank loans for new businesses, and send their children through school, including university for those who qualify,” Sturgeon said. “They see themselves as successful entrepreneurs in China’s booming economy.”

Yi Zhuangfang, a daughter of small-hold rubber farmers, not only went to university and became the first Dai woman to earn a Ph.D. in Xishuangbanna, but wrote her doctoral thesis on how to create a more environmentally friendly rubber industry.

Yi said her research bridged a gap between her parents, who depend on rubber for income, and the local government, which wants to get a grip on the spread of rubber farms without hurting the economic interests of the farmers or its own tax revenues.

“I just wanted to do something useful,” Yi said. For the Xishuangbanna government, which lacked important baseline data on its rubber industry, Yi’s work could be very useful.

After four years of research, Yi concluded that more than fifty percent of Xishuangbanna could be made off-limits to rubber plantations. It wouldn’t be very difficult to do so, she said, provided that the local government made a real effort to implement and enforce her plan.

Her solution:

  • Conversion of land more than 3,000 feet above sea level or with a slope steeper than twenty-four degrees should be banned outright, as economical rubber production is typically impossible under such conditions.
  • Rubber plantations located in strategic “biodiversity corridors” connecting the region’s increasingly fractured pockets of existing natural forest should be converted back into natural forest to facilitate the spread of flora and fauna.
  • The government should provide private rubber farmers with the knowledge and skill set accumulated by state farms, which are twenty-five percent more productive per hectare than small private farms.
  • Rubber farmers whose land must be converted back into natural forest, and those whose land is crossed by streams, should be compensated based upon income derived from international carbon and water markets where established benchmark prices could help establish appropriate compensation for converted land.
  • For Xishuangbanna to keep its rubber industry without sacrificing its economic interests, the local government will need to get serious about monitoring plantations, enforcing land conversion bans, and grasping the intricacies of fairly paying farmers not to farm.

Easier said than done—and it seems the current window of opportunity will not be open for long. Should the Xishuangbanna government decide to act against runaway plantations soon—and it has not gone on the record to say that it will—positive results would be noticeable in just a few years, Yi said.

“In Xishuangbanna, it wouldn’t take too long— tropical forests are the easiest to regenerate. It’s really just a matter of there being a will to make it happen.”

Chris Horton is a writer, editor, and translator who has been studying or working in China since 1998. After initially coming to China through the Princeton in Beijing program in 1998, Horton...

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CHINADIALOGUE & ISABEL HILTON

After nearly three decades of rapid urbanization, China’s official and unofficial city dwellers outnumber its farmers. More than 400 million people have already moved into cities in the past thirty years, and in 2011 China crossed the threshold of a predominantly urban society...

Environment

10.07.13

The Battle Over Ecuador’s Oil Takes New Twist

CHINADIALOGUE

The announcement by Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, that he has abandoned a ground-breaking scheme stopping oil operations in the Amazon has led to a wave of protests across the country and speculation about why it failed.The stated aim of the scheme, now widely known as...

Environment

09.26.13

China’s Electric Bicycle Boom: Will the Fashion Last?

CHINADIALOGUE

In the bike-loving Netherlands, electric bicycles now account for one-third of bicycle spending. The e-bike is encroaching on the Vespa in Rome, and multiplying on the steep roads of Lausanne. Globally, the production of electric bicycles is expected to increase by roughly a...

Environment

09.23.13

Chinese Coal Demand to Peak by 2020

CHINADIALOGUE

Over the last decade, predicting the future of global energy markets has centered more or less on what people thought China was going to do. Analysts and researchers have since assumed that Chinese coal demand is insatiable and will continue along this trend. This viewpoint has,...

Environment

09.12.13

Electric Cars Offer China the Chance to Become Global...

CHINADIALOGUE

Despite some serious doubts over the viability of electric vehicle (EV) makers, the sector could still have a promising future in China, according to a report published by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.China’s EV sector currently relies heavily on the...

Environment

08.29.13

Beijing Water Shortage Worse Than the Middle East

CHINADIALOGUE

Beijing’s annual water consumption has reached 3.6 billion cubic meters, according to statistics released by the Beijing Water Authority, far more than the 2.1 billion cubic meters locally available.The per capita annual water availability is now around 120 cubic meters, well...

Environment

08.14.13

Beijing’s Neighbors Hesitate at Pollution Cuts

CHINADIALOGUE

The recent announcement of plans to lower air pollution levels in the next five years are far greater than any proposed before, some being several times tougher than those included in the Twelfth Five Year Plan (FYP) period, which was only finalized in 2012.However, while Beijing...

Environment

08.09.13

Beijing is Trapped in its Polluted Neighborhood

CHINADIALOGUE

In 2011, approximately 9,900 premature deaths in China are estimated to have been due to pollution. The Ministry of Environmental Protection recently released a pollution ranking of seventy-four cities over the first three months of the year. Of the ten most polluted, seven are...

Environment

08.07.13

China’s Abandoned Steel Mills Are a Threat to Public...

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s steel industry has been in trouble since 2011, with numerous bankruptcies nationwide. The city of Tangshan in Hebei province has been no exception. Though the city is Hebei’s biggest steel maker, with its 70 million tons of annual production accounting for almost half...

Environment

07.25.13

Comment: Polluters Shouldn’t Be the Judge of Other...

CHINADIALOGUE

If the law sets a criminal to catch other criminals what do you think those criminals will think? My colleagues have discovered that new legislation threatens to do just that.A new draft revision of the Environmental Protection Law is now online for public comment. The draft...

Environment

07.24.13

Government-Backed NGO Under Pressure to Act Against...

CHINADIALOGUE

The All-China Environmental Federation (ACEF), a government-backed NGO, is being urged to take legal action against the Shenhua group, one of China’s largest energy companies and also a member of the ACEF.A subsidiary of the Shenhua group in Inner Mongolia has reportedly been...

Environment

07.18.13

Chinese Nuclear Versus Chinese Renewables

CHINADIALOGUE

Germany’s Energy transition (‘Energiewende’) has been much feted, but when it comes to energy and climate-change policy, China is the country to watch. Its burgeoning economy and voracious appetite for coal-fired power make it the world’s biggest source of greenhouse...

Environment

07.16.13

Local Officials in North China Quit Smoking to Fight...

CHINADIALOGUE

If you are planning to quit smoking, here is another reason to do so—it can fight air pollution, at least according to local officials in China’s northern Hebei Province.Officials in Cangzhou city, Hebei vowed to quit smoking in front of a mass rally this week, claiming the...

Environment

07.08.13

The Water Challenge Facing China’s Coal and Power...

CHINADIALOGUE

It is an inescapable truth that China needs coal—and that coal needs water. The coal industry, from mining to power generation and coal-to-chemicals, accounts for one-sixth of China’s water withdrawals. This is not sustainable and in some areas coal mining is already...

Environment

07.03.13

Understanding China’s Domestic Agenda Can End U.N....

CHINADIALOGUE

Li Shuo of Greenpeace China has recently argued on chinadialogue that U.N. climate talks can drive more ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions in China, the world’s largest emitter. This optimism goes against much of the conventional wisdom regarding the negotiations....

Environment

06.06.13

Wuxi-Düsseldorf and the Challenge of Green City...

CHINADIALOGUE

At first glance, it isn’t an obvious pairing. Düsseldorf is the fashion and advertising capital of Germany. Wuxi is a fast-growing industrial city on China’s east coast, with probably more coal plants than catwalks. But a German environmental think-tank has linked the two...

Environment

05.30.13

China’s “NIMBY” Protests: Sign of Unequal Society

CHINADIALOGUE

NIMBY—or “not in my backyard”—protests happen when residents attempt to protect their neighborhoods from the negative impacts of public or industrial facilities. Since the 2007 “walking protests” against a PX chemical factory in Xiamen, we have seen a halt called to...

Environment

05.28.13

How China Can Kick-start Carbon Capture and Storage

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s estimated total carbon dioxide emissions reached 25 percent of global emissions in 2011 and they continue to grow rapidly—so rapidly, in fact, that the increase in China’s emissions over an eight-month period is about the same as the UK’s total...

Environment

05.23.13

Food Safety Scandals Bring Reality-Check to “Chinese...

CHINADIALOGUE

In the wake of China’s recent food scandal, Chinese premier Li Keqiang has vowed to enforce the toughest food safety regulations.“We need to crack down on practices that violate laws and regulations with a heavy fist, and make the lawbreakers pay an unaffordable price for...

Environment

05.20.13

Water-Trading Could Exacerbate Water Shortages in China

CHINADIALOGUE

Large-scale engineering projects and rigorous state control are hallmarks of the Chinese developmental model, and both have been apparent in the country’s approach to water management.A US$62 billion project to divert water from the south to the parched north is under way,...

Environment

05.17.13

China Tops Table for Disaster-Induced Displacement of...

CHINADIALOGUE

More than a third of all people forced from their homes by disasters such as floods, storms, and earthquakes in the past five years were in China, says a new report from the leading international body on displacement.Around 49.8 million Chinese people were displaced by natural...

Environment

05.16.13

Singapore’s Growth Story Holds Lessons for Water-...

CHINADIALOGUE

When the tiny city-state of Singapore gained independence in 1965, its social, economic, political, and environmental constraints appeared so formidable that many of those looking in from outside predicted a future of dismal dimensions.Forty years on, the reality looks very...

Environment

05.03.13

Time to End Secrecy Over Chinese Overseas Fishing

CHINADIALOGUE

It is well-known that overseas fishing fleets are more cavalier in terms of respect for laws and regulations than their domestic counterparts. There are innumerable examples from all over the world of fishing with gears that are not part of agreements, or catching amounts of fish...

Environment

04.30.13

Why Has Water-Rich Yunnan Become A Drought Hotspot?

CHINADIALOGUE

Yunnan’s drought continues. During China’s annual parliamentary session in March, the deputy party secretary of the southwest Chinese province, Qiu He, blamed spring floodwaters that flow through Yunnan and on into other countries for the water shortages. He proposed a...

Environment

04.22.13

Why It’s Time to End China-Bashing on the Environment

CHINADIALOGUE

The major impact that international summits and treaties have had on China’s environmental governance is often overlooked. Environmental protection first emerged as an issue in China in 1972, after the country dispatched a delegation to the U.N. Conference on the Human...

Environment

04.16.13

Morococha: The Peruvian Town the Chinese Relocated

CHINADIALOGUE

The headlines have been stark: a Chinese mining company moves an entire Peruvian town of 5,000 people five miles down the road to make way for its new mine.It sounds like another story about an extractive corporation riding roughshod over local lives. But the reality is more...

Environment

03.22.13

Public Fury After Chinese Environment Minister Keeps...

CHINADIALOGUE

In his eight years as China’s environmental protection minister, Zhou Shengxian has failed to keep almost a single promise. I say “almost”: he has kept his word at least when it comes to his own career—as promised, he has not quit.When the new leadership’s ministerial...

Environment

03.18.13

Baby Milk Restrictions Cause Outrage in Mainland China

CHINADIALOGUE

The Hong Kong government’s recent listing of baby formula as a “reserved commodity” and a 1.8kg per person per day export limit has sparked widespread criticism—as well as becoming a hot topic at China’s annual session of parliament [the Lianghui, or “Two Meetings...

Environment

03.13.13

Chinese Fracking Plans Prompt “Water-Grabbing”...

CHINADIALOGUE

China has become one of Asia’s leaders in expanding unconventional shale-gas extraction in the name of energy self-sufficiency and national autonomy. Experiences of “fracking” worldwide, however, suggest the costs to China of joining this revolution will be loss of control...

Environment

03.06.13

Environmentalists Unconvinced by Wen Jiabao’s Green...

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s outgoing premier Wen Jiabao vowed that the government would solve the country’s ever-worsening pollution in his final work report yesterday as he opened the annual session of parliament.But coming amid rising public concern about China’s air, water, and soil quality...

Environment

03.02.13

China Criticized over Tiger Farms and Illegal Ivory

CHINADIALOGUE

China is under pressure to regulate its rampant trade in illegal ivory and tiger parts ahead of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), opening this weekend in Bangkok.It has also been accused of quietly stimulating domestic markets for tiger skins...

Environment

02.28.13

Drought and Earthquakes Pose “Enormous Risk” to...

CHINADIALOGUE

When the Fukushima nuclear disaster struck, China was building new nuclear power capacity at a rate unprecedented in world history: 40 percent of all reactors planned or under construction were in China. Targets for installed nuclear generation capacity by 2020 were raised...

Environment

02.22.13

Could Smartphones Help Clear China’s Congested Roads?

CHINADIALOGUE

The extraordinary growth of China’s cities is well-known. Today, 160 Chinese metropolises have over one million inhabitants and more than half the population lives in urban areas, which are growing at two to three times the rate of Western cities.One sector feeling the weight...

Environment

02.20.13

Air Quality in China: A Snapshot

TEA LEAF NATION

Nearly five weeks ago, Beijing experienced its worst day of air quality on record: Levels of PM2.5—small particulates that can cause lung, cardiovascular, and respiratory disease—soared to more than thirty times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization.View...

Environment

02.19.13

China’s Disappointing Absence from U.N. Water Summit

CHINADIALOGUE

After recent heated debate over China’s mega-dam plans, any visitor to the launch on February 11 of the U.N.’s much-vaunted International Year of Water Cooperation would have been disappointed.As well as a notable absence of any representatives from China, there was...

Environment

02.14.13

A Progress Report on U.S.-China Energy & Climate Change...

LEAH THOMPSON

In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama committed to confronting climate change, stating, “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.” These were welcome words...

Environment

02.13.13

Nuclear Fusion: An Answer to China’s Energy Problems?

CHINADIALOGUE

The global nuclear sector has been through something of an apocalyptic patch since the disaster at Fukushima—from power station shutdowns in Japan and Germany to waste-plan chaos in the U.K. to doubts about China’s ability to showcase new reactor designs.But not everything is...

Environment

02.07.13

Xi Jinping Must Tackle Corruption and Boost Innovation...

CHINADIALOGUE

In January 2013, Australia’s biggest supermarket chain Woolworths began restricting sales of baby formula to four tins per customer after a massive increase in demand stripped shelves bare of popular brands such as Karicare.The buyers were not Australian mothers suddenly...

Environment

01.25.13

Climate Change, Not Grazing, Destroying the Tibetan...

CHINADIALOGUE

Sanjiangyuan—which literally translates as the “three river source area”—feeds China’s mightiest rivers. The 300,000-square kilometer region, high on western China’s Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, provides a quarter of the Yangtze’s water, almost half of the Yellow River...

Environment

01.15.13

We’re Winning the Air Pollution Data Battle—So What...

CHINADIALOGUE

Last year, China made a breakthrough in the publication of air quality data, as more than sixty cities started to monitor and publish levels of the dangerous air pollutant PM2.5. But the figures themselves were depressing. With PM2.5—fine particulates—and ozone now included...

Environment

01.07.13

Taxi Drivers in China Have Highest PM2.5 Air Pollutant...

CHINADIALOGUE

A study conducted by Greenpeace has revealed that taxi drivers suffer the greatest levels of exposure to PM2.5 air pollution: three times that of the average person, and five times the world standard.The study, carried out by Greenpeace in partnership with the Beijing University...

Environment

01.07.13

Car-Driving Officials in China Urged to Get on a Bus

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s new leadership has asked government officials to travel simply and, in normal circumstances, not to close roads to ease their journeys. In a recent visit to the Qianhai area of Shenzhen, south China, incoming president Xi Jinping made sure to follow the new rules.As a...

Environment

01.02.13

China’s New “Middle Class” Environmental Protests

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s urban residents (or the new “middle class”) protest on the streets only very rarely. Discontent is expressed almost exclusively online, via angry typing. But this has changed over the last five years—protests have come offline and on to the streets.2012 saw...

Environment

12.21.12

China’s Environment in 2012

CHINADIALOGUE

From mass protests to trade wars, shale-gas drilling to hazardous cosmetics, it’s been a topsy turvy twelve months for China’s environment. Here’s a quick refresher of the year that was.JanuaryThe year got off to a bang – literally. The customary fireworks set off for...

Environment

11.28.12

Russia’s Siberian Dams Power “Electric Boilers”...

CHINADIALOGUE

The underdeveloped, sparsely populated Eastern Siberia region that shares a 4,000-kilometer border with China has vast resources to offer its heavily populated and fast-developing neighbor. Hydroelectricity is key among them.A major new hydroelectric plant commissioned on October...

Environment

11.27.12

Millions Await News of Test-tube Panda Taotao’s “...

CHINADIALOGUE

On October 11, at the age of two years and two months, giant panda Taotao went home.This was China’s second attempt to introduce a giant panda born through artificial insemination into the wild. Unlike last time, however, Taotao was born and raised in an environment designed to...

Environment

11.15.12

China’s Low-Carbon Zones Lack Motivation, Guidance,...

CHINADIALOGUE

None of China’s so-called low-carbon industrial zones currently live up to the name. That’s the conclusion to draw from the work of the U.S. Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), which this year released a guide for the development of green industrial parks in China....

Environment

10.19.12

Overfishing Pushes 80% of Chinese Fishermen Towards...

CHINADIALOGUE

In mid-September, the fishing season got under way as usual in Ningbo, on China’s east coast, after the three-month season when fishing is forbidden. Over 2,000 steel-hulled boats headed out to sea. But, on board, there was little cause for optimism.“For the last two years...

Environment

10.16.12

Chinese Boycott Airline China Southern After Mysterious...

CHINADIALOGUE

On the morning of October 10, a high-profile lawsuit against China Southern, one of China’s “big three” airlines, opened at Chaoyang People’s Court in Beijing. The plaintiffs? Zhao Nan and Chen Lei, a couple from Tianjin, north China, who blame the airline for the death...

Environment

10.11.12

China’s New Leaders Must Respect Environmental Rights

CHINADIALOGUE

China has achieved remarkable economic successes over the last three decades. For years, it has led the world in GDP growth. But widespread industrialization and urbanization, along with growth based on increased use of resources, mean the nation also leads the world in energy...

Environment

10.09.12

Top Clothing Brands Linked to Water Pollution Scandal...

CHINADIALOGUE

China is the major hub of the international textile industry, exporting US$200 billion worth of textile and apparel products in 2010—accounting for 34 percent of global exports.It’s provided cheap T-shirts and other clothes to people around the world but at a huge...

Environment

10.02.12

Decline of Bees Forces China’s Apple Farmers to...

CHINADIALOGUE

In the last fifty years, the global human population has nearly doubled, while the average calories consumed per person has increased by about 30 percent.To cope with the ever growing demand for food, more land has been brought into agricultural production, mainly by clearing...

Environment

09.20.12

Desertification in Tibet’s Wetlands Threatens the...

CHINADIALOGUE

The “kidneys” of the Tibetan plateau are failing.The Zoige Wetland National Nature Reserve, which sits on the northeastern fringe of western China’s Qinghai-Tibet plateau, contains the largest alpine peat wetlands in the world. It is also the catchment area for the Yangtze...

Environment

09.06.12

Sinking Shanghai “Not Prepared to Admit” Climate...

CHINADIALOGUE

It’s been a brutal summer for much of urban China. From the once-in-sixty-years storm that lashed Beijing in July, killing seventy-nine people and costing US$1.6 million, to the typhoon floods that triggered mass evacuations in Jingdezhen city, the heavens have been parading...

Environment

08.30.12

Milk Price War Puts Squeeze on China’s Dairy Farmers

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s dairy industry has been in a precarious state since 2008, the year of the Sanlu milk-powder scandal, when babies across the country were poisoned by melamine-tainted infant formula. This incident revealed to the world the flaws in China’s milk industry, including deep...

Environment

08.28.12

China’s South-North Water Transfer is “Irrational...

CHINADIALOGUE

Ruth Matthews, executive director of the Water Footprint Network, tells Tom Levitt how food has come to dominate our water use and why China may need to re-think its South-North water transfer project.Tom Levitt: What do you mean by our water footprint?Ruth Matthews: A water...

Environment

08.20.12

Tibetans Fight Tourism on Holy Lakes

CHINADIALOGUE

Mining, dam construction, sand excavation, poaching, and grassland degradation are seriously damaging the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, the world’s most fragile ecosystem. But without a second thought, the tourism industry has joined their ranks. The only difference is that tourism,...

Environment

08.15.12

Can New Trials Boost Chinese Wind?

CHINADIALOGUE

For the last half year, the National Energy Administration (NEA) has been making its interest in Inner Mongolia’s western regions crystal clear. This part of north China, rich in wind-power potential, has hosted group after group of energy officials—one lot even spent the...

Environment

08.15.12

Official Shrugs Off Public Food “Panic”

CHINADIALOGUE

Wang Guowei heads up the policy and legislation department at the State Council Food Safety Commission. He spoke to Xu Nan and Zhou Wei about the nature of China’s food safety problems and the ongoing policy response.chinadialogue: Compared with other countries, what are the...

Environment

08.09.12

Data Gaps Hobble Carbon Trading

CHINADIALOGUE

Late last October, China’s top economic planning body—the National Development and Reform Commission—instructed the cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Shenzhen, plus Hubei and Guangdong provinces, to get ready to run carbon-trading trials.{...

Environment

08.01.12

Protests Show Chinese Kids’ Fears

CHINADIALOGUE

The decision to cancel the metal refinery project in Shifang last month after protesters clashed with the police has been widely reported in the Chinese and global media. This is not the first time a project has been shelved due to public demonstrations. The same happened in...

Environment

07.18.12

Shifang: A Crisis of Local Rule

CHINADIALOGUE

China has been engrossed in the mass protests in Shifang, Sichuan province, where on the morning of July 2, locals and police clashed during demonstrations against a planned molybdenum and copper refinery. The next day, the government announced a halt to the project, restoring...

Environment

07.11.12

Why Big Dams Don’t Work

CHINADIALOGUE

The record of Africa’s large dams is one of widespread environmental destruction to the continent’s major river systems, upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods; forcible resettlement and human rights abuses; corruption and cost overruns.Large dams across...

Environment

06.11.12

The Diplomacy of Air Pollution

CHINADIALOGUE

On June 5, World Environment Day, China’s environment ministry published its annual “state of the environment” report as normal. But this year, the launch attracted unusual levels of attention thanks to a statement from vice minister Wu Xiaoqing on who should, and...

Environment

06.08.12

In Ecuador, Home Truths for China

CHINADIALOGUE

“We need to make contact with the Chinese media as urgently as possible.” I was on my university campus in New York when I received this call for help from an Ecuadorean NGO on March 5.Some 4,000 kilometers south, in Quito, the Chinese embassy was already surrounded by...

Environment

06.07.12

What’s Coming Out of China’s Taps

CHINADIALOGUE

China’s urbanites use a lot of water. Every day, more than 4,000 water-treatment plants supply 60 million tons of water to 400 million people living in Chinese cities. Despite the impressive figures, the water industry is grappling with widespread criticism as concerns grow...

Environment

06.05.12

Hot Air?

MICHAEL ZHAO

It has been a busy season for U.S. diplomatic activity in China. Given the tensions aroused by U.S. involvement in the Bo Xilai scandal and the flight of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng, perhaps it should come as no surprise that even relatively indirect affronts to China’s...

Environment

06.02.12

A Fallacy of Steel and Glass

CHINADIALOGUE

Among its many environmental challenges, China faces an enormous increase in energy consumption by buildings over the coming decades. Bricks and mortar already account for 25% of China’s total primary energy consumption, but are currently consuming energy at a very low level...

Environment

05.30.12

We’re All Farmers Now

CHINADIALOGUE

At a monthly “friends of farming” dinner held by Green Heartland, an NGO based in Chengdu, west China, Chen Xia quietly reads an ode to the land against light background music. It’s a simple thanksgiving ceremony the hosts conduct before leaving the diners to tuck into a...

Environment

05.24.12

Unplugging from China

CHINADIALOGUE

Apparent preparations by US energy giant AES Corporation to withdraw from China have raised eyebrows lately. Earlier this year, it emerged that the firm—one of the world’s biggest independent power generators—had engaged an investment bank to sell all or part of its...

Environment

01.02.12

Chinese Demand Stokes U.S. Coal Battle

CRAIG SIMONS

TRINIDAD, Colorado—When the New Elk mine reopened amid windblown prairies last winter, it attracted little attention. But the mine—a long shaft boring through some of the world’s most valuable coal—strikes at the heart of a growing debate about the future of American coal...

Environment

01.02.12

As China Grows Rich, Rainforests Fall

CRAIG SIMONS

An incredible forest lies on its side in this gritty industrial town in southeastern China. On the southern bank of the Yangtze River nine-foot-diameter kevazingo trees from Gabon rub against Cambodian rosewoods and Indonesian teaks. Nearby, rust-colored bark from Malaysian...

Environment

01.01.12

China’s Rising Consumer Class Sparks Climate Change...

CRAIG SIMONS

TUOJIA VILLAGE, China—When you think about China’s growing greenhouse gas emissions, you probably don’t think of people like Zhang Chao or his father Zhang Dejun. Zhang Chao, a thirty-five-year-old middle school teacher living in small city in southwestern China, earns the...

Environment

11.14.11

China’s Rise Creates Clouds of U.S. Pollution

CRAIG SIMONS

At more than 9,000 feet along the crest of Oregon’s Cascade mountain range, the top of this snow-covered peak normally enjoys some of America’s cleanest air. So when sensitive scientific instruments picked up ozone—the chief component of smog—at levels higher than...