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China’s New Economic Dominance May Offer Silver Lining to Environmentalists

[fa icon="calendar'] Jan 7, 2015 9:35:12 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By: Carol Pierson Holding

China pollution

The International Monetary Fund declared that the GDP of China has, as expected but ahead of forecasts, surpassed the GDP of the United States. MarketWatch called it a “major economic earthquake” that will “change almost everything in the longer term.”

This news has been predicted since last April, and yet it will take a while for reality to sink in. NPR travel commentator Rick Steves wrote an opinion piece in Sunday’s Seattle Times in which he stated an assumption most of us have held our entire lives and take great pride in: “There’s no question that, economically, we are firmly established on top of the world.”

But so what if we’re not number one? Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz writes in January’s Vanity Fair that economically we might end up better off. And that China probably will not crow about its achievement — “China (does) not want to stick its head above the parapet.” Wanting to be #1 is a distinctly American attitude.

Stiglitz says that the real danger is in losing our influence. In his words, “The bedrock strength of the U.S. has always rested less on hard military power than on ‘soft power’; most notably its economic influence.” The U.S. has used this soft power to lead international bodies such as the World Bank and the G20 “to pursue the economic interests of its multinationals, including its big banks.”

Those driving our economic interests have not addressed climate change with the urgency it deserves. Stiglitz calls out both American and Chinese roles in increasing carbon emissions and other forms of ecological degradation. Until the recent U.S./China climate deal, the U.S. has repeatedly denied the urgency of climate change, refused to sign treaties and retreated from funding global efforts at remediation.

Now that China can claim economic leadership, will it use its influence to lead environmental policy as well?

Harvard Business School (HBS) professor William Kirby believes China will step up. In an article for Working Knowledge, HBS staffer Christian Camerota cites Kirby’s staggering statistics for pollution in China: “Between 70 and 90 percent of the country's flora was endangered by 2008, and by 2013, around 80 percent of its major rivers were so debased that they no longer supported aquatic life. The strain (imposed by economic growth) is manifesting as sinking cities, shrinking reefs, wilting crops, and diminishing water supplies.”

As Kirby told Camerota, “Pollution is tolerable when it's accompanied by economic growth, and that's why the (Chinese) government has been so successful at doing much of what it wants with the landscape of China to date. But I think between man-made pollution and the degradation of the natural environment, we've reached a tipping point, where the government has an obligation to reverse course."

All indications are that Chinese society will not only support the leadership’s environmental efforts but push them to go farther. Across China, in hundreds of protests just in 2014, local residents, including peasants, academics and middle class families have marched against existing polluters and companies that proposed to put human health at risk.

Kirby goes on to explain another reason why Chinese society supports environmental remediation: “Nowhere in the world is the concept of family stronger than in China, and I think they will take that heavy responsibility very seriously. … A bettered natural environment would ensure healthier citizens and longer-term prosperity."

China’s new economic leadership may usher in a new era of climate and environmental effort. In fact, China might end up becoming the global leader we’ve been hoping for. China might even use its economic power to force the US to match its environmental progress. And wouldn’t that be ironic!

Photo courtesy of Leo Fung via Flickr cc.


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council’s Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 10,000+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 10,000+ companies from 135 industries in 104 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 365 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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Chinese Sustainability: Outside Looking In

[fa icon="calendar'] Sep 28, 2011 4:14:43 PM / by Bahar Gidwani

By Bahar Gidwani


A family trip recently brought me back to China for a few weeks.  I was in a small provincial capital — quieter than Beijing or Shanghai and the kind of place that has seen explosive population growth in the past ten years.

I spent some time this trip trying to understand the extent to which Chinese society worries about sustainability. There are several places where China and other so-called “developing countries” have a legacy sustainability advantage over the US. For instance, the Chinese don’t use a lot of air conditioning in their buildings and they heat to a lower temperature in the winter. Their daily food is bought in markets and supermarkets that seem to get most of their supplies directly from local farmers. There are some big milk distributors and a lot of packaged foods on the shelves — but most people’s daily rations come more directly to their table than they do in the U.S. — and come in some cases on bicycles and other lower-carbon transport means!

There seems to be ample (crowded) public transport to supplement bicycles, motor scooters and cars. Intercity travel by air or by private car is possible, but most ordinary people go from one place to another by train or bus. While there are commuting traffic jams, they are mild by comparison to those in a smaller city like Memphis or Columbus — Chinese office workers seem to show up at work when they feel like it and come and go during the day as they wish.

On the other hand, things are changing and the changes seem likely to add pressure in the future to our world’s environment. There is a shift from small, family-tended farms (with stable water use and soil quality) to larger machine-tended farms. These organizations often grow water-intensive and cultivation-intensive crops. Local rivers may no longer fill their beds throughout the year and this causes problems for sewage disposal and drinking water needs.

There has been a massive growth in private housing.  From any point of view, a visitor can see eight or ten construction cranes working on tall apartment blocks. These new complexes will simultaneously increase the average living area for city residents and the density of the city’s population. The added living space will create demand for heating and cooling — and for furnishings, cleaning supplies, etc. The increase in density may start to snarl traffic and encourage a shift towards buying in large department stores instead of local shops. In turn, this may further increase purchases of private autos and a resulting shift in travel habits. TV programs (and TV ads) display this lifestyle, with dramas that include expensive dinners, tailored clothing, and other luxuries.

Screen shot 2011-09-28 at 5.20.21 PM There are signs of interest in sustainable behavior. I took the following shot of a young man wearing a compact fluorescent light bulb outfit. He was part of a Phillips booth that had been put outside a department store. I assume the goal was to convince shoppers to convert from incandescent lights to fluorescents, but I did not see any comparable focus inside the store on “Energy Star” type power-saving appliances or other consumer-facing load reducing programs. Still, I may have missed them amid the throng of shoppers, sellers, and the plethora of goods that are now available to Chinese consumers.

The new pattern of life that these changes create may have positive effects on the daily life for ordinary citizens — at least for a while. But, there may not be enough resources available to move more than a fraction of the China’s population away from their traditional low impact, sustainable lifestyle towards a higher consumption model. Perhaps this hard-working, high-energy society will come up with a new model — something they can teach us?  If they don’t, we may see a dramatic increase in competition for our world’s increasingly scarce natural resources.


Bahar Gidwani is a Cofounder and CEO of CSRHUB. Formerly, he was the CEO of New York-based Index Stock Imagery, Inc, from 1991 through its sale in 2006. He has built and run large technology-based businesses and has experience building a multi-million visitor Web site. Bahar holds a CFA, was a partner at Kidder, Peabody & Co., and worked at McKinsey & Co. Bahar has consulted to both large companies such as Citibank, GE, and Acxiom and a number of smaller software and Web-based companies. He has an MBA (Baker Scholar) from Harvard Business School and a BS in Astronomy and Physics (magna cum laude) from Amherst College. Bahar races sailboats, plays competitive bridge, and is based in New York City.

 

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A Tale of Two Ports

[fa icon="calendar'] Dec 19, 2010 12:45:05 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

The Role of Shipping in Mitigating Climate Change

By Carol Pierson Holding

The Port of Seattle’s CEO, Tay Yoshitani wants to run the greenest port in the country. Now that companies like Walmart and Costco are measuring the carbon footprint of their products as competitive differentiation, energy used by ship transport becomes an issue, including energy used at port stops. Yoshitani believes that the environment is a competitive issue, an ethical and economic opportunity.  And 70% of cargo that goes through the Port is discretionary. It could go through another west coast port on its way to its final eastern destination.

Yoshitani’s team is working hard on his mandate. Installing the first self-powered Electric Rail Mounting Gantry Cranes to move cargo containers onto rail cars. Centralized air plant for grounded planes at SeaTac, lowering emissions and saving airlines $400,000 each year. Financial incentives and a “Green Gateway” flag for ships that use lower sulpher fuel at berth, which saves Elliott Bay in Puget Sound, and keeps the neighboring residents happy.

And yet all of these wins for Seattle’s environment might be wiped out by a decision that’s winding its way through the courts now which would make a port in Longview, 128 miles south of Seattle, the highest polluter on the West Coast.  As reported by Climate Solutions, an Australia-based coal company is opening the door to make Washington the coal-export hub of the Pacific rim.  The plan is to send low-grade coal mined in Wyoming and Montana — a grade outlawed in the US because is so toxic —  on trains through the Columbia River Gorge through a Longview port, to be burned in China. And other coal companies are already lining up with their own proposals.

Why should Washington care about coal burned in China? I was in San Francisco the last time a windstorm carried clouds of black soot from China down the West Coast. The resulting pollution was so thick that we thought the East Bay Fires had started again. Burning dirty coal in China is certain to denigrate the air all along the West Coast, and the single point along its route where environmental concern is strong enough to block it will be the ports from which it is shipped.

Ports are used to being environmentally sensitive because they are on or adjacent to wetlands and other fragile habitats. They are also quite nimble, being between a state agency and a private company. And they have a lot of experience in “earth justice,” with a cadre of internal and external lawyers focused on environmental issues. The real issue is whether any law can protect our citizens from foreign-born pollution, even when it originates on our own shores. And the Longview, WA port is the test case.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website at  http://www.holding.com/Index%20links/articles.html.

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