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On the Environment

Wednesday, March 21, 2012
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Ending Deforestation in the Amazon: Turning a Possibility into a Reality

By Guest Author, Jonathan Smith, JD/MEM candidate, Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

For the past several months, the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy has invited global experts to speak about the climate policies of the top ten greenhouse-gas-emitting nations in its Climate Change Solutions: Frontline Perspectives from Around the Globe webinar series. For most of the nations in the series, that means policies addressing emissions from energy use, electricity, and transportation. For instance, over three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions in both the US and EU are attributable to the energy sector. But the issues Brazil faces are much different – it is the only top-ten nation with emissions primarily derived from land use change, deforestation, and agriculture. Dr. Paulo Moutinho, Executive Director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), spoke recently about these issues and others. A recording of the webinar is available here.

Over the last twenty years, an area the size of Texas has been deforested in the Brazilian Amazon. Seventy percent of this deforestation is due to cattle-ranching activities, but other factors -- such as increasing corn, soy, and sugar cane production for food and biofuels -- are also stressing the environment. The Brazilian government’s subsidies of traditional, intensive agricultural practices dwarf that of sustainable, low-carbon agriculture. And governmental investment in transportation and urban infrastructure in the Amazon similarly threatens its forests, with over 70 percent of deforestation occurring within 50 kilometers of roads. Settlements are a relatively new driver of deforestation, and in the last ten years small landholders and settlers have been playing an increasingly major role in deforestation. At current rates, over 40 percent of the Amazon forest could be gone by 2050, potentially releasing up to 40 billion metric tons of the carbon stored by the forest into the atmosphere.

Moutinho condenses the myriad of contributing factors to four main threats to the forest: 1) the lack of environmental safeguards in the government’s huge Growth Acceleration Plan that is building infrastructure in the Amazon; 2) the growing demand for beef and grain commodities around the world, and the ensuing incentives for cattle ranchers and farmers to cut down forestland; 3) governmental settlement policy that encourages the deforestation of a large number of small land plots; and 4) threats to weaken protections in the Forest Code that are currently under debate in Brazil’s Congress.

But though the threats to the Amazon loom large, progress has been made. Deforestation rates have been reduced to two-thirds below the 1996-2005 average through programs like the compensated reduction of deforestation and the Amazon Fund, the creation of protected areas, and improved law enforcement measures. And the national goal of an 80-percent reduction in deforestation by 2020 could avoid the release of nearly 6 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. At the subnational level, some Brazilian states such as Para and Amazonas are instituting their own state-level REDD programs. And at the sub-state level, forest protection is highly dependent on stakeholders, such as the indigenous communities, who live on lands that hold 30 percent of the carbon stock of the Amazon, and have traditionally low rates of deforestation.

Moutinho stresses the importance of a national REDD regime within which state-level REDD programs are nested, so that targets and methodologies could be standardized across states. And aside from REDD, he also advocates for a national emissions trading scheme, expansion of protected areas, and programs to both increase the land-use efficiency of cattle ranchers and promote the growth of crops on land that had already been cleared for ranching.

A long and multi-pronged effort is necessary in order to slow—or eventually stop—deforestation in the Amazon. But with deforestation not only directly threatening one of the world’s richest biomes, but also indirectly threatening biomes the world over through climate change, the effort must be made.

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Monday, March 12, 2012
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2012 ARPA-E Summit Highlights: the Benefits of Investing in Energy Innovation

By Guest Author, Rafael E. Torres, MBA ’13, Yale School of Management, MEM ’13 Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Investing in innovation in any industry is a risky proposition, yet often one worth pursuing. Technological innovation is the driving force for economic growth, but it requires firms to make significant investments in research, development, and commercialization in order to produce results. The energy industry is no exception to this requirement, though the energy system’s nuances present unique challenges to potential innovators, including high capital intensity, as well as technical complexities and risks. Energy technology innovation, while highly desirable from a social perspective, is a tough nut to crack, even for the entrepreneurial forces of the private sector. This is where ARPA-E comes in.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E), authorized in 2007 and first funded in 2009, was established within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to fund projects developing breakthrough energy technologies that increase energy security, reduce energy-related emissions, and improve efficiency. ARPA-E’s objective in funding and providing expertise to these high-risk/high-reward projects is to assist inventors through a critical and sensitive phase of the technology development process in order to commercialize energy technologies and attract private sector investment. To date, ARPA-E has funded over 180 projects with $521.7 million in awards across 12 program areas, and its awardees have sourced more than $200 million of private capital after receiving ARPA-E funding.

Now an annual event, the 3rd ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit—held at the end of February just outside of Washington, DC—brought together an eye-catching lineup of speakers and energy experts to discuss the issues of the day and to celebrate the success of ARPA-E awardees’ projects. The Summit featured a technology developers’ workshop aimed at providing training to entrepreneurs, multiple keynote presentations, fireside chats to promote interactive dialogues among experts, a technology showcase highlighting ARPA-E awardees, and plenty of networking events. Keynote presentations included commentary by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, ARPA-E Director Arun Majumdar, President Bill Clinton, Microsoft Founder and Chairman Bill Gates, and prominent members of the U.S. Congress, among others. Nearly 2,500 people attended the Summit, comprising mainly researchers, corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers, government officials, and students.

Summit participants had the opportunity to absorb a wealth of knowledge and to witness firsthand the remarkable innovation ecosystem that has arisen from ARPA-E’s efforts. Some examples of the technologies showcased: lithium air and lithium water batteries, microbial fuel cells, solar hydrogen generators, an ultra-compact solid state cooling system for refrigeration, high-powered laser drilling, and advancements in assorted types of solar and wind energy generation components. Venture capitalists, corporate managers, and technologists alike lined up to engage innovators and learn about their exciting new energy technologies. During the panel discussions and keynotes, experts from a variety of disciplines shared their perspectives on topics such as commercialization of technologies, financial tools, investment mechanisms, institutional frameworks, policy measures, national security considerations, and even political roadblocks.

Among many memorable takeaways, the following remarks stood out:

-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu highlighted our vulnerability to price fluctuations in the fuel markets, most recently to oil and gasoline, as well as our inability to drill our way out of the problem. Secretary Chu made the case for leveraging energy innovation in order to reduce our exposure to oil price fluctuations and improve the U.S.’s economic competitiveness.

-Former President Clinton discussed some of the hazards to the energy innovation project, including advances in fossil fuel extraction techniques that could lock us into dirty energy consumption, the lure of short-term jobs in oil and gas, constrained federal budgets that limit spending on research, and ideological imperatives to deny climate change. However, he built a case for continued investment in energy innovation domestically, and he noted that the nation’s economic future depends on the successful projects of the entrepreneurs present.

-Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank encouraged innovators to get out of their buildings and speak with customers to find out what they need. In addition, they should focus on deploying the lowest acceptable functional technology in the market in order to bet smaller while they learn, as opposed to ‘betting the farm’ on a more developed (and more expensive) project.

-Bill Gates drew a distinction between the IT revolution and the energy transition currently underway, noting that the IT revolution is an exception in terms of how quickly things can change. Energy transitions have historically taken 60-70 years on average, mainly due to their capital intensity. Mr. Gates argued that the U.S. is currently under-spending on energy R&D, and that the private sector needs incentives to jump into an area that has failure rates over 90 percent and that needs thousands of firms initiating projects to produce just a few viable options.

-Senator Jeff Bingaman described science and technology as critical to U.S. competitiveness and indicated that partisan politics is creating obstacles to continued progress in the energy system. Whereas regulation, spending on innovation and tax incentives had been effective policy tools in the past, they were now under sustained attack. Higher lighting efficiency standards are in the process of being rolled back, Solyndra has been used as an excuse to defund innovation projects, and the production tax credit’s renewal is in jeopardy. Senator Bingaman expects that we may need to wait until the November elections to make further progress in energy.

The ARPA-E Summit brought together the energy innovation community to demonsrate what is possible when the government invests in and incentivizes innovation. Knowledge networks and communities of practice form around the seeds of innovation capital, and new technologies find a way from laboratory to prototype, and from prototype to marketplace. Certainly, no one would dispute that we likely will come across some failures along the way, nor would they deny that some of the outcomes of R&D investment will be difficult to measure. However, with great risk comes the potential for great reward, and the ARPA-E Summit provided a sneak peek at what some of the fruits of our innovation investments might look like.

For more information on the 2012 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit, visit the website.

Posted in: Innovation & Environment
Friday, March 09, 2012
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Bottom Up or Top Down? Another Way to Look at an Air Quality Problem

By Guest Author, Erica Zell, Stephanie Weber, and Alex de Sherbinin

This post originally appeared on State of the Planet, the Earth Institute's blog.

Air quality matters for human health, and many of the world’s urban areas suffer from high levels of contamination. One of the worst pollutants is PM2.5., which are microscopic particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter that lodge deep in the lungs, potentially leading to respiratory and cardiovascular disease in exposed populations. According to World Health Organization research on the environmental burden of disease, outdoor air pollution causes close to one million premature deaths worldwide each year, with particulate matter as one of the leading contributors. Fine particulates originate in large part from fossil fuels combustion and from agricultural and forest fires.

How do we know how polluted the air is? In some cases, we know it when we breathe it —like when our throat and lungs get irritated.  In other cases, we can see it, when visibility is reduced and the horizon is hazy.  Air pollution concentrations can be monitored with ground-based instruments. However, not all countries have the financial wherewithal and capacity to deploy ground-based instruments, and for some countries monitoring information is not available to the public, for example, through health advisories. For PM2.5, there are about 40 times more air quality monitors in North America and Western Europe than in the rest of the world combined. Each monitor costs on the order of $18,000 and requires something like $5,000 per year to operate.

But there is another way to assess air pollution levels: from the top down, through satellites.  Satellites have broad geographic coverage, provide regular observations (twice daily in some cases), and produce data that are generally available quickly and freely via the Internet. This is a major advantage over data from ground-based instruments. There are, however, some challenges associated with applying air quality measurements from satellites. Satellites, by definition, look down through the atmosphere and, as such, typically produce a column measurement of pollutants which does not necessarily reflect concentrations at ground level.  They may also have difficulty measuring pollution on city scales. Yet these problems are not insurmountable.

For PM2.5, satellites measure a property called Aerosol Optical Depth (AOD), which is an indication of light extinction that can be related to particle concentrations in the air. Aaron van Donkelaar and his colleagues at Dalhousie University have addressed the challenge of deriving surface concentrations from satellite AOD measurements. They tie the satellite measurements to ground-based PM2.5 concentrations and use NASA’s GEOS-Chem global chemical transport model to factor in weather and chemical conversion factors affecting surface concentrations.

Map showing average exposure to particulate matter fine concentrations

Figure 1.

Building on this work, a team of researchers at Battelle Memorial Institute collaborated with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network  at The Earth Institute to generate estimates of annual PM2.5 exposure for populations worldwide over a 10-year period, as derived from NASA MODIS and MISR data. This work was funded by the NASA Earth Science Division Applied Sciences Program.

Battelle’s satellite-based results provide some insight on air pollution levels in China, a topic that has generated headlines recently. Because air pollution is influenced by the weather — for example, a stagnant air mass tends to hold any pollutants in place — it is best to look at several years of data to understand average pollution levels independent of weather patterns.  Figure 1 shows the average exposure to PM2.5 by province in China for the years 2008–2010. The data show that PM2.5 levels in China are above WHO guidelines for annual average PM2.5, (10 micro-grams per cubic meter (µg/m3)) by several-fold in many areas.

Map showing population distribution

Figure 2.

Our methodology weights the results by population distribution such that concentrations in more densely populated areas are more heavily weighted than concentrations in areas with lower population density. Figure 2 shows the population distribution of China according to CIESIN’s Global Rural Urban Mapping Project. In general we find that pollution concentrations are highest near population centers, since the industrial and transportation sectors are leading sources of emissions.

Map showing average exposure to fien particulate matter concentrations change between 2201-2003 and 2008-2010

Figure 3.

Figure 3 shows the change in surface concentrations of PM2.5 in China over a 10-year period.  Air pollution concentrations grew by more than 5% in Jiangsu and Xinjiang provinces, and though we are unable to pinpoint the exact reasons for this (most probably increases in population and industry), it can point policymakers to areas that may need greater attention.

The question of how polluted the air is can best be answered with a combination of ground-based and satellite-based monitors. Studies such as this one, and recent data sharing by the Chinese government, bring us one step closer.  After all, there’s more than one way to look at an air quality problem.

This work was the basis of the Particulate Matter Indicator in the Yale-CIESIN 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), and has generated considerable buzz in the media, including an Economist article and a posting by the Guardian Environment Network on China’s air quality, and a blog post by the New York Times on India’s air quality problems.

Erica Zell and Stephanie Weber are from Battelle Memorial Institute and Alex de Sherbinin is a senior research associate at CIESIN. CIESIN deputy director Marc Levy and de Sherbinin serve as PI and co-PI, respectively, on the NASA ROSES Decisions grant NNX09AR72G that funded this work.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012
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Q&A with Mary Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board

By Guest Author, Agustín F. Carbó-Lugo, MEM '12, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

Mary Nichols, Chairman of the California Air Resources Board, gave the keynote address at the Yale Environmental Law Association’s second annual New Directions in Environmental Law Conference. While she was on campus, she sat down for an interview with Agustín F. Carbó-Lugo, a MEM candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Agustín Carbó: Environmental justice groups argue that California’s greenhouse gas emissions cap-and-trade program will create “hot spots” in low-income communities. How is California addressing these concerns from a legal and programmatic perspective?

Mary Nichols: First of all, when we began developing the cap and trade program, we were operating under the requirements of AB 32, which has very specific provisions that order the Air Resources Board to consider environmental justice in every aspect of our decisionmaking. And before we could even begin to adopt a market-based program of any kind, we had to make certain findings, including findings that the program would not increase air pollution in any community in the state.

So from the beginning we were analyzing the rule and developing it in a way that we felt [we] would be able to make those kinds of findings -- that [process] involved looking at how the program would actually operate in a worst-case situation: Assuming that the most polluting companies in the state subject to the rule were trying to buy as many credits as they could rather than cleaning up themselves, would they actually be able to do that in a way that would increase localized air pollution?

We were able to satisfy ourselves based on some scenarios that we developed that it could not happen because of existing air quality regulations already on the books. But we also, in the course of writing the regulation, put in some safeguards that we felt would make sure – and hopefully assure concerned members of the public – that it was not going to happen. Those safeguards involved extra monitoring at the localized level and the ability to take action to disallow further use of imported allowances or offsets if we found increased pollution from facilities under the cap and trade program.

One reason we think there’s not a real issue here, despite the concern, is that there’s a tendency on the part of facility owners to make decisions based on actual costs of compliance with the program. In other words, putting a price on carbon causes people to take a look at their operations and decide how to operate more efficiently. Generally speaking, the oldest, dirtiest plants are also those where the company has chosen not to clean up because they’re not operating very efficiently in addition to the pollution that they put out. Either they decide to clean up – and thereby also improve their operating profile – or they’ll tend to shut down their least efficient facilities and concentrate on the places where they get more output per unit of fuel.

The other reason is that when we look at our low-income and minority communities in California with the greatest concentrations of toxic contaminants, the sources of those pollutants tend not to be the industrial facilities themselves, but instead community-level transportation like the ports and the rail yards where the major pollutants of concern are diesel toxic emissions. These facilities are not being directly affected by the cap and trade program, but they are subject of a lot of other regulatory attention from the Air Resources Board these days.

We do understand how in parts of the world – where there are great concerns about whether localized communities have any kind of air pollution protection – adding in carbon trading or carbon allowances could add to a community’s concerns if they’re not also accompanied by a push to deal with health. But in our situation in California, we just don’t think it’s an issue.

Agustín Carbó: Is California’s cap-and-trade program pushing the climate change agenda to a national level? Do you foresee that eventually the federal government may preempt this issue?

Mary Nichols: Some of the thinking behind the original AB 32 was clearly that if our state and other states adopted climate legislation, especially if that legislation was in some ways conflicting or created different pressures on companies, that it would make them more anxious to support federal legislation.

The truth is, a lot of impetus behind the adoption of the Waxman-Markey legislation by the House of Representatives came from the business community; large companies that operate at the national and international level were already experiencing the push and pull of being held accountable in different states and were hoping Congress would step in and preempt state programs like ours. Of course, no bill was passed in the Senate, and it looks now like it’s going to be a long time before that happens.

But I expect that someday Congress will take action. There will be federal climate legislation and if it has a cap and trade element, then state programs probably will be merged into that program. Whether it would be an absolute preemption or a set of steps creating incentives for states to join I can’t say – either way, we would much prefer to be operating under a national program rather than running our own; it’s just more efficient that way.

Agustín Carbó: In light of skeptics and partisan propaganda that insists climate change is not real, what needs to happen to gain more public acceptance and force the U.S. government to commit to international initiatives to fight climate change?

Mary Nichols: I don’t think the impediment has anything to do with science. The science debate is a distraction. Scientists are still debating exactly how cigarette smoking causes cancer. That’s the nature of science – to continue to raise problems and objections.

I recognize that people will be questioning the accepted consensus on human-caused climate change for many years into the future. But the fact is there is enough agreement on the need to curb our emissions of greenhouse gases. That’s not what’s holding back any kind of effective regulatory or legislative program. It’s politics, and it’s the cost – and until there’s a sufficient demand and understanding that there are ways to do this that don’t hurt the economy, that actually help the economy, we’ll continue to see blockage at the national level.

Agustín Carbó: Recent UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations have made it clear that climate protection will depend on actions on the ground in both developing and developed countries, a concept that may involve Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) and Low-Emissions Development Strategies (LEDS). Is California considering to design, plan and/or implement some of these measures?

Mary Nichols: I think the California program and the programs we’ve worked on with other states and other subnational groups through various mechanisms – including the Western Climate Initiative and others — constitute that kind of on-the-ground control measure. We think what we’re doing is actually developing some of the operating rules and the experiences that will make it possible for other places to do some of the things we’re doing. The cap-and-trade program is only one example. We also have the low-carbon fuel standard, our advanced fleet cars programs, our industrial audits – there’s a panoply of rules that we’re working on.

But I think what’s more relevant to many parts of the developing world are programs we’re working on that involve incentives and/or voluntary programs – working with agriculture, working with local sanitation districts, helping to promote better technology for the capture and reuse of methane from waste materials. These areas are critically important if we’re actually going to make a dent in the overall buildup of greenhouse gasses. And these are programs that are also underway in California, but they’re not all necessarily being led out of the Air Resources Board. We have a variety of other government agencies at the state and local level working together with the private sector to pioneer some of these activities.

It’s very exciting to pick up the paper every morning to see examples new technologies. For example, there’s a little rural community outside of Las Angeles called Norco, which is famous because it’s zoned for horses. Along with the horses, they also have a very large waste disposal problem – and the city has been spending tens of thousands of dollars each year to collect and truck the stuff to a land disposal site. They’ve just signed a contract with a subsidiary of Chevron, which is developing for them a waste-to-energy plant. The plant will not only alleviate the cost of disposal, but also provide the city with some of its electrical power. This is great stuff, and it’s happening because of interest in waste disposal, energy policy – and it also helps our climate numbers.

This interview has been edited and condensed. A video recording of their conversation is available below as well as here.

Posted in: Energy & Climate
Tuesday, March 06, 2012
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Man U Scores One for Sustainability, but We Should be Changing the Playing Field

By Guest Author, Ysella Yoder, Program Manager, Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy

Premier soccer team, Manchester United, just became the first English soccer club to achieve the international Environmental Management System standard, ISO14001 – saving themselves £500,000 (or $792,000) over the last few years in the process.

The ISO14004 provides a “framework for a holistic, strategic approach to the organization's environmental policy, plans and actions.” In order to achieve this standard, Manchester United implemented a range of sustainability measures including plucking the low-hanging fruit: improving efficiency in lighting, heating and cooling, and encouraging fans to use public transport to and from matches.

This type of low-hanging fruit is the easiest, quickest, and most cost-effective route to realizing cost savings while greening your business. In the Green to Gold Business Playbook, Dan Esty and P.J. Simmons highlight the importance of going after the low-hanging fruit first for quick payback by:

·      Investing in energy efficiency;

·      Reducing major environmental risks;

·      Launching a pilot project or two; and

·      Finding ways to engage employees.

Dell expects to save about $5.8 million a year as a result of increasing energy efficiency measures. And Walmart sought out cost-saving ideas from their employees. One employee suggestion to turn off the back-light break room vending machines led to a cost savings of $1 million per year.[1] Employee engagement is key. Often it’s the middle managers who are the ones tasked with improving efficiencies and, without buy-in from key people in the company, success is limited.

The Playbook lists countless examples of these return on investment success stories and provides tools to help companies achieve their broader sustainability goals. But achieving these gains is not easy and cannot be done through a one-size-fits-all approach. Each business’s needs are unique and time will need to be invested in assessing where the greatest gains can be achieved. For Manchester United, one of the biggest paybacks may have been lighting, but, for Google, most gains might be seen in more efficient heating and cooling of data centers.

It’s important to note that companies large and small, for-profit or not-for-profit, can all benefit from incorporating sustainability measures into their business practices and achieve real cost savings, decrease impact on the environment, build brand value, cultivate loyal customers, and ultimately score one for the home team.

NEEF, The Engaged Organization: Corporate Employee Environmental Education Survey and Case Study Findings, March 2009, p.32.

Posted in: Innovation & Environment
Thursday, March 01, 2012
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Data’s Power to Spur Environmental Progress

By Guest Author, Renee Cho, Staff Blogger, the Earth Institute

This post originally appeared on State of the Planet, the Earth Institute's blog.

In January, 132 countries received their environmental report cards. The Environmental Performance Index, released at the World Economic Forum in Davos, ranked countries on aspects of environmental impacts on human health and on ecosystems. The rankings were based on scores each country earned on 22 indicators dealing with environmental health, air pollution, water, biodiversity and habitat, agriculture, forests, fisheries, and climate change and energy.

Coming in at first place on the 2012 EPI is Switzerland, with Latvia, Norway, Luxembourg, and Costa Rica rounding out the top five. The U.S is ranked 49th and Iraq is in last place.

The EPI and its precursor, the Environmental Sustainability Index, were developed by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Earth Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network in 1999. Since 2006, the EPI has been released every two years. In addition, this year’s new Pilot Trend Environmental Performance Index ranks countries according to how much progress they have made over the last decade.

The EPI’s importance lies in its ability to goad leaders into action by letting them see their countries’ strengths and weaknesses compared to other countries, and to enable those that want to do better to dig into the data and identify the best practices of countries with higher scores.

In addition, the Pilot Trend Environmental Performance Index will be helpful for the private sector, allowing companies to see which countries take sustainability seriously, and thus might offer better business prospects.

“Most of the smaller Asian countries are very concerned if they don’t do well and track these findings closely,” said Alex de Sherbinin, senior research associate at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network. He added that countries in every region are competitive.

Seoul pollution in 2005. Photo credit: Craig Nagy

A good example of the EPI’s power to drive change is South Korea’s progress on air quality. In the 2002 Environmental Sustainability Index, South Korea came in 135th out of 142 countries; in reducing air pollution, it was 139th. Troubled by its standing, South Korea brought together various ministries, non-governmental environmental organizations and automakers to address the issue of air quality, mainly Seoul’s.

Air quality is often determined by measuring particulate matter in the air (produced by dust, the burning of fossil fuels, and power plants) that is smaller than 10 micrometers, or PM10. Because of their small size, these particles can enter the lungs and cause serious respiratory problems. The World Health Organization’s PM10 target guideline is 20 micrograms per cubic meter as an annual average.

In, 2002, South Korea started a special program to improve urban air quality aimed at significantly reducing PM10 and the pollutant nitrogen oxide, produced during combustion. The government’s plan to improve air quality involved tightening discharge allowances for vehicles, promoting low-emission vehicles and emission-reducing devices, and the early retirement of old vehicles. It also raised fuel quality standards and intensified vehicle inspections.

To reduce industrial pollution, large industries were given total discharge allowances. Buses running on cleaner compressed natural gas were introduced in 2001; by 2010 there were estimated to be 23,000 in use; a bus rapid transit system and congestion fees at tunnels were also established. The government is planning to increase the number of hybrid and electric vehicles; and parkland will be expanded by 2020, with five new parks and the conversion of a landfill into a park. In addition, South Korea is preparing to begin trading carbon emissions in 2015.

Restoration of the Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul helped reduce small particle air pollution. Photo credit: Kaizer Rangwala

As a result of the measures taken since the 2002 EPI, South Korea’s ranking rose to 43rd in 2012; it came in 51st for air effects on human health. The Pilot Trend EPI, measuring progress, ranked South Korea 13th. South Korea’s move up 51 places from its 2010 EPI ranking is touted on the Ministry of the Environment’s website.

In contrast, China, with its poor 2012 EPI ranking of 116th, air effects on human health rank of 128th and air ecosystem effects rank of 114th, has not reacted publicly to its scores; but nevertheless, it has been pressured into improving air quality by activists and bloggers fired up over air quality data released by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Photo credit: urbangarden

Beijing’s particulate levels fell by almost a third from 2006 to 2009 in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, but have been climbing ever since. The country’s Pilot Trend EPI ranking of 100th means that its performance has actually declined over the decade. And indeed, China’s pollution, stemming largely from coal-fired power plants and mounting numbers of cars, has made headlines recently. In December, pollution in Beijing shut down highways and grounded almost 700 flights. The deputy director of the Beijing Health Bureau reported that although smoking rates in Beijing have not increased in the past decade, the lung cancer rate rose 60 percent, likely as a result of air pollution.

Until last month, Beijing’s air quality monitoring reported only PM10 levels. But according to Angel Hsu, project manager for the 2012 EPI and a Yale doctoral candidate, fine particles that measure less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (about 1/30 the width of a human hair), or PM2.5, constitute 50 percent of the particulate matter of China’s air. PM2.5 is produced by dust and combustion (from vehicle exhaust, coal-fired power plants, wood burning). Because of their tiny size, PM2.5 are thought to pose the most severe health risks since they can lodge deep in the lungs and enter the bloodstream, increasing the risks of lung cancer, and cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Beijing traffic.

Beijing and other Chinese cities began monitoring PM2.5 and ozone a few years ago, but did not release their findings to the public. In 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began measuring and reporting PM2.5 levels via Twitter, and found that over 80 percent of days exceeded American standards for safe levels of air pollution. The readings were in stark contrast to Beijing’s official air quality reporting (of only PM10) which often concluded that the air was safe. The capital’s annual average PM2.5 concentration has been approximately 100 micrograms per cubic meter, while the proposed yearly standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter. Roused by the embassy’s reports, citizens began putting intense pressure on the government to publicly report PM2.5 levels.

On Jan. 26 as the Year of the Dragon began, Beijing acceded and began publishing hourly PM2.5 readings from one monitoring station. It now plans to establish 35 PM2.5 monitoring stations throughout all districts and counties of the city by the end of 2012. (By international standards, monitors should be 50 meters from pollution sources; the U.S. Embassy monitor is only 15 meters from a large ring road, which may account for continued discrepancies in readings.)

According to China Radio International, a newly announced air pollution control program for Beijing aims to reduce PM2.5 levels 30 percent by 2020. In addition to the new PM2.5 monitoring stations, a satellite remote sensing system will oversee overall air quality.

By 2020, the plan also aims to:

- Get 1.6 million cars with outdated emissions standards off the road

-  Reduce the city’s annual total consumption of coal 62 percent below 2015 levels

- Close all cement plants run for profit in Beijing

- Ban heavy industry from opening new facilities or expanding in the city

- Expand forest area in the city by 133,000 hectares (328,650 acres) and water surface by 2,000 hectares (almost 5,000 acres)

By 2015, 1,200 asphalt, glass and ceramic factories will have to leave the city.

The Chinese government has ordered 30 major cities to begin monitoring PM2.5 this year, and 80 more next year. China Daily reported that China aims to reduce its pollutant emissions 30 to 40 percent by 2015 in accordance with its 12th Five-Year Plan (2010-2015) for environmental protection. The plan calls for an investment of 3.4 trillion yuan ($539 billion) in environmental protection efforts.

If China can realize these ambitious plans, it will significantly improve its air quality, but getting air pollution under control will be an ongoing challenge.

“Without effective monitoring, tracking and transparency, you don’t know where you stand, and the potential for collaborative problem-solving involving a strengthened civil society and citizens is reduced. Researchers, academics and NGOs need the data,” said de Sherbinin. “Indicators alone won’t solve the problems, but they are guideposts to help you get where you want to go.”

It will be interesting to see how China fares on the 2014 EPI.

Renee Cho is a staff blogger for Columbia University's Earth Institute and a freelance environmental writer.

Posted in: Environmental Performance Measurement

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