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Environmental Law & Governance

Wednesday, August 31, 2011
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China’s 12th Five-Year Plan Lays Out Ambitious Blueprint, but Data Challenges Remain

By Guest Author, Angel Hsu, PhD candidate, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

In March, China released its 12th Five-Year Plan – a blueprint outlining the key economic and development targets for the country over the next few years.  Unlike previous Plans, climate change and energy are featured prominently, and a strong emphasis is placed on a slower, more sustainable growth trajectory.[1]  Not only is the 12th Five-Year Plan the first to mention climate change, but it adopts as part of national, binding law the climate pledges China first made at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCCC) Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009.  Binding targets for a range of other environment and energy issues are also included in the Plan, including important air and water quality pollutants that were previously absent.

Part of the country’s ability to achieve these targets will be in its capacity to measure and track progress toward its goals.  The Chinese government has pledged implementation of “well-equipped and statistical and monitoring systems” and “index evaluation systems”[2] in the 12th Five Year Plan, indicating an increasing awareness of the importance of data, information and robust infrastructure to ensure targets are met.  However, while there are signs of China’s move toward a more “data-driven” approach to decision-making in the formulation of the latest Plan, political sensitivities around pollution information still persist, meaning China may still confront challenges when trying to improve environmental conditions.

The 12th Five-Year Plan comes at a time of growing recognition from the Chinese government regarding the importance of information for environmental decision-making. In 2010 the Chinese government completed its first national census of pollution, requiring more than $100 million U.S. dollars, 570,000 staff and nearly two years to complete.[3]  The survey mapped more than 6 million sources of residential, industrial, and notably agricultural pollution, which had been previously absent from measures of water contamination.  The survey found that previous measures of water pollution – specifically chemical oxygen demand – had neglected to include non-point agricultural sources of pollution, from fertilizer and pesticide effluent as well as landfill leakage.[4] Including these non-point sources of discharge meant that prior measures of water pollution had been missing over half of the baseline data for chemical oxygen demand – from 13.8 million tons in 2007 to 30.3 million.  At the time, Chinese officials noted that the targets would not be revised based on the new data, while still touting China’s success in meeting COD reduction targets in the 11th Five-Year Plan. However, the findings from the survey did lead to the adoption of a binding reduction target for a critical water pollutant – ammonia nitrogen – and continued reduction goals for Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) in the 12th Five-Year Plan. The adoption of these new water pollution targets were largely due in part to the survey results, which allowed for the government to set new targets and refine previous ones based on this new information. 

While this example speaks to the progress China is making in terms of measurement and performance tracking, political sensitivities surrounding other environmental data still prove to be barriers to policy changes.  Earlier this year, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) released draft proposals to amend its Air Pollution Index (API) [5] to an Air Quality Index (AQI) that more closely resembles the U.S. version [6]. While the proposed amendments include significant improvements – such as including ozone measurements, improved calculation methodologies, and standardizing color-coding schemes – PM 2.5 [7] is notably absent.Experts, such as Ma Jun, Director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), a Beijing-based NGO, and former Yale World Fellow, have suggested that leaving out PM 2.5 is due to political rather than technical concerns. “Government agencies feel the index may hurt the image of many cities that want to attract investment or that they may not be able to improve PM 2.5 pollution in a short time,” Ma told the Global Times. U.S. diplomatic cables have also revealed that lack of measurement of PM 2.5 and other dangerous air pollutants could be due to fear of political consequences.

So while we can see evidence that China is embracing improved data-based decision-making, the results are mixed because political vulnerability toward environmental pollution is still a serious concern amongst Chinese leadership who fear citizen unrest and social instability.  What China must realize are the benefits from knowing risks and exposures to environmental harms and pollutants, which is not possible without measurement.  Failing to incorporate critical pollutants in national environmental policies only pushes serious concerns under the rug, in a type of “act now, apologize later” mentality that in many cases have led to dire political ramifications for Chinese government officials when harmful pollution disasters surface [8].

Therefore, while the 12th Five-Year Plan makes important inroads in establishing more comprehensive environment and energy-related targets, equal progress needs to be made in terms of data transparency and a shift toward a government culture that doesn’t fear data and numbers.Only then can the Chinese leadership expect to formulate sound policies and robust systems to drive environmental results.


[2] Premier Wen’s Work Report, the NDRC Draft Plan for National Economic and Social Development, and the Ministry of Finance Budget Report can all be found online: http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2011/03/05/china-npc-2011-reports-full-text/.

[3] Xinhua News Agency. 2010. China issues first national census of pollution sources. February 10. http://english.mep.gov.cn/News_service/media_news/201002/t20100210_185653.htm.

[4] Ansfield, J. and K. Bradsher. 2010. China Report Shows More Pollution in Waterways. The NY Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/10/world/asia/10pollute.html.

[6] Hsu, A. 2011. China amends air quality measures but misses key pollutant – PM 2.5. http://hsu.me/2011/03/china-amends-air-quality-measures-but-misses-key-pollutant-pm-2-5/.

[7] PM 2.5 refers to air particulates with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less; known to have serious health implications such as asthma, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease, due to their ability to penetrate human lungs.

[8] Si, Meng. 2011. On Yunnan’s Chromium Trail. China Dialogue. http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/4493.

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
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Limiting SO2 and NOx crossing state borders

By Guest Author, Yaron Schwartz, Research Assistant, Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released this past Friday the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), a new and potentially powerful regulation that limits the amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that can cross state borders. CSAPR is a response to the environmental dilemma created by airborne pollutants that can disperse widely and across state boundaries, a dilemma that particularly afflicts the eastern half of the United States (for instance, sulfur dioxide emissions from a Pennsylvania power plant creating acid rain in New York’s Adirondacks). Under CSAPR, 27 states will be required by 2014 to cut their SO2 emissions to 2.4 million tons per year and their NOx emissions to 1.2 million tons per year, down from 8.8 million tons and 2.6 million tons in 2005. 

 Map

CSAPR’s public health and environment benefits could be vast. The EPA announced that they expect the rule to prevent 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 19,000 cases of acute bronchitis, 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 1.8 million sick days a year beginning in 2014.  The EPA also estimated that CSAPR’s benefits will overwhelmingly outweigh its costs.  The following graphic tells the story well. 
 

For more information about the EPA’s new rule on cross-state pollution, please visit: http://www.epa.gov/airtransport/.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
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American Electric Power v. Connecticut

By Guest Author, Yaron Schwartz, Research Assistant, Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy

In a creative effort to curb carbon emissions, six states, along with New York City and several land trusts, decided to pursue a different policy tactic than previous environmental campaigns. Rather than lobbying for Congressional legislation, this coalition sued five major electric utilities and the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2004, claiming that their emissions constituted a public nuisance and, therefore, should be regulated by the courts under federal common law. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, bringing national attention to this environmental campaign and issue.

This week, however, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the defendants in American Electric Power v. Connecticut. The Court stated that it was the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as charged under the Clean Air Act to regulate US carbon emissions, not that of the courts. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued, "Congress set up the EPA to promulgate standards for emissions, and the relief you're seeking seems to me to set up a district judge, who does not have the resources, the expertise, as a kind of super EPA."

While undoubtedly a setback for those who desire real reductions in U.S. carbon emissions, this case may still have a silver lining. By highlighting the responsibility of the EPA to set standards for carbon emissions, the Court has placed renewed pressure on the EPA to take meaningful action on climate change. The Court’s decision has also clarified the stakes for all concerned. As long as Congress refuses to address climate change through new legislative solutions, the EPA will remain the only national policymaking body in the United States with the ability to tackle the problem.  Efforts to impede or constrain EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act now seem doubly dangerous.

Read the Court’s official decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Tuesday, April 05, 2011
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Climate Change Triage: The Northeast and Sea Level Rise

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director

Sobering look at sea level rise in the Northeast and the hard choices it puts before us.  Do taxpayers pay to defend coastline with expensive sea walls in what looks to be a losing battle?  Do emotionally-invested homeowners on the coast retreat now while their property may be at its optimal value?  What can we save from the sea's rise, if anything?  How will we as a society triage the many victims of this climate change harm?      

I detect no real sense that policy makers have a good handle on how to resolve, or even approach, these kinds of terrible choices.  Unfortunately, going forward blindly is also a choice, and one that usually doesn't end too well.

Posted in: Environmental Attitudes & BehaviorEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Friday, April 01, 2011
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The RGGI Emissions Cap:  Is It Too Forgiving?

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director

There are many valuable lessons to be drawn from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the nation's only operational, and mandatory, cap-and-trade program.  One worth dwelling on is the effectiveness of RGGI's CO2 emissions cap.  Recent analysis suggests this cap is much too forgiving -- not just now, but, more importantly, also over the next two decades.

The whole point of the RGGI emissions cap is to create a market for CO2 emissions from power plants that will ultimately drive down those emissions over time in the most economically efficient way possible.  A relatively harder cap - one set below actual CO2 emissions, for example - should make RGGI's tradeable CO2 pollution allowances more scarce and thus more valuable to polluters, resulting in higher prices per allowance than a cap set above actual emissions would.  The key idea here is that RGGI's cap on CO2 emissions from its regulated entities - electric utilities basically - creates a new market that has the potential to push those utilities towards low- or no-carbon generation.  Where policy makers set the cap can therefore matter a great deal; a relatively tough one pushes harder than a relatively lenient one.  This chart, produced on behalf of RGGI, strongly suggests the RGGI cap is not hard enough now, nor will it be hard enough in the future:

The important lines to look at for our purposes are the dashed one - that's the RGGI cap as set by agreement of the RGGI members - and the solid black line - that's both historical and projected total CO2 emissions from RGGI's regulated entities.  You can see that presently, the cap is simply way too high (and to be fair, some of that is on purpose).  The factors behind the recent massive drop in actual CO2 emissions are several (more on that later).  The recession undoubtedly plays a huge part.  Nevertheless, the cap just does not appear to be exerting real pressure on utilities right now.  Maybe that's not a problem.  There's an argument that a soft cap is just fine early on, as we refine and tweak RGGI.  That argument might be even stronger in the current economic climate.  No need to clamp down on utilities in the midst of the recession.

So perhaps the short-term performance issues of the cap are okay to put aside for the moment.  That's not at all true for the long-term performance issues.  Here's the major problem, and one policy makers should make an urgent focus of their thinking:  According to these projections, the cap doesn't appear to really bite until maybe 2030 or later, and that's just too late in the scheme of things.  Climate science tells us we need meaningful CO2 reductions much much sooner than that to avoid catastrophic harms.  So what's the point of an emissions cap if it doesn't drive change when we need it?  It's time to give serious thought to how best to tighten the RGGI cap to make it better correspond with the scientific reality we find ourselves in.    

Posted in: Innovation & EnvironmentEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
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EPA Revisits Hydraulic Fracturing and Drinking Water

By testpersona

As oil prices increase and energy security becomes a concern in the US, more is being done to explore cleaner burning fuels such as natural gas. Natural gas has seen big increases in the number of wells and total production as shale gas extraction, in particular, intensifies. The EPA projects that 20% of US gas supply will come from shale gas by 2020.

An EPA report in 2004 found that "there was little to no risk of fracturing fluid contaminating underground sources of drinking water during hydraulic fracturing of coalbed methane production wells." But public concern over the process by which shale gas is extracted  known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has escalated with the growing number of wells.  Each well requires the pumping of tremendous amounts of fracking fluid into the earth and, according to the EPA's 2004 report, "[t]here is very little documented research on the environmental impacts that result from the injection and migration of these fluids into subsurface formations, soils, and USDWs."  Until last year (when the EPA called for the voluntary reporting of chemicals used in fracking fluids), many of the chemicals used in fracking were unknown.  Chemicals now known to sometimes be involved in the process include: diesel fuel (which contains benzene and other toxic chemicals), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, methanol, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide. Given this situation, the EPA has announced another study to examine the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and groundwater.  The EPA aims to issue preliminary findings in 2012 and a full report in 2014.  The draft study plan is available at here.

Posted in: Environmental Performance MeasurementEnvironmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Monday, November 30, 2009
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Good Copenhagen Backgrounder

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director
Excellent piece on how the Copenhagen climate conference can lay the foundation for final agreement on a binding international climate treaty in 2010.
Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate
Monday, November 23, 2009
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Obama Decision on Copenhagen Soon

By Josh Galperin, Associate Director
The latest: a decision "in the coming days."  The guess here is that he attends.
Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate

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