Worldwatch report focuses on China’s green future

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

China’s environmental problems remain a cause for global concern as climate change continues to reduce agricultural production and create instability in world food prices, according to The Worldwatch Institute’s report Green Economy and Green Jobs: Current Status and Potentials for 2020. The report was co-authored with a research team at the Institute for Urban and Environmental Studies led by Dr. Pan Jiahuathe. It cites alarming facts about the status of China's environmental stability, including the placement of seven Chinese cities on a list of the top ten most polluted places on earth. "In 2005, water in 59 percent of rivers was undrinkable, along with 70 percent of water reserves and inland lakes, and one quarter of all aquifers polluted with more than half of urban aquifers heavily polluted," according to the report.

In order to address its dire environmental problems, China is establishing millions of green jobs in the forestry, energy, and transportation sectors. In particular, China is making efforts to use wind and solar power to greatly reduce China's dependence on coal and create jobs in the manufacturing of wind turbines, solar photovoltaic panels, and solar water heaters. Additionally, the implementation of high-speed rail throughout the country will allow faster access to business centers and connect people from different regions, while creating jobs in manufacturing and service. While such efforts will help move China in a positive direction, the greatest opportunities for green jobs may be in the sustainable agriculture sector. Sustainable agriculture is a key component in reducing air pollution and water contamination, protecting forests and wildlife, all while producing nutritious food.

At a time when China's population is growing, producing healthy food is of critical importance. But pollution has taken its toll on agriculture by reducing crop production, including a loss 10 million tons of grain production annually, according to the report. China is also facing its worst drought in 6o years which has caused food prices to go up, Oxfam USA notes that in March of this year food prices in China were nearly 12 percent higher than were the previous March. China has emphasized forestry as an effective way of addressing pollution while creating employment opportunities. The report states that forestation alone accounted for 1.8 million full-time green jobs in 2010, and that "nourishing these forested areas is vital for sustaining the country's green transition."

In addition, according to the report, agriculture is one of the largest users of energy in China and that China is also the world's largest producer of fertilizer. In 2010 China’s fertilizer production totaled 66.20 million tons, the largest output in history.

China could also benefit from urban forests as a way to use agriculture to provide environmental benefits. When trees and other vegetation, like urban farms and gardens are planted they act like sinks for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thus contributing to reduction of greenhouse gases and reducing air pollution. Urban forests are being looked at by urban planners around the world, including China, as a way to contribute to the health of urban areas.

Worldwatch’s report is the first to highlight China's move toward a green economy and the jobs created along the way. At a time when food security is of global concern and population growth continues to stress the environment, the innovations highlighted in the report have the potential to affect the world in a positive way. The report states "One of the greatest lessons to be learned from the early days of China's green transition is that building a sustainable future requires using approaches and processes that are sustainable in practice as well." With more China-focused projects in development, including a potential sustainable agriculture strategy for the northwestern regions, China could achieve both an effective and efficient transition towards green economy.

Weekly Mulch: The Sticky Truth about Oil Spills and Tar Sands

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

The National Oil Spill Commission released its report on last year’s BP oil spill this week. The report laid out the blame for the spill, tagging each of the three companies working on the Deepwater Horizon at the time, Halliburton, Transocean and BP, and also offered prescriptions for avoiding similar disasters in the future.

As Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard notes, it’s unlikely the recommendations will impact policy going forward.

“I think the recommendations are pretty tepid given the severity of the crisis,” Jackie Savitz, director of pollution campaigns at the advocacy group Oceana, told Sheppard. “Even the small things they’re suggesting, I think it’s going to be hard to convince Congress to make those changes.”

No transparency for you!

Last summer, after the spill, the Obama administration tried hard to look like it was pushing back against the oil industry, even though just weeks before the spill, the president had promised to open new areas of the East Coast to offshore drilling.

This week brought new evidence that, despite some posturing to the contrary, the administration is not exactly unfriendly to the energy industry. One of the key decisions the administration faces about the country’s energy future is whether to support the Keystone XL, a pipeline that would pump oil from tar sands in Canada down to Texas refineries.  And one of the key lobbyists for TransCanada, the company intending to build the pipeline, is a former staffer for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, filed a Freedom of Information requesting correspondence between the lobbyist, Paul Elliott, and his former boss, but the State Department denied the request.

“We do not believe that the State Department has legitimate legal grounds to deny our FOIA request, and assert that the agency is ignoring its own written guidance regarding FOIA requests and the release of public information,” said Marcie Keever, the group’s legal director, The Michigan Messenger’s Ed Brayton reports. “This is the type of delay tactic we would have expected from the Bush administration, not the Obama administration, which has touted its efforts to usher in a new era of transparency in government, including elevated standards in dealing with lobbyists.”

Tar sands’ black mark

What are the consequences if the government approves the pipeline? As Care2’s Beth Buczynski writes, “Communities along the Keystone XL pipeline’s proposed path would face increased risk of spills, and, at the pipeline’s end, the health of those living near Texas refineries would suffer, as tar sands oil spews higher levels of dangerous pollutants into the air when processed.”

What’s more, the tar sands extraction process has already brought environmental devastation to the areas like Alberta, Canada, where tar sands mining occurs. Earth Island Journal’s Jason Mark recently visited the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, which he calls “impressively forthright” in its discussion of the environmental issues brought on by oil sands. (The museum is run by Alberta’s provincial government.) Mark reports:

The section on habitat fragmentation was especially good. As one panel put it, “Increasingly, Alberta’s remaining forested areas resemble islands of trees in a larger network of cut lines, well sites, mine, pipeline corridors, plant sites, and human settlements. … Forest disturbances can also encourage increased predation and put some plants and animals at risk.”

Not renewable, just new

The museum that Mark visited also made clear that extracting and refining oil from tar sands is a labor-intensive practice. He writes:

Mining, we learn, is just the start. Then the tar has to be “upgraded” into synthetic petroleum via a process that involves “conditioning,” “separation” into a bitumen froth, then “deaeration” to take out gases, and finally injection into a dual-system centrifuge that removes the last of the solids. Next comes distillation, thermal conversion, catalytic conversion, and hydrotreating. At that point the recombined petroleum is ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. It all felt like a flashback to high school chemistry.

Why bother with this at all? In short, because with easily accessible sources of oil largely tapped out, techniques like tar sands mining and deepwater drilling are the only fonts of oil available. This problem is going to get worse, as The Nation is explaining over the next few weeks in its video series on peak oil.

Energy and the economy

Traditional ideas about energy dictate that even as the world uses up limited resources like oil, technology will create access to new sources, find ways to use limited resources more efficiently, or find ways to consume new sources of energy. These advances will head off any problems with consumption rates. The peak oil theory, on the contrary, argues that it is possible to use up a resource like oil, that there’s a peak in supply.

Once the peak has been passed, the consequences, particularly the economic consequences, become dire, as Richard Heinberg, senior fellow with the Post Carbon Institute explains. “If the amount of energy we can use is declining, we may be seeing the end of economic growth as we define it right now,” he told The Nation. Watch more below:

Light green

Part of the problem is that the energy resources that could replace fossil fuels like oil—wind and solar energy, for instance—likely won’t be in place before the oil wells run dry. And as Monica Potts reports at The American Prospect, our new green economy is getting off to a slow start.

Although the administration has talked incessantly about supporting green jobs, Potts writes that the federal government hasn’t even finalized what count as a “green job” yet. The working definition, which is currently under review, asserts that green jobs are in industries that “benefit the environment or conserve national resources” or entails work to green a company’s “production process.” But what does that actually mean?

“That definition was rightly criticized as overly broad,” Potts writes. She continues:

While nearly everyone would include installing solar panels as a green job, what about an architect who designs a green house? (Under the proposed definition, both would count.) … Another problem comes in weighing green purposes against green execution: We could count, for example, public-transit train operators as green workers. But how do we break down transportation as an industry more broadly? Most would probably agree that truckers who drive tractor-trailers running on diesel fuel wouldn’t count as green workers even if they’re transporting wind-turbine parts. And many of the jobs we would count as green already exist.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that the country is moving swiftly toward a bright green future.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Curbing the Deficit, Cat Food, and You

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

The deficit commission released its much anticipated list of helpful money-saving tips for the federal government last week. These tips include tax cuts for the rich, reducing unnecessary printing costs, and cutting the jobs of federal contractors.

The recommendations are more like a menu than a program. As Mark Schmitt of The American Prospect notes, there’s no coherent vision, just a list of possible tax increases and program cuts with projected savings attached.

The commission was dubbed the Cat Food Commission by critics who see the project as an attempt by the Obama administration to provide political cover to gut Social Security, thereby forcing the elderly to subsist on cat food.

Officially, the commission is charged with making suggestions to balance the budget by 2015. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones is surprised at the hype the presentation has attracted, considering that it’s not a piece of legislation, or even proposed legislation, or even the actual report by the deficit commission, but rather a draft presentation by “two guys in a room” (co-chairs former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Erskine Bowles).

Hope is not a plan

Drum has trouble taking the draft seriously because its main focus is cutting discretionary spending, which according to the Congressional Budget Office, only accounts for about 10% of our projected deficit. The secondary focus of the report is Social Security, which only accounts for a small share of the projected deficit, and moreover, is easily fixable with very small tax increases and tiny decreases in benefits phased in over a long period of time.

Rising health care costs account for the lion’s share of our projected deficit, but as Drum notes, the draft doesn’t get into detail about how to contain those costs, the authors simply stress that someone had better get on that. No kidding. The authors assert that that the government should never take in more than 21% of GDP in total taxes. Drum dismisses this suggestion as completely unrealistic seeing as the authors have no plan to slow the growth of health care costs.

Note to workers: “Drop dead”

Roger Bybee of Working In These Times takes aim at the presentation’s suggestion to cut taxes on the rich. The deficit chairmen urge legislators to cut the top tax rate from 35% to 23%, which as Bybee notes, would actually add to the deficit. The presentation also favors cutting corporate taxes and taxes on American expatriates. Hardly deficit-friendly stuff. Bybee argues that the real goal of this commission is to deflate public expectations about the role of government:

This draft report was thus not about slicing the deficit, but shrinking those portions of the government on which the poor and working class depend and shoveling new benefits to corporations and wealthy, at a time when the richest 1% already rakes in 23.5% of all U.S. income.

According to AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, whom Bybee quotes, the message to the American worker is: “Drop dead.”

Gawker vs. the Cat Food Commission

Astute commenters at the media gossip blog Gawker discovered, via a New York Times interactive feature, that the entire problem could be solved by rolling back the Bush tax cuts and ending foreign wars. John Tomasic of the Colorado Independent explains how they did it:

The Gawkers simply let the non-job-making Bush tax cuts expire (because they were never meant to be permanent and because most Americans don’t want them extended) and they ended Bush’s (now Obama’s) overseas military adventures, which cost more money every week ($2 billion!) than the Rolling Stones have made in the last forty years, our contemporary version of the Cold War space race taking place not in space but in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States is racing only against itself to borrow and spend as much money as possible every single day– almost none of that money spent on the troops who come home wounded and sad and totally screwed up.

Nine out of ten grandmas prefer the fiscal policies of the Clinton administration to Meow Mix.

Extending unemployment = Jobs

Ed Brayton of the Michigan Messenger argues that extending long term unemployment insurance benefits would benefit the economy to the tune of half a million jobs. The unemployed still have to eat. Their children still need shoes. If unemployment benefits are extended, the unemployed will spend their benefits quickly in order to live, which is exactly what an economic stimulus is designed to do. Grocery stores and shoe stores employ people. Checkers and shoe salesmen also spend their wages in their communities, thereby sustaining the jobs of still more people.

Pension plan bets green on green

Investing in green jobs is sound economic policy, but governments can’t do it alone. The private sector has to help finance the greening of our economy, too. One California pension plan is stepping up and betting big, investing $500 million on green projects, according to Mikhail Zinshteyn of Campus Progress. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) has a green portfolio worth $2.5 billion, which it has amassed since 2006. CalPERS is betting that low carbon energy programs and other clean energy initiatives will be a lucrative place to park their members’ money.

Hopefully, these investments will also benefit the economy in the short term by creating jobs, including jobs for some California public employees. However, some analysts are skeptical that these investments will yield the handsome dividends that CalPERS analysts are projecting.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Mulch: Why Energy Reform is on Shaky Ground

by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Since national energy reform is on the rocks, ethanol subsidies for the Midwest and ballot propositions to roll back progressive energy legislation in California are the most important policy fights to watch right now.

Neither will revolutionize the way Americans get power, and in both cases, moving forward could actually mean moving away from a sensible energy future. In California, voters could turn back progress the state has made towards holding down carbon emissions. And Washington’s support for ethanol reveals the static thinking that’s smothering our ability to address climate change.

More important than legalizing pot

In 2006, California passed a law that would take effect in 2011 and put an ambitious plan in place to decrease the state’s carbon emissions by 2020. Even after the law passed, however, the debate over its merits continued. This being California, that debate made its way onto this November’s ballot.

The most commonly floated line of reasoning against the law focuses on negative impacts to job growth: Increasing the price on carbon increases the cost of doing business, limiting economic growth and the resources that businesses have to dedicate to expansion. Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that will come to a vote next Tuesday, would delay the carbon bill’s enactment until the state’s economy takes a turn for the better.

But Mother JonesKate Sheppard knocks down the economic argument against the 2006 law (AB32):

While enacting AB32 could cause job loss in some sectors, most independent experts actually forecast growth in jobs in the renewable energy, transportation, and efficiency sectors. In fact, green jobs are pretty much the only sector growing in the Golden State. The number of green jobs grew 36 percent in California between 1995 and 2008. The rate of growth for regular old jobs was only 13 percent.

Double trouble

Activists have focused on shutting down Prop 23 (check out, via The Washington Independent’s Andrew Restuccia, this clever campaign to flip “yes” voters), but as Amy Westervelt points out at Earth Island Journal, that initiative is not the only one that could free companies from their environmental responsibilities.

It turns out another California proposition, Prop 26, could raise the threshold legislators would have to meet in order to make companies pay for their pollution, including from oil spills. As Westervelt writes:

While some companies have steered clear of the Tea Party-backed Prop 23, which seems to be losing popularity every week, California companies interested in slowing down AB32 and maybe ridding themselves of responsibility for pollution altogether have been quietly funneling money to Prop 26.

California has long been a leader on energy issues. If either of these propositions goes the wrong way, it will be yet another troubling sign of the failure of progressive energy policy.

The other ethanol

Although environmentalists have fought hard since 2008 to pass cap-and-trade, the policy was always fundamentally conservative one. The Obama administration has always tried to map out a middle path on energy policy, and so far it has been ineffective. Ethanol is yet another case in point.

As Lynda Waddington reports at the Iowa Independent, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week that the administration was moving forward with a program that aids farmers producing crops (in addition to corn) that could be turned into ethanol. Switchgrass, the foundation of Brazil’s much-touted ethanol system is one example. Notably, the arguments Vilsack advanced for the program had more to do with the economy than with energy.

Pros and cons

This type of cellulosic ethanol, Brooks Lindsay explains at Change.org, would go mainly towards fueling cars. Lindsay weighs the pros and cons of producing this sort of ethanol in general, and comes down against it. His reasoning: “At best, cellulosic ethanol is just a stop-gap measure while electric cars slowly replace liquid-powered cars….But, a stop-gap fuel does not deserve massive investments and government attention.”

Indeed, progressives across the board have long argued that politicians’ support for ethanol derives from political calculation, not from practical policy. (Ethanol states are swing states.) Ethanol is energy-intensive to produce, and it has a slew of negative environmental consequences that outweigh the cuts in carbon emissions.

Rethinking the politics

Before they rush to back the Obama administration’s policies, however, policymakers should consider this news from Heather Rogers, author of Green Gone Wrong. Rogers reports for The Washington Monthly:

As I discovered on a recent reporting trip through Iowa, many farmers there would welcome a way to break free of the ethanol-industrial complex. The people I met said they’d rather cultivate crops using ecologically sound methods, if they could do so and still earn a decent living. It’s not as if midwestern farmers don’t know—better than the rest of us—that growing crops for biofuels damages their soil and keeps them at the mercy of predatory multinational corporations.

The article is worth reading in full, but fast-forward to the end to find Rogers’ sensible policy proposal. Instead of enlisting farmers in a complicated energy-production procedure that ultimately keeps Americans in their cars, why not aide the work they’re already doing to reduce carbon emissions on their farms? After all, farms are responsible for a huge portion of the country’s carbon burden — they just have lobbyists savvy enough to keep their business from being regulated. As Rogers puts it:

Paying farmers to sequester carbon is sound public policy, but it’s also, and just as importantly, good politics. By helping to preserve farmers economically while also allowing them to be the stewards of land most want to be, it peels farmers away from the agribusiness coalition that is pushing the Obama administration to bet the country on a failed biofuels energy strategy.

Now there’s a bit of thinking that could move energy policy forward.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Rand Paul Radical Rhetoric Endangers Kentucky's Working Families

The list of bedrock American laws that Rand Paul is opposed to keeps growing longer. In addition to the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Paul has made it clear that he doesn't like the Clean Air Act either. Last weekend, Paul said that President Obama should leave Kentucky alone, especially when it comes to pollution. "You need to keep the EPA out of our affairs," he called on the president.

Paul prefers to have things "handled on a local level."But unlike Paul, I grew up in Kentucky, and I question this logic.

My elementary school sat on a cliff above an Ashland Oil refinery, and our playground was about eye level with the top of their smokestacks. When the paint on teachers' car started to peel and children started getting sick, the PTA tried to make Ashland Oil do something about it. After some fighting, the company finally installed air monitors on the kickball field - and a few months later the school closed its doors.

What sticks with me still is the way the problem was solved: As far as I can see, Ashland Oil didn't clean up its act at all. Our school shut down instead.

Federal efforts to cut pollution aren't perfect, but they are the last line of defense for places like my hometown. They literally save our lives: the Clean Air Act, for instance, has been documented to prevent hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

Kentucky has a long dark history of environmental injustice. Amazing groups like Appalachian Voices have been fighting for cleaner water, cleaner air, and better safety rules for miners. They often find local solutions, but they also turn to federal agencies like the EPA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration when they need to.

Paul may call it "federal overreach," but I call it protecting the health of Kentuckians. 
Of course, Paul trots out the old saw that cutting pollution kills jobs. But I think Paul is more concerned about ideology than jobs, because if he really wanted to create jobs for Kentucky, he wouldn't turn his back on clean energy and climate legislation. Clean energy jobs are growing 2.5 times as fast as traditional jobs. Paul would rather shoot down federal climate solutions than bring the jobs of the 21st century to his state.

Instead, he is banking on the same old dirty industries, and he seems to think that if children get asthma because they played on a field next to a refinery, that's alright because someone had a job. I am sorry, but I can't accept the misconception that my classmates and I were the collateral damage of some polluter's payroll. Good companies that are following the law and being good neighbors provide jobs every single day.

Companies have found time and again that a clean business model is part of the recipe for a successful company. That is why 5,171 small businesses from across the country are supporting the climate bill. That is why some of the largest companies in the nation are calling on Congress to take action immediately.

The parents I know in Kentucky have no interest in working jobs that sacrifice their children's health. They want to provide for their families AND keep them safe at the same time. This isn't an either or situation. Paul seems to forget this in the midst of his fixation with "federal overreach." I too respect states rights, but states still have to be good neighbors. Local empowerment doesn't give you the right to endanger your residents' health, export pollution into nearby states, or block national solutions to fight global climate change.

If leaders like Paul forget these lessons in responsibility, then I am glad federal agencies like the EPA can step in and remind them. 

 

 

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