Why Citizen Participation Should Be Encouraged in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan


By Alex Levinson and Kristen McDonald

First published in chinadialogue.

In the nation’s 13th Five-Year Plan, the leaders of China should, once and for all, enshrine the principle that protection of the public’s health and the nation’s water, air and other critical natural resources is of the same importance as economic prosperity. Creating a unified mandate – the explicit linking of economic growth with protection of the public health and environment – would be a powerful statement and symbol to the citizens of China.

To breathe life into the symbol will require sustained implementation and enforcement of the various, frequently strong, health and environmental laws China has adopted, including its recently revised Environment Law. There are many additional environmental measures that the 13th Five-Year Plan might include: a national coal cap, maximum daily pollution restrictions and strict limits on small particulate matter (PM 2.5) for all Chinese cities, for example. Ultimately, however, what is most needed to protect the public health and environment is a stronger mandate for citizen collaboration in solving the nation’s water and air-pollution problems.

Citizen engagement takes two forms: implementation and enforcement. To ensure implementation, the 13th Five-Year Plan should direct regional and local governments to maximise public participation – by interested individuals, non-governmental organisations, academic research institutions and others – in determining the best local anti-pollution measures to meet strict national standards. 

To ensure enforcement, the plan should require that, once local priorities are set and planning decisions made, the public is authorised to help the government identify violators in the community and help craft solutions to remedy violations. And it should introduce stronger top-down incentives to encourage local officials to better enforce environmental and public-participation standards, as well as publicly disseminated “report cards” to hold them accountable for doing so.

To facilitate meaningful, effective citizen involvement in addressing local pollution, the 13th Five-Year Plan should require that all polluting companies (not just selected key industries) install real time pollution monitoring equipment and release monitoring data in a manner that’s easily accessible to the public. It should also call for broad dissemination of pollution survey data compiled by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, since this is the kind of data that can currently be used in court by citizens as evidence of pollution violations. Correspondingly, the plan should emphasise that citizens and non-governmental organisations are authorised and encouraged to bring public interest environmental lawsuits against illegal polluters and that courts should hear such pollution cases in a timely manner.

A critical ally

To give an example of how public engagement measures can work, regional and local governments are currently working on new clean air plans called for in the 12th Five-Year Plan and the State Council Directive of September 2013. Naturally, the first iterations of these plans will fall short; they will be experimental attempts to identify how to clean up local air-pollution problems. Local communities possess a wealth of knowledge about practical solutions and the best trade-offs that must be made to maintain economic growth and improve air quality. To obtain local input, governments could host public participation events throughout their jurisdictions and invite public comments on draft local clean air plans, which would be widely circulated.

Citizen participation from the beginning would help ensure that the new plans and new policies include measures to ensure that they will actually be strongly enforced – measures such as clear pollution limits and reporting requirements for specific types of polluting factories, public access to that information and clarity about when and how individuals and civic organisations may seek court remedies if the clean air plans are not followed. With these types of measures in place, the public would be a critical ally to local government officials charged with redressing excessive pollution.

Local governments and local communities, working together, can solve China’s pressing pollution challenges. The 13th Five-Year Plan should mandate an environmental protection system that ensures that local governments collaborate fully with the public they serve.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

It’s Time to End the Age of Coal


We’re excited to announce the launch today of endcoal.org, a user-friendly website that provides information and resources about the dangers of coal and the solutions to meeting global energy needs.




Endcoal.org is a place where the global movement to stop coal can share its stories, resources, and news, and where people new to coal can come to learn about how to fight this dirty energy source. The site has been developed by a suite of environmental, social justice and health advocates from around the world, including Pacific Environment.


Endcoal.org is a hub for all matters coal-related, including resources on the nexus between coal and health, water, climate change, finance and economics, and coal mining. It features the latest news on coal, plus blogs from some of the leading international writers and activists on coal. The site also hosts a brand new interactive map and database that tracks all planned coal plants around the world since 2010.




Need to know how much coal contributes to climate change? Curious about how many people die per year from coal pollution? Want to find the latest reports about coal’s impacts on water? Need quick stats on how many coal plants are planned around the world?


Endcoal.org answers all these questions and many more.


Visit it today and visit it often for updates and news!

Posted in Climate Change, Coal, Global | Comments Off

Bank of America: Bankrolling the Destruction of the Great Barrier Reef

UPDATE: Bank of America heard you and is showing some positive signs of movement. Stay tuned for more information on new developments.

The Great Barrier Reef is a global treasure and one of the Earth’s most biodiverse ecosystems. It’s home to endangered dugongs and green and loggerhead sea turtles, and it’s a crucial area for humpback whales giving birth and raising their young.

But right now the coal industry is trying to move forward with a deal that would threaten Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and turbocharge climate change. And Bank of America is considering bankrolling this terrible project that would cook the climate.

A huge corporation called Adani is attempting to dredge 3 million cubic meters of seabed to expand the Abbot Point coal port, wrecking part of the biggest stretch of coral reef in the world.

The coal industry wants to build out Abbot Point so it can dig new mega-mines in a vast reserve called the Galilee Basin. That would double coal production in Australia, already the world’s second-biggest coal exporter. Unbelievably, in the midst of a climate emergency, Bank of America is considering bankrolling a carbon time-bomb on the scale of the Alberta tar sands.


Pacific Environment has been instrumental in challenging U.S. federal funding for two massive liquefied natural gas projects threatening to destroy the Great Barrier Reef.

Now we have teamed up with Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to make sure no American bank will fund this destructive project. RAN has been working behind the scenes, asking the biggest Wall Street investment banks to commit to not finance reef and climate destruction. But to get Bank of America to commit to not financing this project, we need you to speak up and tell the bank’s CEO Brian Moynihan not to bankroll the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef.

The good news is that we have a chance to stop this from happening. Without the backing of major financial institutions, this deal cannot go ahead. In fact, three of the biggest Wall Street investment banksGoldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup—have said they won’t fund the deal.

Join us and the coalition of international environmental organizations now and send a message to Bank of America. Tell them to commit: Don’t fund a deal that would wreck the Great Barrier Reef and harm the climate!


Posted in Biodiversity, Climate Change, Coal, Energy, Finance, Global, Grassroots Activism, Marine, Oceans | Comments Off

Dirty Dollars: U.S. Tax Monies for a Coal Project Abroad Are Hurting People and the Environment

On October 21, 2014, Pacific Environment and allies Sierra Club, 350.org, Carbon Market Watch, and Friends of the Earth U.S. released the results of an  investigation that revealed shocking new details on the catastrophic human rights, labor, and environmental violations at a coal project in India financed  by U.S. tax payers via the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank).


The report includes accounts from more than 25 local residents who became victims of relocation, violence, and disappearances and have suffered negative health impacts as a result of the construction and operation of Reliance Power’s Sasan coal-fired power plant and mine in Singrauli, India.

Ex-Im Bank, the U.S. Government’s largest trade promotion agency,  has provided over $900 million in financing for the project—using American taxpayer dollars to support this dirty and dangerous coal project. What’s worse, agency representatives just completed their first trip to Sasan last week, but refused to meet with affected people in the local communities.

Indian civil society organizations and U.S.-based groups have repeatedly alerted Ex-Im to the grave human rights violations taking place at Sasan, but the Bank has continually turned a deaf ear. But despite these allegations, Ex-Im has repeatedly refused to provide monitoring documents for Sasan, disregarding its own due diligence procedures and federal legislation requiring that these documents be made available upon request.

In response, our partner in this effort, the Sierra Club, submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request today to gain access to all records pertaining to Environmental and Social Management Plans for Sasan. This includes the supplemental environmental reports—encompassing both the remediation or mitigation plans and related monitoring reports—Reliance Power is required to submit for each coal project. Ex-Im has 30 days to respond to the request. Stay tuned for updates.

Pacific Environment has been a leader in challenging Ex-Im Bank’s investments in destructive energy projects around the globe. We  have helped uncover and challenge numerous human rights and environmental abuses, including ExxonMobil’s deadly natural gas pipeline project in Papua New Guinea.





Posted in Civil Society, Climate Change, Coal, Energy, Export Credit Agencies, Finance, Global, Policy, Responsible Finance, Sustainable Development | Comments Off

Walrus Haul-outs on Beaches: Some Solutions


In late September, about 35,000 walrus crowded together on a beach in northwest Alaska. This was not an isolated incident, but its sheer size attracted a lot of media attention. It clearly showed that climate change is severely altering walrus behavior.

Waltus Haul out

About 35,000 walrus hauled out on land near Pt. Lay, Alaska, in September due to disappearing summer sea ice.             Photo: Corey Arrardo/NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML


These walrus haul-outs are happening on both sides of the Bering Strait. Pacific Environment’s indigenous partners in the Russian Arctic first started noticing a change in walrus behavior in the early 2000s. Unable to swim indefinitely, walrus depend on sea ice for places to rest periodically during their annual migration across the Bering and Chuckchi seas between Alaska and Russia. But with summer sea ice disappearing, thousands of walrus have lost their resting places out at sea and are now forced to gather on coastal lands.

But there are actions we can take to help the walrus survive. In response to the huge summer haul-outs, local indigenous leaders we partner with started engaging experienced local hunters and local youth to monitor the walrus and record data on their behavior. Then they shared the information with scientists who have been incorporating it into their own studies and making recommendations on how to protect the walrus in a changing Arctic. The scientists tell us this indigenous data-gathering is critical because of the dearth of information about changing walrus behavior in the face of disappearing sea ice.


Walrus2012Awith Kid

Photo: S.A. Sonsthagen/USGS


Some scientists believe that the changes in the Arctic environment are so severe that the Pacific walrus’s very survival is at stake. Large, crowded groups of walrus are more likely to transmit diseases or trample calves. Increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the ocean are also depleting the walrus’s food supply. And the increase in ship traffic through newly ice-free Arctic waters puts the walrus at further risk of being killed by ship strikes or harmed by oil spills and oily discharges.

Pacific Environment is one of only a handful of environmental organizations in the world helping to write international laws for ships traveling through the Arctic—and we have been instrumental in successfully adding a rule that requires mariners to avoid marine mammal populations, like walrus, when planning their voyage through Arctic waters.


Pacific Walrus in Ice

Walrus are not the only animals facing depleted numbers or extinction because of climate change. Polar bears are also rapidly declining in numbers, and many other species, ranging from tiny plankton to narwhals, various whales and seals, and even land-based animals like caribou and fox, are facing declines due to disappearing sea ice and rising seas.

Pacific Environment will continue to work with indigenous partners and environmental allies to put in place new protections for Pacific walrus and other Arctic wildlife—through international laws and targeted conservation efforts.

For the walrus, and all other wildlife threatened by climate change in the Arctic.

Posted in Alaska, Arctic, Bering Sea, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Marine, Oceans, Russia, Russia Community Partners, Shipping | Comments Off

Anniversary of a Milestone Northwest Passage Voyage Highlights Call for Arctic HFO Ban


First published in Ship & Bunker

Forty-five years ago, just two months after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, another historic exploration milestone took place in Alaska. The icebreaking tanker SS Manhattan arrived at Barter Island, AK, on September 18, 1969. The ship had been commissioned by Humble Oil to test the feasibility of using tankers to transport crude from the recently discovered Prudhoe Bay oil field. Having launched from Sun Shipyards in Chester, PA, the Manhattan was the largest U.S. merchant ship of its day and the first commercial vessel to transit the Northwest Passage.


Industry Insight: Anniversary of a Milestone Northwest Passage Voyage Highlights Call for Arctic HFO Ban

Many of the same hazards identified by the historic passage of the SS Manhattan still apply today.


The historic journey was not without mishap. As detailed below, many of the same hazards identified by the historic passage of the SS Manhattan still apply today. Protecting the Arctic marine environment and Arctic people from these hazards is currently under consideration by the United NationsInternational Maritime Organization which is writing rules for Arctic shipping known as the Polar Code. The United States‘ delegation includes leadership from NOAA and the Coast Guard.

First, a bit more history. Not only the largest ship of its kind, the SS Manhattan was an engineering marvel. Retrofitting the tanker for ice conditions required the monumental feat of cutting the ship into four pieces which were then sent to ship yards in four states and then later reassembled. As the voyage transited Canadian waters, it also jump-started international attention to sovereignty and control of arctic waters. Canada required that the ship be escorted by a Canadian icebreaker and also moved to pass the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, a first attempt at exerting protections and control in international arctic waters.

The ship was greeted In Alaska by the icebreaking U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Northwind  under the command of Captain Donald J. McCann. The Northwind achieved a significant historic first during its mission to accompany the SS Manhattan by becoming was the first ship in history to complete the Northwest Passage in both directions in a single season.

The Northwind‘s voyage was beset by a damaged crankshaft and became stuck in the ice, requiring help from the Canadian icebreaker John A. MacDonald.  The MacDonald also suffered ice damage to its propeller during the voyage.

Many of the same hazards identified by the historic passage of the SS Manhattan still apply today:  lack of infrastructure, lack of emergency response, poor communications, inadequate charts, and the inability to respond to Arctic oil spills.

Icebreaking Tankers

Of course, icebreaking tankers are not yet in use to transport Prudhoe crude, but Arctic shipping is quickly accelerating. U.S. waters are affected by international shipping along our Arctic coastline and by shipping through the Bering Strait which connects Asia to the Russian Arctic and northern Europe.

There are concerns that the most pressing issue, a spill of Heavy Fuel Oil,  is not being addressed in the Polar Code. The Arctic Council, which the U.S. will chair next year, identified the release of oil as the “most significant threat” to the Arctic marine environment in their 2009 assessment of Arctic shipping.

We recommend that Heavy Fuel Oil be banned in Arctic waters and that lighter, distillate fuels be required. In the event of a spill, lighter fuels would dissipate more quickly and cause less harm to the environment and the people who depend on marine resources for food. There is precedent for banning Heavy Fuel Oil in sensitive waters, including the waters of the Antarctic. The next IMO Polar Code meeting is in London on October 13.

One more item while we’re thinking about the history and hazards of Arctic shipping. President Obama‘s Oval Office desk is known as the Resolute Desk. The desk was a gift from Queen Victoria and is made from the wood of the Resolute, a British ship that got stuck in the Arctic ice and had to be rescued by an American crew.

Posted in Alaska, Arctic, Shipping, Sustainable Development | Comments Off

Polar Code: U.S. Should Lead HFO Ban


Op-Ed first published in The Maritime Executive


Former U.S. Coast Guard commandant Admiral Robert Papp is visiting Alaska for the first time in his new capacity as the U.S. special representative for the Arctic. Admiral Papp was appointed last month by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

This is a proposal requesting Admiral Robert J. Papp to take action on including a ban on heavy fuel oil use in the Arctic as part of the Polar Code.

New ice-free waters in the Arctic are setting the stage for an industrial and shipping boom on an international scale. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, Russia estimates that last year three billion tons of cargo moved from Europe through the Bering Strait. By 2017, estimates are that 25 billion tons will move through the Northeast Passage and by 2020, 50 billion tons. This is a significant increase in Arctic shipping and the implications are enormous for both indigenous peoples as well as our Arctic environment.


Under international law, the IMO is responsible for developing rules to improve shipping safety and environmental protection. Currently, the IMO is working on developing a Polar Code to achieve that for both Arctic and Antarctic shipping.


The Polar Code comes to a crescendo this October and November as the IMO will finalize the draft language for the Code, with final adoption in spring 2015. Our primary goals at Pacific Environment are to seek U.S. support to: 1) defend positive provisions in the draft code; and, 2) secure commitments from IMO to deal with those issues not now adequately addressed in the next phase of the Polar Code.


So far, the Polar Code’s strongest provisions are:
1) a complete ban on the discharge of oil and oily mixtures;
2) good, but not perfect, provisions on the discharge of chemicals, sewage and garbage; and, 3) mandatory voyage planning requirements to avoid marine mammals.


Some of the glaring omissions or problems within the current Code include:
1) a failure to adequately deal with the biggest potential hazard to the Arctic, a heavy fuel oil (HFO) spill;
2) no mention of black carbon;
3) a glaring loophole in the draft code that allows certain non-ice class ships (so called “Category C” ships) to operate in supposedly low-ice conditions (the problem being, that sometimes these ships may plan on low-ice conditions, but conditions change rapidly causing problems);
4) another potential loophole that applies the code only to SOLAS vessels on international voyages and not domestic traffic (the problem here is that much of the Arctic vessel traffic is domestic but covers vast distances with the same threats as purely international journeys.


The Biggest Issue


The Arctic Council should adopt a resolution urging the IMO to prohibit the use of heavy fuel oil by shipping in the Arctic and near Arctic waters. This will produce a number of significant environmental benefits, including, among other things, the reduction of black carbon emissions and risk of spills that could severely impact the Arctic climate and the health of indigenous and other peoples living there.


Although many smaller vessels in the Arctic operate on distillate marine fuel, a substantial portion of traffic by large vessels in the Arctic continues to use heavy fuel oil which is harmful to the climate, the environment and human health, particularly in polar regions. In fact, the use and carriage of HFO has been banned in Antarctic waters by the IMO.


Magnitude of Expected Impact


Black carbon is produced by ships through the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel. Black carbon is a potent climate-forcer. Recent analysis estimates that it is the second most important climate-forcing agent, exceeded only by carbon dioxide. International shipping is a significant emitter of black carbon, with estimated emissions of between 71,000 and 160,000 metric tons annually. Requiring ships sailing in Arctic and near-Arctic waters to use distillate fuel rather than HFO would result in significant reductions in black carbon emissions.


There are other compelling reasons to prevent the use of HFO in Arctic waters. First, spills of HFO in marine environments are generally far more detrimental than spills of distillate fuels. When spilled, lighter, more refined marine fuels naturally disperse and evaporate much more quickly than HFO. Moreover, HFO is nearly impossible to effectively clean up in icy Arctic waters.


The Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment stated that: “The most significant threat from ships to the Arctic marine environment is the release of oil through accidental or illegal discharge.” Large ocean-going vessels operating in the Arctic not only burn HFO as fuel, but they also can hold significant quantities of this fuel and presumably would be traveling with full bunker tanks, as fueling options in the region are limited.


Second, banning the use of HFO would also obviate the need to dispose of its considerable waste sludge. This sludge generally constitutes about one to five percent of HFO consumed, and it must be discharged onshore, incinerated, or burned as fuel after further processing.


We at Pacific Environment request leadership from the Office of the Special Representative for the Arctic to support a commitment in the Polar Code to include a ban on the use of HFO for shipping in Arctic waters.


Posted in Alaska, Arctic, Bering Sea, Climate Change, Oceans, Policy, Shipping, Uncategorized | Comments Off

Public Participation and Public Protest in China

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection recently reported that there was a 31% rise in mass environmental protests during 2013. The statistic highlights the growth of “NIMBY” (not in my backyard) environmentalism in China, and it comes as no surprise given already excessive pollution levels faced by communities across the country. To many, the prospect of a new chemical factory or coal plant next door feels like the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Despite the fact that mass protests are illegal in China, they do sometimes succeed in stopping a new polluting factory, at least temporarily. The trend toward increased protests may also indicate broader frustration with the lack of meaningful public involvement in China’s environmental decision making. In a recent commentary on chinadialogue.net, Vice Environment Minister Li Ganjie is quoted as saying that protests are on the upswing because “the planning process in some areas and some departments may not be as scientific and rational as it should be” and projects “don’t share enough information with the public.”

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Anhui distributes guides that help citizens protect themselves from industrial pollution

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Anhui distributes guides that help citizens protect themselves from industrial pollution

Although the concept of public participation has been introduced over the past decade in China’s environmental regulatory framework, very few practical steps have been taken to engage citizens in reviewing new projects and their impacts, or in supervising implementation of pollution reduction goals. One challenge is that the Ministry of Environmental Protection itself has little experience in effectively working with the public, such as through public hearings and written comment processes. The May 2014 revisions of the country’s environmental law takes steps in the right direction by calling for public release of full Environmental Impact Assessments rather than just summaries, as well as mandating public disclosure of real time monitoring data from key polluting industries.

But more needs to be done, particularly when it comes to actually engaging the public in planning efforts. Currently, procedures for public review and comment on environmental impact assessments are so vague that it is easy for local officials to manipulate or side-step the public involvement requirement. Our partner, Green Stone Environmental Action Network, pointed out the many flaws of the process in a 2013 report on compliance with public participation requirements for environmental impact assessments for Jiangsu Province, a relatively advanced region when it comes to the implementation of environmental laws.

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Hunan hosted a televised discussion on how to plan a greener future for Hunan Province

Pacific Environment’s partner Green Hunan hosted a televised discussion on how to plan a greener future for Hunan Province

Reports such as these indicate there is much more that the Ministry of Environmental Protection and local environmental bureaus can do. At the same time, citizen groups themselves are playing a vital role in helping to create models for public participation. For example, around the time of release of the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s report citing the rise in environmental protests, Beijing’s Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) held a press conference announcing a new tool for public monitoring of polluters. IPE’s mobile phone pollution map uses newly-available real time monitoring data released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and allows users to see daily pollution discharge data for major factories nearby. Armed with this data, it will be much easier for concerned citizens in China to track down specific polluters and put pressure on local governments to clean up pollution.

In addition, IPE and many local environmental groups in China cooperate in creating an annual Pollution Information Transparency Index, which ranks Chinese cities based on how well they are complying with public environmental disclosure rules. The rankings have successfully put pressure on local governments to improve their performance.

These types of citizen-led efforts have been so effective that they warrant the attention of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and China’s top leaders in their efforts to solve China’s critical pollution problems and address citizens’ concerns. Broader and more meaningful public participation in environmental affairs in China is a win-win proposition: it provides less risky and more long-term avenues for public expressions of dissatisfaction than mass protests, and it can result in direct and immediate improvements in China’s air and water quality.


Posted in China, Civil Society, Climate Change, Coal, Communities, Grassroots Activism, Policy | Comments Off

Grassroots Organizations Will Help China Move Away From Coal

First Published in the Huffington Post

Co-authored by Dr. Sun Qingwei, Pacific Environment China Climate Coordinator

President Obama’s new carbon rule elicited a seemingly strong reaction from China:a pledge to institute a national carbon cap by 2016. But does China’s pledge have teeth? We argue yes, but only if grassroots organizations and citizens put increasing pressure on the government to reduce the country’s reliance on coal.

In the past decade, two key factors have helped improve China’s climate policies: international climate change negotiations and domestic political pressure to clean up pollution. At the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, Premier Wen Jiabao promised to cut carbon emissions 40-50% by 2020. This commitment resulted in the birth of China’s Renewable Energy Law, and specific coal reduction targets were introduced into China’s current Five Year Plan (2011-2015). If the United States takes further steps to demonstrate leadership at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit, China will come under even greater pressure to curb its rising carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, Chinese citizens have grown more aware of the true costs of coal, namely life-threatening levels of pollution. Rising citizen concern over pollution has put pressure on the central government to better control climate-warming emissions and led to the 2013 State Council “Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control.” The plan demands the reduction of coal consumption by 2017 in the well-developed Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou regions. The plan also sets the target of coal providing less than 65% of national energy by 2017.

These positive signals–top level commitments to curb carbon emissions and localized coal reduction policies–have led many to be optimistic that China is on track to wean itself off of coal. But when we look at what’s going on inside China, this optimism feels premature. First, despite official national plans to curb coal, coal production has actually continued to grow, increasing from 2.2 billion metric tons (bmt) in 2005, to 3.24 bmt in 2010, to 3.68 bmt in 2013. The current planned target for coal production–3.9 bmt per year by 2015–would set another historical high.

New coal bases in water-scarce western China are a grave threat to agricultural communities. credit: Sun Qingwei

Second, while the central government has ordered some areas to reduce coal consumption, 14 new “coal bases” are simultaneously being built across China. These bases include giant coal mines, power plants, coal chemical complexes, long distance electricity transportation networks, oil pipelines, and gas pipelines. The bases are a component of official energy development policy, as reiterated as recently as June 13, 2014 by China’s Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, the top economic body led by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Furthermore, the State Council’s ambitious air pollution plan has faced major setbacks due to a lack of enforcement. For example, the plan calls for Shijiazhuang, the capital city of industrialized Hebei Province, to reduce consumption of coal by 15 million tons by 2017. To reach this goal, Shijiazhuang was to reduce coal consumption by 3 million tons in 2013, but instead the city’s coal consumption increased by 1 million tons.

The coal industry in China is moving forward with what amounts to a “business as usual” approach, and much more needs to be done to shift China toward a cleaner energy future. This is where grassroots environmental organizations come in. We already know that public concern over air pollution and data transparency was a key driver in the central government’s decision to control coal use in some regions. Since Pacific Environment started working in China 15 years ago, we have seen local environmental groups become increasingly effective at finding and shutting down polluters, and public awareness of coal pollution impacts keeps expanding. The time is ripe to further increase local citizen pressure on coal using the following four strategies:

1) Information disclosure and transparency: Following years of campaigning by local environmental groups, citizens across China are now able to access more information than ever about pollution and polluters. For example, this past June, the Beijing-based Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs launched a pollution map application for mobile phones that allows citizens to monitor pollution emissions in real time–including from coal plants.

2) Legal tools: China’s newly revised Environmental Protection Law, which will take effect on January 1, 2015, allows governments to fine polluters more heavily and more frequently. It also requires that local and regional governments respond to citizen accusations against polluters, and it clarifies that nongovernmental organizations have the right to bring environmental lawsuits.

Local group Green Hunan wins award for their innovative efforts to go after illegal polluters by building a volunteer monitoring network. Credit: Green Hunan

3) Government monitoring: Many local governments have already set coal reduction targets. Grassroots environmental groups are well-positioned to monitor progress on reaching these targets and to ensure that laggards institute effective coal reduction plans. For example, Hangzhou municipality has a “zero coal” plan that will phase out all coal boilers within two years. Local group Green Zhejiang is monitoring the operation of coal boilers and will report violations of the phase-out plan to local officials.

4) Coal industry investigations: Local environmental protection bureaus often have little incentive, and even less capacity, to investigate pollution problems caused by coal. Grassroots environmental groups can help fill this gap. For example, in 2013 an investigation of Shenhua’s Ordos coal to oil factory conducted by environmental groups found that the company was illegally using groundwater and discharging sewage. A resulting central government investigation forced Shenhua (the world’s biggest coal company) to stop its groundwater grab.

Weak enforcement of existing coal reduction policies, and the fact that top policy makers remain quietly committed to coal, make it too early to declare that China is moving away from coal. If anything can make a real difference, it is stronger citizen pressure which is generally a more effective driver of change in China than international negotiations and other top-down policy-making tactics. That is why, if we as an international community care about our future climate, we must do more to support local efforts in China rather than relying on international negotiations alone to solve the climate problem.

Posted in China, Civil Society, Climate Change, Coal, Communities, Energy, Grassroots Activism, Policy | Comments Off

Pacific Environment Welcomes Sun Qingwei as China Climate Coordinator


China has recently been generating a tremendous amount of news because of its pressing need to decrease air pollution and build a clean energy future. This is a heavy undertaking, as China is the world’s leading producer and consumer of coal.  To help reduce coal pollution in China, Pacific Environment just hired Sun Qingwei, who will lead our training and organizing efforts with local environmental groups in China.

Sun Qingwei is no stranger to the coal sector. Growing up in the coal mining region of Shandong, Sun Qingwei witnessed first-hand the health and environmental problems associated with coal production. After receiving a Ph.D. in Physical Geography, Sun Qingwei worked as a researcher for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where he studied land degradation caused by intensive human activities. It was because of his research that Sun Qingwei realized it was time to make a change in China, so he left academia to become a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace.

I sat down with Sun Qingwei to learn more about the coal pollution problems in China and what local communities can do to help decrease China’s reliance on coal.

Sun Qingwei joins Pacific Environment as our new China Climate Coordinator. He will train and organize local environmental groups in China to reduce coal pollution.

Sun Qingwei joins Pacific Environment as our new China Climate Coordinator. He will train and organize local environmental groups in China to reduce coal pollution.


Caroline: Welcome to the Pacific Environment team! We have heard so much about China’s coal consumption and poor air quality in the news. Has the air pollution problem changed people’s perceptions in China about using coal?

Qingwei:  China’s public movement against air pollution has made it more possible to reduce coal use in China. Still, the majority of people don’t realize that air pollution is related to coal. People need more information to understand that air pollution is due to coal, and they need to realize that it’s possible to change the infrastructure to use less coal and switch to renewable energy. Part of my job is helping people recognize such change is possible.


Caroline: You grew up in a coal mining town. Can you tell me what living there was like?

Qingwei: I think where I grew up was similar to coal mining areas all over the world—very dirty! But my parents did what they had to do to support our family. I felt that coal was a part of my life, but after I graduated from college, I realized maybe we can live without pollution—and without coal—and that we have better choices. At that time, I was researching sustainable development, but I was frustrated with the pace of change and that’s why I wanted to move to the NGO sector.


Caroline: In your reports for Greenpeace [where Qingwei previously worked], you examined how China’s coal sector impacts water in China. Can you explain what the problems are?

Qingwei: Water in China is scarce. In northern China, the lack of water is causing land degradation, harming rural communities. These communities rely on the land for their livelihood and as groundwater decreases, farmers lose their grazing lands and their wells dry up. The government just built several major river diversion projects, through the creation of dams, to transport water from southern to northern China, partially to help alleviate this problem. But now new coal mines and new coal-to-chemical plants are being built in the most arid regions of China, where they are worsening water scarcity by grabbing water [including water transferred from southern China] from rural communities.


Caroline: What do you consider to be one of the most satisfying victories against coal during your NGO career so far?

Qingwei: About two years ago, when I was working for Greenpeace, we began to investigate China’s biggest coal company, Shenhua. We knew it produced coal-to-liquid fuel (diesel) at its plant in Inner Mongolia, which is a very dry area. Producing liquid fuels from coal is a very water intensive process. Shenhua was tapping groundwater and, in the process, had already destroyed 2,000 local wells. In addition, the livelihoods of more than 5,000 farmers and sheep herders were threatened by grassland degradation, which was also caused by Shenhua’s groundwater depletion.

We launched an investigation and released a report that demonstrated Shenhua’s responsibility for destroying the grasslands and harming local agricultural communities that depend on them. After 30 days, the report was censored by the central government, but just last month, we got a message directly from the company saying that they had decided to stop using groundwater for coal processing in that location. We realized that despite being censored, our message had been heard by top leaders and resulted in political pressure on Shenhua. The leaders at the company became nervous because this was not the only case where they were grabbing groundwater from a local community. In fact, there are many such projects in other parts of China and coal companies don’t want to draw too much attention to them, which is why Shenhua’s leaders compromised. This was the first time that we have had a win against the number one coal company in China.

qingwei land

Sun Qingwei is no stranger to the coal sector. Prior to joining Pacific Environment, he worked with Greenpeace to expose how China’s largest coal company, Shenhua was depleting Inner Mongolia of groundwater.


Caroline: What do you think is the most effective strategy in China to reduce coal production and consumption?

Qingwei: There are two important strategies. First, Beijing-based lobbying which focuses on economic arguments for switching to more renewable energy. Some NGOs and research institutions are already doing this. A second critical strategy is putting pressure on the government by mobilizing public concern over air and water pollution, and this is where local NGOs can have a big impact. Pacific Environment is working with local groups to identify sources of coal pollution and make the connection with air and water pollution. The next step is cleaning up or closing pollution sources, or pushing for local governments to replace dirty energy with cleaner energy. This kind of action will put bottom-up pressure on local governments and national policy makers to take bolder steps.


Caroline: Do you think increasing public awareness about the harmful impacts of coal will help?

Qingwei: Yes, I think most people need more knowledge of the problems caused by coal. Once they have this knowledge, they will be more motivated to create change.


Caroline: How do you think communities can play a role in reducing China’s coal use?

Qingwei: Any change needs a motivating force. To change from dirty energy to clean energy, we need to persuade the coal companies to invest in cleaner energy. I think community groups can create such political pressure based on their need for clean air and clean water. As a first step, communities can push for greater government transparency of energy policies, and pollution sources, by using China’s information disclosure laws.


Caroline: What are you looking to accomplish at Pacific Environment in the next 12 months?

Qingwei: When I joined Pacific Environment, I already knew we had a very good network of grassroots partner organizations in China. So my role is to help build the network’s capacity to address the coal challenge. I also want to grow this network, because the challenge is huge and requires the efforts of a wide range of NGOs.

Posted in China, Climate Change, Coal, Communities, Energy, Grassroots Activism, Issues, Policy, Sustainable Development, Water | Comments Off