Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Vanessa Casado Pérez is Associate Professor of Law and Research Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University School of Law
This is the eighth in a series of essays from the Environmental Law Collaborative on the theme: "Environmental Law. Disrupted."
The aphorism “water is the new oil” is now truer than it has ever been. While many use the phrase to suggest that water is as scarce and valuable as oil once was, it is also true in another sense: speculation in water markets now rivals speculation in oil markets. Oddly, however, water scarcity has not translated into a higher price for water, as it has done in oil. But this anomaly may be on the verge of changing as international investors start to enter the business of climate change. From oil tycoons like T. Boone Pickens to international hedge funds, investment in all things water is on the rise. And while many deny climate change, the market does not. Since climate change is widely expected to induce scarcity in water supplies, business investments in the water market are increasing rapidly.
The alarm has gone off. Those who believe markets should not commodify water are appalled by the role that investment moguls play: all the investments in the water business may lead to price increases for water. There is some merit in valuing water as a scarce resource so that we do not misuse it. The more expensive it is, the shorter our showers would be and the more thoughtful the choice of crops and irrigation techniques will be.
But using the market to allocate water also gives rise to two concerns: the affordability crisis for low-income populations and the inability to capture certain intangible values, such as environmental protection, in a single monetary price. The first concern is often answered by saying that the amount of water needed to satisfy our basic needs is around 1% of the total water used. We could let the market deal with the rest and figure out how to allocate the 1% cheaply. Environmental regulations, such as water quality or minimum instream flows, could address the second.
While the answers to these concerns may not be reassuring, we should take comfort in the fact that water is somewhat speculation-resistant, at least compared to oil. Unlike oil regulation, the regulation of markets for water rights has built-in mechanisms to prevent speculation. These constraints in water markets have driven investments towards related industries, like water conservation technology or reuse.
Water rights can be traded in the Western United States and in other jurisdictions such as Australia or Chile. Trade includes leases and sales of water rights that give the buyer the right to use water if it is available. A common transaction might be one between an agricultural right holder and an urban consumer, because the latter often has a higher willingness to pay and a less elastic demand curve. In the US West, these types of transactions have brought flexibility to water allocation systems, where the majority of water rights were allocated when agriculture was the main economic activity and large cities and suburban areas with luscious lawns had not developed. Those transactions should make the farmer realize the opportunity cost of using water. Transactions are subject to different levels of control. First, transactions are subject to administrative review. Transactions cannot injure third parties or the environment. Water rights are defined across several variables, including the point of diversion and the type of use. A transaction will normally imply a change in either or both of those variables and is likely to affect third parties.
Another layer, and more relevant for the purposes of speculation, is the forfeiture provision included in all prior appropriation states and many other jurisdictions. These forfeiture provisions mandate that holders of water rights use the water. If they don’t use it for a certain period, usually around 5 years, they may lose the water right.So unlike with real estate or stocks and bonds, where owners can wait for the market to peak and then sell their assets, in water markets, owners cannot engage in this kind of wait-and-see. That said, if water becomes valuable enough, investors may find a way around these rules. One company, Water Asset Management, is taking that route—considering land an accessory. It focuses on water itself but to get to it, it buys land and it tries to make use of the land to break even. While others have not invested in water rights, they have invested in groundwater or water reuse, which profit from water scarcity.
The question is whether there is something that water law could do to stop big players from dominating the water market broadly understood beyond the forfeiture provision and the approval requirements. It can. Furthermore, water law may be able to target the surrounding industries that investors are interested in. First, regulators could limit the number of shares a single entity could accumulate. One of the main fears is a market dominated by big players. While antitrust regulations are set up to deal with monopolistic practices that harm the consumer, water law can take a page from other natural resources markets and avoid concentration by limiting the amount of water rights that can be accumulated in the same hands. In fisheries’ “individual transferable quotas” programs, there are limits on the shares of the total allowable catch that a single ITQ owner can acquire. This should prevent the concentration of the agricultural industry in a few hands, mitigating the concerns about displacing local farmers.
Second, groundwater should be subject to a permit system like surface water is. Investment companies are keen on exploiting lax regulations and have noticed that in many places groundwater may be more readily accessible as an investment. The separate regulation of a unique resource of surface and groundwater denies the science and makes both, given their interconnection, overexploited.
Third, wastewater regulation needs to be properly designed. As it stands today, return flow belongs to the user who diverted the water. A city may have a water right and divert water from the river. The city does not consume all of it. It usually treats the wastewater and sends it back to the river, where downstream users use it. But if a city decided to reuse wastewater before bringing it back to the river, it could do so, leaving downstream users without the water they have relied on for decades. In some states, like Arizona, cities may be able to not only re-use it in their area but sell the water as a commodity because cleaned up wastewater is considered a new product. While incentives to invest in reuse are paramount, water regulations need to better address the effect on downstream users and the ecosystem needs.
An adage seems appropriate to close this essay. Mark Twain purportedly said that “Whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting.” Water scarcity will certainly cause fights as there will not be enough water for all users. Given the business of water in times of climate change, the question that lingers is whether small water right holders and the environment can put up a fight against these powerful businesses. The three water law measures stated in this essay may be able to help.
Thursday, November 8, 2018
Keith H. Hirokawa is Professor of Law at Albany Law School
Jonathan Rosenbloom is Dwight D. Opperman Distinguished Professor of Law at Drake Law School
This is the fourth in a series of essays from the Environmental Law Collaborative on the theme: "Environmental Law. Disrupted."
A brief perusal of the history of environmental law illustrates the ways law might be employed to suffer through a constant state of disruption. In the past, we have largely relied on state and federal environmental legislation and regulation to accomplish the task, in part because of a fear that local governments will “race to the bottom” and take a competitive advantage against their more regulatory-prone neighbors. We would suggest that the reliance on state and federal regulation, as well as the lack of confidence in local governance, has served to undermine sincere dialogue on the potential of local government to govern well both within and across boundaries.
The present circumstance of climate and ecological disruption will provide an opportunity to revisit the issue of local environmental law. Specifically, climate change will require more engagement with local governments because of the local stakes involved. Given current and likely future disruptions from rising sea levels, heat waves, and storm events, local governments will be faced with coastline insecurity, vulnerable infrastructure and difficulties in meeting essential human needs, geological instability, uncertain ecological changes (such as invasive species), water scarcity, and population migration. Such changes will permeate social, economic, and environmental expectations in every community. Given the role that local governments play in responding to challenges to local quality of life and security, local governments will inevitably become players.
There are and will be instances where local governments manipulate social, economic, and environmental resources to protect their own. But there are and will be examples that illustrate the contrary. Some local governments forego regulation of extraction and resource development, while others will adopt more comprehensive land use regulations that maintain ecosystem services and other quality-of-life determinants. But differences in local governance are neither surprising nor unwarranted – governments illustrate legitimacy though responsiveness to local needs, and local needs differ across boundaries. More importantly, norms and values develop in very local ways, and it would be a mistake to disregard value differences, even at minute levels, that occur across borders.
Local is not only a circumstance that is relevant to understanding particular governmental actions. Local also provides a framework for understanding common concerns such as shared resources, regional circumstances, and intergovernmental cooperation. And, in the context of disruption, local can play a significant role in at least the following four categories: responsiveness; baseline information generation; innovation research; and normalization.
- Local is Responsive to Change
Environmental disruption is coming and, in fact, is here. Law will have to develop new strategies to face the new challenges and immediacy will be a factor. Government strategies should be designed to launch on short notice. It is easier to experiment with new regulations and approaches at the local level: first, because the closeness of local government to governed communities demands it; and second, because the scale of local governance makes debate, passage and implementation of new approaches easier.
Local governments are acutely responsive to social, economic, and environmental change for good reason. Regardless of how such disruptions are perceived on a regional, state or federal level, they are felt locally. The invention of the elevator and automobile fundamentally altered the role and potential of urban areas to provide homes and economic opportunities. In turn, such disruptions helped shape attention to infrastructure and governmental service needs. More recently, local governments have expeditiously responded to water shortages by prohibiting water waste, restricting specific water uses, and requiring installation of efficient water fixtures and grey water use in new construction and building renovations. Similarly, local governments have controlled stormwater flows by implementing measures for permeable pavements, green roofs, and rainwater harvesting. See, e.g., Chatham, MA, Protective Bylaws § 4(B) (2016) (floodplain development and permeable driveways);Denver, CO, Code of Ordinances §§ 10-300 to 10-308 (2017) (green roofs);San Diego, CA, Rain Harvesting Rebate Program (cash incentives rain barrel installation).
- Local as Source of Baseline Information
As a matter of course, local governments gather and assess information on local vulnerabilities to disruptions. Local governments keep a watchful eye on natural and built infrastructure assets, the availability of nature resources, housing stocks, access to food and energy, and population dynamics. Local governments often require permit applicants to provide critical information on development elevations, habitat values, and slope stability. Likewise, local planning and development review processes have resulted in a wealth of information on groundwater budgets, canopy cover, and buildable lands. Other local governments require energy benchmarking and audits for larger buildings and governmental operations. See, e.g., Atlanta, Georgia Code of Ordinances § 8-2002 (2016) (requiring both energy benchmaking and auditing for certain public and private buildings); Denver, CO Code of Ordinances § 4-53 (2016) (commercial building benchmarking and reporting); Seattle, WA Municipal Code § 22.920.010 (2010)(requiring building benchmarks and reporting); Austin, TX Code of Ordinances § 6-7-31 (2011) (commercial facilities required to calculate annual energy budget). The information is commonly used to inform a variety of local government decisions such as land use planning and permitting, budget decisions and infrastructure planning, event planning, intergovernmental cooperation and even the exercise of eminent domain. The information helps to identify future risks and costs, the potential for public interest in particular problems, and the solutions that might be relevant.
Local governments are not better at gathering this information due to sophistication or funding. Local governments are better at it because of their access to a deep pool of relevant information and their lens through which the information is discerned. The important point here is to recognize the critical role of location to the way local governance happens. Based on geological, ecological, economic, and cultural circumstances, communities adapt to the demands of living in a particular place because communities must survive in their own place. This type of experienced information is tattooed with the values that particular resources have to their beneficiaries and users and reflected in local resource decisions.
- Local as a Laboratory for Innovative Responses
Communities approach particular changes in their own ways – some dig in to wait out changes, some take more protectionist ideals and seek to maintain the status quo through zoning, where others employ more forward-thinking measures through long range planning. It should not be surprising that different communities often understand changing circumstances in ways that appear to contradict. But it is also not surprising that a particular community’s reaction to new challenges follows more or less the same basic premise: although local needs and circumstances will vary, human needs and quality of life are the common driver.
Accordingly, the third observation about the importance of local is variation in innovation. The development of technologies and approaches to construction, infrastructure, economic development priorities, education, and housing (and others) are designed to resolve the effects of disruption and secure a community’s vision against the backdrop of change. Importantly, variation in local responses to disruption generates significant information on what works and the local circumstances that facilitate stories of success.
Many local governments are experimenting with incentives to promote green building techniques and even requiring developments to implement the most sophisticated building materials. While the federal government pursues policies that support coal and concrete, local governments are pushing forward with promoting technologically advanced forms of building. Lancaster, California, requires that many new buildings meet net zero standards or be outfitted with a solar energy system that can produce two watts of power for every square foot of the home. Lancaster, Cal., Energy Code § 15.28.020 (c) (2017). Georgetown, Texas, offers multiple incentives, including net metering and rebates, for residents to add renewable energy sources to their properties. Georgetown, TX, Code of Ordinances § 13.04.083 (D) (2) (2012). Miami Beach, Florida, a city already struggling with climate changes, is assessing building fees to combat the impacts of rising sea levels through innovative projects such as environmental restoration projects, monitoring, green infrastructure, and stormwater quality improvements. Miami Beach, FL, Code of Ordinances § 133-6(a)(2016).
- Local as Normalization
Elevating location in an analysis of environmental governance does not suggest any particular value as a normative matter. There will be few response strategies that will be effective in every community, and a “good” strategy may be best guided by the notion that it is good if it would work here. In the meantime, preemption is a good check on local governance, and top-down approaches to land use regulation may offer meaningful constraints on the bad kind of intergovernmental and inter-community competition. Nevertheless, the pervasiveness of location suggests that we should not rush to preempt local initiative. In the meantime, although local should be recognized for uniqueness, the contingencies in the arena of local regulation can serve as a gauge for developing norms. Successful strategies can be borrowed and adapted to different communities, which in turn will generate additional confidence as response strategies across the spectrum of ecological, geological and hydrological difference normalize in the common goals that drive locational adaption.
Monday, November 5, 2018
The Environmental Law Collaborative (ELC) comprises a rotating group of law professors who assemble every other year to think, discuss, and write on an important and intriguing theme in environmental law. The goals of this meeting are both scholarly and practical, as ELC participants seek to use their disparate areas of scholarly expertise to study trends and important events in the law, and ultimately to improve the environmental conditions of the world in which we live.
In 2018, we watched the U.S. regulatory environment change rapidly, even as we witnessed the escalation of visible and profound impacts from climate change. Alongside these events, and with full knowledge of the limited time left in which to address existential environmental challenges, the question the group attempted to tackle at our collaborative meeting was whether environmental law as we know it is up to the task of meeting these ongoing, escalating, and perilous threats.
Each of us has challenged ourselves to think deeply about where environmental law should be headed in the next decade or more, and how we might get there. The blogs we will be posting in the next two weeks discuss our individual conclusions about how we might reframe and reshape -- and ultimately, disrupt -- the environmental law landscape to better address the catastrophic, synergistic, and disruptive ecological changes portended by climate change, biodiversity destruction, and social inequality. We asked ourselves, what would it look like if we radically and fundamentally reoriented our environmental law and policy agenda? Is this possible, desirable, or both?
As we are a diverse group of scholars and thinkers, our conclusions are by no means uniform, but they share a common thread: this is not time for business as usual. The system requires significant, potentially disruptive changes, some of which may make us profoundly uncomfortable. As you will read, Sarah Krakoff and Shannon Roesler ask what law would look like if we conceived of global climate change as a social justice challenge and accordingly remade laws addressing poverty, wealth distribution, public infrastructure, and health care, while Keith Hirokawa and Jonathan Rosenbloom would reorient adaption to climate change by heeding and disseminating legal strategies local governments are formulating. J.B. Ruhl argues that to confront the urgent need for climate change adaptation, environmentalists will have to compromise in strategic ways, while Inara Scott asserts that it is time to bid goodbye to environmental law and start fresh by reconceptualizing a more inclusive, more effective “commons law.”
Continuing in this line of disruptive thinking, David Takacs suggests radically rethinking biodiversity laws before it is too late to preserve functioning ecosystems or the magnificent creatures that inhabit them, or to save our own species that ineluctably depends upon these ecosystems. Erin Ryan argues that with environmental laws under attack, we must think of creative, out of the box ways to defend it at multiple levels of legal hierarchy. Blake Hudson points out that many kinds of ecological disruption can be tied to land development -- where there has never been much effective law to disrupt in the first place. And in an essay that may surprise many, Robin Kundis Craig argues that in international environmental law, the role of the president may be overstated.
Melissa Powers writes about the urgent need for deep decarbonization, with clear targets and strategies to achieve them, as Vanessa Casado Perez tackles the problem of rethinking water law to address inevitable conflicts over water shortages. Turning away from the public sector, Jessica Owley suggests an expanded role for private actors in forwarding the goals of environmental law. Importantly, Katrina Kuh challenges environmental lawyers look more closely in our mirrors to insure that embedded professional norms, practices, and structures do not inadvertently contribute to a “malignant normality” that deepens the climate crisis.
We hope these essays disrupt your thinking in provocative, productive ways, and look forward to opening a dialog with you about how we can reframe, reshape, and ultimately disrupt environmental law to meet the challenges of our day.
November 5, 2018 in Agriculture, Air Quality, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Economics, Energy, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Legislation, North America, Sustainability, US, Water Quality | Permalink
Thursday, April 24, 2014
China's Amendments to its Environmental Protection Law: Can it really lift the curse of Midas Touch?
News reports are abuzz with China's amendments to its environmental protection law that will come into effect in January 2015. The amendments reportedly add several new provisions that primarily strengthen enforcement by increasing the amount of fines imposed on non-complying polluters on an ongoing basis (that is for each violation) as opposed to a single pollution, as well as providing for some form of punishment such as demotion of officials that fail to enforce China's pollution control laws. It also reportedly supports whistle blowing to enable citizens to take action much like citizens suit provisions in the United States. A report of China's new law is available here.
Without having the benefit of reviewing the actual laws, it is hard to comment about the prospect of China's new laws. However, one must admit that at the very least it is a step that demonstrates China's serious commitment to tackling domestic environmental problems that are steadily becoming catastrophic in proportion. It is highly symbolic since it is a big step towards action as opposed to rhetoric.
Yet, much as I hate to sound pessimistic, the law fails to make any fundamental changes to addressing its environmental woes. The law remains essentially regulatory; essentially dependent on government officials to enforce. Will the threat of demotion, if found guilty of non-enforcement, suffice to improve enforcement in a country the size of China? Can a company influence the law-making process so as at least make compliance easier, so as to avoid the problem of facing fines for non-compliance? Will a large enterprise be affected by naming and shaming? I ask these questions because the law in its original form (here) was not entirely lame. The law had enough room for stringent enforcement, including preventing the importation of obsolete technology. However, these provisions were never enforced. The new law appears to focus on enforcement, but assumes that greater fines, threats of demotion, and potential for shaming will make a dint. The sad reality is that these tactics have not been successful even in developed countries. Can they be effective in a country where transparency is sorely lacking?
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Over the last year and a half, I contributed a series of essays about my environmental experiences while living in China as a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at Ocean University of China. A few readers who had missed installments suggested that I create a single post with a roadmap of links to all nine essays. That seemed like a good idea, so with apologies to regular readers for the redundancy, here it is (truly the last of the series):
New Series: Environmental Adventures in China. “This first post provides some context for my series of through-the-looking-glass observations about what it’s like to plunge into China’s modern industrial revolution as an American environmental law professor....”
China Environmental Experiences #2: Rocky Mountain Arsenal. “But as this blog speaks directly to environmental law professors, the first story is one that clutched at my heart while teaching Natural Resources Law in my first semester here….”
China Environmental Experiences #3: Breathing Air with Heft. “…It’s easy to cite the mind-boggling statistics of how bad the air quality can get here. It’s hard to describe the actual experience of it. Harder still to endure it.…”
China Environmental Experiences #4: Wifi Without Potable Water. “This month, I peek beneath one of the more surprising, seemingly contradictory stones in China’s path toward increasing prosperity and world power….”
China Environmental Experiences # 5: Milk, Pesticides, and Product Safety. “Friends joked that given how much of what we use in the United States is actually made in China, we probably didn’t have to bring anything—whatever we needed would be here! But after our arrival, we were surprised to discover how mistaken these assumptions were.…”
CEE #6: Environmental Philosophy and Human Relationships with Nature. “In these final musings from the field, I reflect on a topic that is admittedly delicate but equally important, and which has been simmering behind many of the substantive environmental issues that I’ve addressed to now: environmental philosophy…."
CEE #7: Environmental Philosophy - Conservation, Stewardship, and Scarcity. “[Previously], I opened a discussion about how diverging Chinese and American environmental perspectives may be informed by different baselines in our cultural relationships with the natural world. But other differences in underlying environmental philosophy are also important to understand—and as always, some reflect our two nations’ different stages of economic development….”
CEE #8: Environmental Protection as an Act of Cultural Change. “This essay concludes with parting thoughts about the philosophical roots of some of these differences, the Cultural Revolution and the processes of cultural change, and the significance of all this for environmental protection in China….”
CEE #9: Post Script: Returning from China to the U.S. “This essay is about the experience of coming back to the United States from China, or perhaps more generally, returning to the developed world from that which is still developing. It mixes deep gratitude for the blessings of the American bounty with queasy culpability over the implications of that bounty for international and intergenerational equity….”
April 20, 2013 in Air Quality, Asia, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Economics, Energy, Environmental Assessment, Food and Drink, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Legislation, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, Travel, Water Quality, Water Resources, Weblogs | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, November 8, 2012
China Environmental Experiences #7: Environmental Philosophy - Conservation, Stewardship, and Scarcity
This essay, the seventh in my series about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China, continues the discussion I began last time about how different underlying environmental philosophies held by American and Chinese people can lead to different approaches in environmental governance. (For the full background on this series, see February’s introductory post, March’s reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, April’s account of air quality issues in China, May’s exploration of water quality issues, and June’s review of safety issues with Chinese food and consumer products.) The previous essay addressed differences in the human relationship to nature, and this one addresses differing approaches to conservation, stewardship, and scarcity. The final installation will conclude with thoughts about some ancient philosophical roots of these differences.
I began the previous essay by acknowledging the delicacy of exploring underlying cultural differences that correspond to some the environmental experiences I’ve written about in this series. I noted how exquisitely careful one must be in discussing cultural differences, given the inherent shortfalls of any individual’s limited perspective and experience. Yet these differences relate so directly to the challenges of international environmental governance and intercultural understanding generally that I thought it important to discuss them, notwithstanding the hazards. So I offered the important qualification, which I share here once again, that:
My observations are inevitably, hopelessly entangled with my own cultural vantage point. My Fulbright year did not make me an expert on the inner world of Chinese culture—nor, frankly, did my earlier Harvard degree in Chinese language, culture, and history. My observations qualify as neither empirical scholarship nor serious ethnography, based as they are on casual research, personal experiences, anecdotes, and generalizations. But in hope that they may be useful in illuminating the philosophical roots of some gaps between Chinese and U.S. approaches to environmental governance, I share them here.
From there, I opened a discussion about how diverging Chinese and American environmental perspectives may be informed by different baselines in our cultural relationships with the natural world. But other differences in underlying environmental philosophy are also important to understand—and as always, some reflect our two nations’ different stages of economic development.
Conservation. Take our shared goal of conserving natural resources. Both countries are developing policies to discourage the waste of scarce natural resources, and on many fronts—such as its first steps toward nationally pricing carbon—China is outperforming the U.S. (Then again, China also built a coal-fired power plant a week in recent years, or more.) But behind good goal-setting, both countries face cultural-philosophical challenges at the level of policymaking and implementation.
On the example of climate policy, the American challenge has been achieving a consensus for rational policy. Part of the failure reflects an ideologically divided nation, but other parts reflect more widely shared American ideologies. For example, American economists have long argued that a national carbon tax would be more economically efficient than the cap-and-trade proposals that have had more political traction (to the extent that any GHG regulation had traction in Congress).
Yet even when climate policy was a hot topic in Washington, the carbon tax was considered a dead-letter given the popular resistance to taxes that reflects a libertarian streak in the American cultural consciousness. The (relative) enthusiasm for emissions-trading schemes, wetland mitigation banking, and other market-based environmental reforms reflect widespread cultural regard for free market ideals—even when these ideals are more poetry than reality in operation. (There hasn’t been enough consensus to have translated those ideals into actionable climate policy, nor are they universally shared in the U.S.—but they were circulating widely when Waxman-Markey passed the House in 2009. [Photo courtesy of The Chicago Dope blog.]) Yet another cultural-philosophical hurdle for American climate policymaking—and one pointedly not shared in China—is the scientifically unexplainable skepticism with which increasing numbers of Americans seem to regard science itself (or, perhaps, scientists).
In China, where policymaking isn't usually the obstacle, challenges will likely have more to do with ground-level implementation. In addition to ongoing competition with economic development priorities and the problem of translating centrally formulated mandates into locally implemented policies, there is also the problem of widespread public indifference--and not specifically to climate issues. In present-day urban China (as was equally true in the U.S. a few decades earlier), you don’t see a lot of conservation-oriented behavior by average citizens—at least not without an immediate economic incentive or legal requirement. Solar water heaters are popular, but mostly because they are relatively inexpensive (and in some cases, mandatory). Buses, taxis and other municipal fleets increasingly run on publicly incentivized natural gas. Public transportation is very well-developed in comparison to American cities, but mostly because people are only just beginning to afford cars (and unprecedented levels of traffic are developing as China’s emerging middle class gets behind their own wheels).
Yet where the immediate incentives for conservation end, so in general does public compliance—and at least for now, without regard to the kinds of generational or educational dividing-lines that often accompany diverging conservation habits among Americans. China does have a nascent recycling program for deposit bottles and cans, but it appears nearly entirely staffed by those on the poorest margin, who sort through others’ trash looking for recyclables on which there is a deposit. Goodness knows we see the same phenomenon in American cities, but in addition to our homeless entrepreneurs, many Americans participate in curbside collection of non-deposit recyclables without sanctions or incentives. From kindergarten forward, most American children are inculcated with recycling values as a societal good until it becomes part of their social conscience (whether or not they always follow it).
In China, the government is attempting to do something similar, with an all-out public information campaign to usher China toward the "Circular" or “Recycling Economy”—the Chinese version of “reduce, re-use, and recycle” writ large. The effort encourages all citizens to see the relationship between their everyday behaviors and environmental well-being, buttressed by a national law that exhorts sustainable practices by local government and the businesses community (though with few enforcement provisions). In public places, the government frequently places signs reminding people that “environmental protection is everyone’s responsibility” (the accompanying one is from May Fourth Square in downtown Qingdao). Even the Tsingtao (“Qingdao”) Beer Brewery & Museum includes a full exhibit on sustainability (including a full exposition of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring), notwithstanding its weak connection with the general subject-matter of the museum.
It’s good that Chinese leaders are beginning to take sustainability seriously, because there is much work to be done at the level of consciousness-raising. Sustainability certainly goes beyond the simple act of recycling, but it is a good index of public attitudes. And despite valiant attempts at public recycling cans conjoined to trash cans, most Chinese make no effort to differentiate between them, and both are routinely filled to capacity with identical mixes of trash. There was no recycling program in my neighborhood or at my university, and no paper recycling of any kind (my students were completely baffled by my repeated efforts to find a place to recycle news and copy paper). And as in the U.S., homes are often over-heated and under-insulated, engines are over-polluting and smokestacks are under-scrubbed, fertilizers and pesticides overused, products over-packaged, etc. There are many miles before Americans should soundly sleep on these matters either, but on the whole, fewer Chinese consider them a problem. The sustainability movement has not yet taken hold among public attitudes--though it is beginning to with rising consciousness of the direct human health effects of egregiously widespread air and water pollution.
Stewardship. Of course, it is perfectly understandable that many Chinese are still more pre-occupied with survival than sustainability, and that other development priorities still preclude advanced sustainability initiatives. A lack of sophisticated curbside recycling should not be surprising in a country still wracked with abject rural poverty, and the government deserves praise for its efforts to promote the Recycling Economy alongside other development initiatives. But here is where the effects of underlying, environmentally-relevant philosophies add a special challenge to the task of Chinese environmental governance. It appears that there is a less entrenched cultural tradition of environmental stewardship here as there is in other crowded nations, like Japan or many in Europe. Indeed, one feature of Chinese culture that often stands out to foreign visitors is the striking way that most Chinese differentiate between the care they take of the environment inside their own homes and the care they take of the environment beyond their front doors. The contrast is stark, and suggests potentially significant implications for the challenges of environmental governance in general.
Inside the home, Chinese people take immaculate care to maintain cleanliness and beauty. Shoes are often left at the front door. Walls and shelves are adorned with enchanting art and objects reflecting the majestic culmination of thousands of years of traditional Chinese culture: calligraphy, porcelain, paper cuttings, shadow puppets, poetry, landscape paintings, and the like. But outside that front door, the duty of care appears to end. Common doors, hallways, and stairwells in Chinese apartment buildings receive little attention from residents; empty walls are often cracked with peeling paint and crumbling cement in seemingly abandoned hallways that open surprisingly into those beautifully maintained dwellings once you cross the inner threshold. This may reflect other collective action problems relating to commonly-owned property, but it also reflects a widespread sense that what happens beyond the inner threshold is someone else’s responsibility.
Crossing the outer threshold onto the street reveals an even more dramatic difference. In many cities, trash can be found everywhere—heaped on the sides of buildings, and littering not only streets but mountain trails and otherwise beautiful beaches. Problems with consumer-product and water quality that I have previously written about feed into the overall trash problem. Easily-breakable products and legitimate fears of unclean re-usables compound the prevailing urban culture of disposability, leading to a stream of waste that is often unceremonially piled up around neighborhoods. A broken toilet and shards of glass have been piled outside our building for months, and it is only one of many such piles.
Here in Qingdao, our neighborhood market area is hosed down by a street cleaning truck every morning. I was surprised to hear this, because I would not have guessed this daily cleaning from looking at them in the afternoon—until I saw what they looked like in the morning beforehand: strewn with fish guts, corn husks, banana peels, discarded vegetable parts, used cooking oil, and every other kind of refuse that you can imagine left behind after the daily rush of morning street vendors. People discard these things on the street, knowing that the city will clean it up—and the city does a faithful job. But the hose can’t get to everything, and a fair amount of refuse accumulates in gutters and potholes. And there is no street-cleaner for the narrower village streets, forest parks, or beaches.
Just as in the U.S., some Chinese individuals admirably take it upon themselves to clean up after their fellow citizens. Even as I am dismayed to see so much trash along the mountain trails behind my neighborhood, I am heartened to see the small signs left by members of private groups who occasionally clear the area of litter. The China Daily reported movingly over the winter on the efforts of an elderly woman in Beijing who makes it her personal task to comb trash out of Tiananmen Square every day.
Nevertheless, while some conscientiously pick up their own trash and even that of others, many others routinely drop trash without thinking much about it. In many places, it’s a culturally permissible thing to do. We ourselves are trying to re-educate our four year-old to do otherwise after we watched him proudly demonstrate that he had learned at school how to peel his own banana—and then dropped the peel on the ground, as though it had always belonged there. Perhaps it came naturally to him to just drop it on the ground without thinking about it, because he sees this happening around him so often. Some leave water bottles and other garbage behind in buses and taxis, too—which is also common in the U.S. But what I haven’t seen outside China are the taxi drivers who clean up what passengers have left behind by simply scooping the trash out of their car and into the gutter of the street where they are parked.
Littering is a human cultural problem throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, demonstrated by American smokers who continue to discard cigarette butts indiscriminately, long since cultural tolerance for this waned after the 1970s environmental movement. But in China, cultural permission to discard waste in public places extends beyond water bottles and cigarette butts, complicating the environmentalist message. Consider the entrenched Chinese tradition of encouraging children to use public streets while toilet-training. Chinese toddlers are weaned from diapers early—a great environmental good, given the obvious environmental problems associated with disposable diapers. In the U.S., for example, where the average baby goes through about 8,000 diapers, parents buy as many as 40 million disposable diapers a day (or more), most of which end up in landfills where they will hold their mummified loads for the next 500 years. But in China, toddlers wear pants with a split bottom, enabling children to squat to poo or pee wherever they happen to be when the urge hits. Which leads to different kinds of environmental problems.
I should be used to it after nearly a year, but I am always still surprised to emerge from our apartment to find a parent helping a squatting child unload beside the front gate. Small piles of poo on the sidewalk are commonplace, so we walk carefully, eyes cast down. I’ve seen parents allow their children to relieve themselves into large potted plants at airports. I once saw a child have an accident in the aisles of a big-box store, and while the child was immediately whisked away to be cleaned, the resulting pile was left behind for others to avoid. It’s not uncommon to see men urinating along streets and sidewalks, notwithstanding nearby public toilets erected to accommodate neighborhoods without indoor plumbing. A related tradition engaged in by both men and women is that of spitting on the streets and sidewalks, after expelling the product from deep within troubled-sounding lungs.
With so much Chinese ground thus anointed, the outside environment is generally (and correctly) viewed as a terribly unclean place. The American “five-second-rule” is humorously gross in the U.S., but unimaginable in China—because even indoor floors are trod upon by shoes that have walked through countless stages of decomposing goodness-knows-what. A Chinese student, eyes wide with horror, once asked me whether it was true that American students sit or even recline on campus lawns between classes. I laughed at the time, but months later would find myself cringing as a group of visiting American students sat to rest on the gracious exterior stairs of a provincial museum, and nothing I could say would dislodge them. Similarly, Chinese friends would gasp when I instructed my toddler to hold stair handrails, worried about what hands had been there before him, and what those hands might have touched. Their view—which I ultimately adopted—was that it was better for him to fall down the stairs than to allow whatever was on those railing onto his thumb, which inevitably drifts toward his mouth. By necessity, Chinese parents wean thumb-suckers incredibly early (and by whatever means necessary).
Here’s the thing. If you see the world outside your own home as a legitimate place to offload waste—even E. coli-laden human waste—how can this not extend to greater environmental management? If it’s culturally permissible to drop litter (and worse) on the street or the beach, why wouldn’t it be okay to release manufacturing waste into the river, or pipe it into the air?
The potential implications for environmental law are obvious. Because it’s not just an economic challenge for the government to convince industrialists not to pollute; in some important way, it’s also a cultural challenge. Professional polluters aren’t just doing it because it’s cheaper than the alternative. They are doing it because—at some level—it’s what they have always done, and without any moral misgivings.
Scarcity. The legacy of scarcity in an era of rapid economic development also factors in to environmental philosophy. Indeed, a discussion of scarcity provides an especially poignant point of contrast between Chinese and American approaches that reflect their different stages of economic development.
Let’s start by acknowledging the obvious: Americans are fortunate to have lived through a period in which most have not endured the scarcity regularly experienced by people in the developing world, and they should do better to remember that. My family and I are often ashamed by the patterns of conspicuous consumption in the United States, where ever bigger cars, houses, and other forms of cultural bling are marketed to consumers who enjoy far more than their fair share of world resources. Yet this year, we have also been perplexed by the contrasting patterns of consumption and waste that we have witnessed in China—from the trash piles of used disposables to the missing efforts to maintain buildings against the effects of weather and time. Especially in a developing country, where resources are comparatively scarce, why not conserve and maintain? Why not fix old things, rather than just tossing them aside for a new ones?
In puzzling over this question with some environmental faculty at Wuhan University, I learned how a nation’s developing status can also push in the opposite direction. One spoke of an experience decades earlier, in the pre-PowerPoint era, when he was using an overhead projector with transparencies to accompany his lecture. Something like a filament in the ancient projector blew, so everyone waited while the university repairman was called in. Using tweezers and tiny metallic wire, he got it working again. The man knew how to fix virtually anything—because he had to. At the time, there was no alternative but to fix things, over and over again. But now, in this age of emerging wealth, perhaps there is national pride in not having to fix things this way. For some, he suggested, it is a sign of growing status to be able to toss out the old rather than fix and maintain it indefinitely.
Similarly, several students once explained to me that their parents absolutely forbid them from licking their fingers when they ate—a good habit that they adhered to even at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken, a popular foreign restaurant chain in China. At first, I assumed this was a matter of good hygiene, and I regretted the manners my own child displayed (after all, KFC’s American slogan is “finger-lickin’ good!”). But I later learned the back-story: that these parents had come of age at a time where they sucked every last drop of grease from their fingers because there simply wasn’t enough food, and not a calorie could go to waste. Now, when their own children licked a tasty finger over a full plate of food, these parents would passionately bat the sticky fingers away from little mouths, proudly reminding them that they would never have to lick their own fingers for nourishment. They were not to do it, because doing it symbolized a desperation that the nation had triumphed over (at least in these urban areas) through economic development.
The cultural memory of extreme scarcity runs deep in China, and it is reflected in other curious cultural differences between China and the West. One possible example that often confuses foreign visitors is the way that Chinese tend not to queue. There is not a strong tradition of waiting in line for goods or services—so, for example, when the bus arrives, the crowd simply surges the door and people gradually push their way through, one by one. There are something like lines at street food stalls, but rules are relaxed and there is no hard order to them; if someone wants it badly enough, they can just insert themselves close to the counter. Even at the airport, as people wait to board the plane at the gate, many will queue, but others force their way through to the front as the group moves toward the plane. My Western sensibilities were often jarred by this behavior, but my Chinese friends mostly tolerated this with either patience or indifference. (Though I discovered how fully I had crossed over while escorting that delegation of American students through Beijing, frustrated by their halting efforts to politely advance through crowds while I soared through cracks and openings like a native…)
Why no tradition of lining up? One Chinese lawyer explained to me that this is just another response to the nation’s long history of extreme scarcity: in a world where there is never enough to go around, people long ago learned to grab for what they need. This tradition is changing with new cultural developments and as problems of scarcity ease in China, but I have occasionally wondered whether it could lead to intercultural confusion in international affairs, such as negotiations over hotly contested resources in the Arctic or South and East China Seas. That said, I am very self-consciously making these observation as an indirect beneficiary of the former American tradition of “manifest destiny”—our most spectacular example of not respecting a first-come, first-served ethic of access to natural resources. So I suppose that both of our cultures—like all of them really—are on an ongoing path of philosophical development…
[To be continued in the final installment, in which I’ll conclude with some thoughts about the relevance of ancient philosophical traditions.]
November 8, 2012 in Asia, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Governance/Management, International, Law, Legislation, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, Travel, US | Permalink | Comments (2)
Friday, July 20, 2012
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) decision, it’s easy to get lost in debate over the Chief Justice’s stated theory of the commerce power, or what precedential effect it will have under the Marks doctrine (given that his only supporters wrote in dissent). Still, the practical implications for existing governance is likely to be small, at least in the foreseeable future. After all, much of the debate over the individual mandate focused on how unprecedented it was: despite months of trying, nobody produced a satisfying example of this particular Congressional tool used in previous health, environmental, or any other kind of federal law.
By contrast, the most immediately significant portion of the ruling—and one with far more significance for most environmental governance—is the part of the decision limiting the federal spending power that authorizes Medicaid. Congress uses its spending power to persuade states to engage in programs of cooperative federalism all the time, including important environmental programs under the Clean Air Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, and others. Last month’s decision represents the first time the Court has ever invalidated a congressional act for exceeding its power under the Spending Clause, and the decision has important implications for the way that many state-federal regulatory partnerships work.
These partnerships reflect the complex way that the Constitution structures federal power, through both specific and open-ended delegations of authority. Specific congressional powers include the authority to coin money, establish post offices, and declare war. More open-ended grants of federal authority are conferred by the Commerce, Necessary and Proper, and Spending Clauses, about which we have heard so much in recent weeks. Whatever isn’t directly or reasonably indirectly covered by these delegations is considered the realm of state authority. (Of course, there is some overlap between the two, but that’s another story and a previous blog.)
The Spending Clause authorizes Congress to spend money for the general welfare. Congress can fund programs advancing specific federal responsibilities (like post offices or Naval training), but it can also fund state programs regulating beyond Congress’s specifically delegated authority (such as education or domestic violence). Sometimes, Congress just funds state programs that it likes directly. But it can also offer money conditionally—say, to any state willing to adopt a particular rule or program that Congress wants to see. In these examples, Congress is effectively saying, “here is some money, but for use only with this great program we think you should have” (say, health-insuring poor children).
In this way, the spending power enables Congress to bargain with the states for access to policymaking arenas otherwise beyond its reach. A fair amount of interjurisdictional governance takes place within such “spending power deals”—addressing matters of mixed state and federal interest in realms from environmental to public health to national security law. Federal highway funds are administered to the states through a spending deal, as are funds for public education, coastal management, child welfare, the Medicaid insurance program, and countless others.
Congress can’t just compel the states to enact its preferred policies, but spending power partnerships are premised on negotiation rather than compulsion, because states remain free to reject the federally proffered deal. If they don’t like the attached strings, they don’t have to take the money. Members of the Court have sporadically worried about undue federal pressure, but only in dicta and without much elaboration. In 1987, in South Dakota v. Dole, the Court famously upheld the spending bargaining enterprise, so long as the conditions are unambiguous, reasonably related to the federal interest, promote general welfare, and do not induce Constitutional violations. No law has ever run afoul of these broad limits, which have not since been revisited—until now.
In challenging the ACA, 26 states argued that Congress had overstepped its bounds by effectively forcing them to accept a significant expansion of the state-administered Medicaid program, even though Congress would fund most of it. All states participate in the existing Medicaid program, and many feared losing that federal funding (now constituting over 10% of their annual budgets) if they rejected Congress’s new terms. Congress had included a provision in the original law stating that it could modify the program from one year to the next, as it had done nearly fifty times previously. But the plaintiff states argued that this time was different, because the changes were much bigger and because they couldn’t realistically divorce themselves from the programs in which they had become so entangled. Even though they really wanted out, they claimed, now they were stuck. The feds maintained that congressional funds are a conditional gift that states are always free to take or refuse as they please.
In deciding the case, the Court stated a new rule limiting the scope of Congress’s spending power in the context of an ongoing regulatory partnership. Chief Justice Roberts began by upholding the presumption underlying spending power bargaining—that the states aren’t coerced, because they can always walk away from the table if they don’t like the terms of the deal. We mostly dispel concerns about coercion by relying on the states to “just say no” when they don’t like the federal policy. (In a choice rhetorical moment, he offered: “The States are separate and independent sovereigns. Some¬times they have to act like it.”) Accordingly, he concluded that the Medicaid expansion was constitutional in isolation, because states that don’t want to participate don’t have to. No coercion, no constitutional problem.
But then the decision takes a key turn. What would be a problem, he explained, would be if Congress were to penalize states opting out of the Medicaid expansion by cancelling their existing programs. Given how dependent states have grown on the federal partnership to administer these entrenched programs, this would be unconstitutionally coercive. By his analysis, plaintiffs chose the original program willingly, but were being dragooned into the expansion. To make the analysis work, though, he had to construe Medicaid as really being two separate programs: the current model, and the expansion. Congress can condition funding for the expansion on acceptance of its terms, but it can’t procure that acceptance by threatening to defund existing programs (analogizing to gun-point negotiating tactics). The decision requires Congress to allow dissenting states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion while remaining in the older version of the program.
Justice Ginsburg excoriated this logic in dissent, arguing that there was only one program before the Court: Medicaid. For her, the expansion simply adds beneficiaries to what is otherwise the same partnership, same purpose, same means, and same administration: “a single program with a constant aim—to enable poor persons to receive basic health care when they need it.” She criticized the Chief Justice for enforcing a new limitation on coercion without clarifying the point at which permissible persuasion gives way to undue coercion, and she pointed out the myriad ways this inquiry requires “political judgments that defy judicial calculation.”
On these points, Justice Ginsburg is right. The decision offers no limiting principle for future judges or legislators evaluating coercive offers. “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” reasoning won’t do when assessing the labyrinthine political dimensions of intergovernmental bargaining, but neither the decision nor the conservative justices’ dissent provides more than that. Moreover, the rule is utterly unworkable. No present Congress can bind future congressional choices, so every spending power deal is necessarily limited to its budgetary year as matter of constitutional law. But after this decision, Congress can never modify a spending power program without potentially creating two tracks—one for states that like the change and another for those that prefer the original (and with further modifications, three tracks, ad infinitum). The decision fails to distinguish permissible modifications from new-program amendments, leaving every bargain improved by experience vulnerable to legal challenge. And it’s highly dubious for the Court to assume responsibility for determining the overall structure of complex regulatory programs—an enterprise in which legislative capacity apexes while judicial capacity hits its nadir.
Nevertheless, the decision exposes an important problem in spending power bargaining that warrants attention: that is, how the analysis shifts when the states are not opting in or out of a cooperative federalism program from scratch, but after having developed substantial infrastructure around a long-term regulatory partnership. It’s true that the states, like all of us, sometimes have to make uncomfortable choices between two undesirable alternatives, and this alone should not undermine genuine consent. But most of us build the infrastructure of our lives around agreements that will hopefully last longer than one fiscal year (lay-offs notwithstanding). The Chief’s analysis should provoke at least a little sympathy for the occasionally vulnerable position of states that have seriously invested in an ongoing federal partnership that suddenly changes. (Indeed, those sympathetic to the ACA but frustrated with No Child Left Behind’s impositions on dissenting states should consider how to distinguish them.)
It’s important to get these things right, because as I describe in Federalism and the Tug of War Within, an awful lot of American governance really is negotiated between state and federal actors this way. Federalism champions often mistakenly assume a “zero-sum” model of American federalism that emphasizes winner-takes-all competition between state and federal actors for power. But countless real-world examples show that the boundary between state and federal authority is really a project of ongoing negotiation, one that effectively harnesses the regulatory innovation and interjurisdictional synergy that is the hallmark of our federal system. Understanding state-federal relations as heavily mediated by negotiation betrays the growing gap between the rhetoric and reality of American federalism—and it offers hope for moving beyond the paralyzing features of the zero-sum discourse. Still, a core feature making the overall system work is that intergovernmental bargaining must be fairly secured by genuine consent.
Supplanting appropriately legislative judgment with unworkable judicial rules doesn’t seem like the best response, but the political branches can also do more to address the problem. To ensure meaningful consent in long-term spending bargains, perhaps Congress could provide disentangling states a phase-out period to ramp down from a previous partnership without having to simultaneously ramp up to new requirements—effectively creating a COBRA policy for states voluntarily leaving a state-federal partnership. Surely this beats the thicket of confusion the Court creates in endorsing judicial declarations of new congressional programs for the express purpose of judicial federalism review. But in the constitutional dialogue between all three branches in interpreting our federal system, the Court has at least prompted a valuable conversation about taking consent seriously within ongoing intergovernmental bargaining.
Thursday, June 7, 2012
Much to my chagrin, a number of people have forwarded me information about a proposal in my new home state: a bill that would require the following of sea-level rise estimates:
"These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise."
In the past, I've taken the position that unless there's some special interest at stake (like suspect classifications or fundamental rights), courts ought to be reluctant to interfere when legislatures make policy decisions based on faulty science. On the other hand, a legislature getting science plain wrong might signal no rational basis. Is there room for that analysis here?
At the very least, this is a reminder that courts often provide a check that's too little, too late.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
This is the fourth in my series of reports from the field about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China. (For the full background on this series, see February’s introductory post, March’s reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and April’s account of air quality issues in China.)
This month, I peek beneath one of the more surprising, seemingly contradictory stones in China’s path toward increasing prosperity and world power. China is the world’s fastest-growing major economy—the second largest economy of all nations, the largest exporter, and the second-largest importer in the world. It is a nation with 500 million Internet users, 100 million cars, and the world’s largest standing army. It is the third nation on earth to independently launch a successful manned space mission, with plans to send astronauts to the moon in the coming years. At least in urban areas, China is a thoroughly modern, explosively developing place—with department stores selling Prada, goofy reality TV, and wifi at the local tea house... but you still can’t drink the water.
Visitors to China are carefully warned that the water is not potable and must be boiled thoroughly before consumption. Every hotel room has a small water boiler for this purpose, and the more expensive ones provide a nightly bottle of safe drinking water by the bedside. Water quality problems are traditionally associated with the continuing use of “night soil” (human and animal waste) to fertilize crops—an effective and inexpensive alternative with an inexhaustible supply. Yet the problem continues even as farmers embrace more modern chemical fertilizers (perhaps too heartily, at the alarming expense of soil health), and as other contaminants enter the water supply. While visiting the old city of Lijiang in Yunnan Province, for example, I rose for an early morning walk to find cooks cleaning the carcasses of recently killed animals, intestines and all, directly into the Venice-like canals from which others draw their drinking water.
Shortly before our arrival, we were warned by a vaccination nurse familiar with the most dangerous waterborne diseases to only sponge-bathe our 3-year-old, rather than risk his inadvertent exposure to waterborne parasites through his open eyes or mouth in a shower. Once here, we quickly decided that this level of precaution was unnecessary, at least in urban areas where the municipal water supply receives some level of filtration or disinfection before reaching the tap (especially true in Beijing). Still, we have learned well the rules of life here in China: drink only boiled or bottled water, no ice that can’t be sourced to boiled or bottled water, no fruits or vegetables that haven’t been cooked or peeled, and brush teeth with tap water at your own risk. (Some friends do; others, including me, don’t.) You should also ensure that bottled water is truly factory-sealed, as scandals have occasionally revealed empty bottles refilled with tap water being resold as new.
Without a doubt, adapting to life without potable water was the biggest cultural adjustments for us when we arrived last summer. The first consequence was minor physical dehydration: without easily accessible clean water to drink, we drank less, and soon found ourselves more easily exhausted, ornery, and sick. (Indeed, nothing confirms the critical nature of this life-sustaining resource more effectively than losing the taken-for-granted tap.) Every journey away from our apartment involves water planning, as we take careful stock of how many are traveling, what will be needed, and how best to transport it. I seem to drink more than my Chinese friends, but I still seem to be always thirsty.
And there were other puzzling features of our new world. For example, we struggled to understand at exactly what point our dishes were clean enough to eat off after washing them in tap water. Were the still damp chopsticks safe to use, or the recently-washed cup still bearing that fine sheen? And when dealing with my son’s inevitable scraped knees and elbows, was it better to wash with soap and water to disinfect, or was the water itself a source of potential harm? (For the record, we have decided that dishes must be completely dry to be safe, and that cuts should be washed with soap and water until the dirt is out, but subsequently sterilized with disinfectant whenever possible.)
Chinese culture adapted long ago to the perils of non-potable water. Chinese people boil all their water before drinking it, but it doesn’t seem like a burden, because they prefer to drink their water hot. They range from amused to amazed when foreigners request cold water, which to them is as distasteful as drinking plain hot water is those foreigners. When I invite my students to ask questions of cultural exchange—anything they want to know about American culture, politics, or lifestyle—the most frequent question is always “Why do Americans like to drink cold water? (Yuck!)” Perhaps as a result, there is no groundswell of popular sentiment to “do something” about the water situation. From the perspective of most Chinese, there is no problem with the water. Everything is as it should be.
Yet China is suffering from increasingly serious water pollution problems that can’t just be boiled away. Chemical pollutants entering the water supply from industry and agriculture are getting worse, involving toxins oblivious to disinfectants. The World Health Organization has identified 2221 different pollutants in waters worldwide, and 765 of them in drinking water—but current drinking water standards test for only 35 indicators, and new criteria that will go into effect on July 1st will regulate only 106 pollutants. (Source: Dr. Yu Ming, water pollution researcher at Ocean University of China.) Chinese lawmakers and the Ministry of the Environment are struggling to cope with these problems through the PRC Law to Prevent and Control Water Pollution, but the even greater hurdle for environmental law is that of implementation.
Even where China’s environmental laws are comprehensive, their goals are imperiled by under-enforcement. Illegal discharging is reportedly very common, because there simply aren’t enough agency personnel to monitor them. And even when violations are discovered, they may or may not be prosecuted by the relevant government agency—depending, perhaps, on the economic importance of the violators, or their political influence. When the government fails to act, it can be hard for citizens and NGOs to take up the slack, because most Chinese courts don’t recognize standing for public-interest citizen suits. And even if traditional standing were established by a directly injured party, the court may or may not decide to hear the case (for my money, one of the most surprising features of the Chinese legal system). For these reasons and others, enforcement is usually seen as the major weakness in China’s environmental law regime. Perhaps China’s new experimentation with a handful of specialty environmental courts will help redress these important problems.
In the meanwhile, water quality problems intersect with and exacerbate other environmental problems. For example, one unfortunate consequence of unreliable tap water is the resulting prevalence of disposables: single-use bottled water, disposable plates and bowls, even the single-use toothbrushes that hotels at every level routinely provide. I spent the last year spearheading a university sustainability initiative that sought personal pledges to avoid bottled water and other disposables as much as possible, so it was particularly jarring for me to adjust to this new norm—where we are happy to eat at a restaurant that provides disposable bowls, plates, and chopsticks, because we know they won’t make us sick that evening. (And I was happy to note that, at least at our favorite local restaurant, the plasticware is marked as biodegradable.) By contrast, at restaurants that provide the reusables I normally seek out at home, we nervously try to sterilize them with hot tea before using them, because they have likely been rinsed in the too-thoroughly recycled dirty dishwater that compounds the problems already coming out of the tap.
So, after religiously toting my reusable aluminum bottle to my every American class last year, I now carry plastic bottles of water everywhere. And though I reuse the small bottles as long as possible rather than discarding them after a single use, they are usually filled with water that I get at home from the water-cooler bottle that many Chinese families use. On any given day, you can spot a handful of strong men riding motor-scooters with an improbably number of these strapped to the back, exchanging filled ones for empties at private homes and businesses. I’m happy to report that at least these large bottles are faithfully recycled. But I’m unhappy to say that smaller plastic bottles litter the streets, parks, mountains, landfills, beaches, and accordingly, rivers and oceans.
Neither is the important relationship between water quality and water quantity lost on China, which has one of the lowest per capita rates of fresh water in the world. Northern China is arid and especially lacking sufficient water, marked by some of the world’s great deserts, like the Gobi and the Taklimakan. But it rains plentifully in the south and along much of the coasts. As a result, China has erected the most massive water-delivery infrastructure in world history to shift enormous quantities from south to north, a project already underway for fifty years and scheduled for completion in another forty. Linking China’s four main rivers together in a network of diversions, it will eventually move almost 50 billion cubic meters of water annually. Although the project has already caused its fair share of negative environmental consequences and human displacement, most of the Chinese I have spoken to—even those from regions in which water is taken—are comfortable with the need for extreme inter-basin transfers to support northern population centers like Beijing. And they are proud of the ingenuity and engineering that underwites this aspect of "man-made China."
Like nearly everything else in China, its history of mind-boggling human interventions with water began thousands of years ago. I had the opportunity to explore a classic example last week while visiting the Turpan Depression near Urumqi in Xinjiang. Turpan is the lowest and hottest place in China, at 150 meters below sea level and in the middle of China’s most arid province. And yet there in the desert was a blooming oasis of vineyards, agriculture, and Uighur community. How was it possible? It is because 2,000 years earlier, the people who still live there dug 5,272 kilometers of underground canals with 172,367 vertical well shafts to collect and redistribute the groundwater accumulating from melting snow on the nearby mountains. At its height, the “Turpan Karez” channeled 858 million cubic meters of water into 1,784 lines to distribute it to all parts of the region. (You can’t even imagine what this looks like—best to see it, so try this aerial photo and this diagram). It is a staggering feat of civilization—a celebration of creativity, environmentally sustainable terrascaping, and the human ability to thrive against all odds.
Modern-day Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, relies on similarly creative water technology. During my visit, I saw acres of recently planted, spindly young trees in the desert outskirts of the city, lined up like toothpicks piercing the mostly barren earth. I would often ask my hosts, “How will these trees take root? With what water?”, and I was always told, “Oh, there is enough water here in Urumqi.” I knew that the trees had been planted for environmentally sound reasons—to help stabilize the soil, moderate ground temperature, and trap airborne dust—but I still couldn’t understand how they would survive in such arid ground, only occasionally studded with dwarflike sagebrush scrub. In my broken Chinese, I would persist, “but if there were really enough water to grow trees, wouldn’t there already be trees here?” And they would quietly insist, “no, no—there will be enough water,” though I could never understand from them why.
Then on my last day, I visited a popular public park in the middle of the city, where the temperature was ten degrees cooler thanks to the canopy of the many mature trees that ringed its central hill and the banks of the creek flowing around it. I followed my idle curiosity to the crown of the hill, where I was astonished to find a complex terrascaping system for just this park. There was a small, swimming-pool like reservoir at the top, supplied by a large pipe snaking up the hill (it wasn’t clear to me from where), and a network of canals extending radially outward down the hill in all directions. Indeed, the park’s oasis was created in the same manner as the Turpan Karez: decades earlier, the now lush trees had been planted in rings around the hill, and the reservoir fed them a steady supply of water through the canals at their base. I was awed by the success of the project, and the clear joy it gave the city residents who collected there en masse to enjoy its peace and beauty. And I suddenly understood what mechanisms were likely helping those new trees take root in the desert surrounding the city.
With such scarcity at hand, China is trying harder and harder to avoid squandering its precious water resources with regulatory efforts targeting both quantity and quality. Wherever there are flush-toilets, they are almost always low-flush toilets, with separate levers for the two types of waste they will encounter (one of which needs a stronger flush than the other). Solar-powered water heaters effectively reduce consumption by limiting hot water to what can be stored on the roof at any given time (although the more expensive ones have a gas or electric backup). Greater efforts are being made to reduce use and recycle water wherever possible. Hopefully, China will find a way to enact and enforce more effective water pollution laws to avoid further industrial and agricultural degradation of its water resources.
But for what it’s worth, I’m told there are no great plans on the horizon to achieve potability from the tap, because potability is just not a cultural priority in China. So the mantra will continue: boiled or bottled, cooked or peeled, rinse at your own risk…
Saturday, April 7, 2012
This is the third in my series of reports from the field about the environmental experiences of an environmental law professor in China. (For the full background on this series, see my introductory post and last month’s reflections on China and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.) It has been a busy month since my last post, during which I’ve had the pleasure of traveling the country widely. Today I actually write from Japan, where I am visiting Nagoya University to discuss the role of the common law public trust doctrine in balancing economic development and environmental protection.
It is a lecture that I have given frequently in both the U.S. and China, and before arriving, I had carefully considered the differences I could expect in sharing the same ideas with a Japanese audience. In the U.S., law students are fascinated by the role of legal institutions in mediating the conflict, especially demonstrated in the Mono Lake litigation around which I build the presentation. In China, students are more interested the factual content of the story—and dumbstruck by the idea that protecting birds, fish, and wilderness could possibly compete with the water needs of a large metropolis. What would I find here in Japan, a nation with relatively thorough pollution controls but comparatively scarce natural resources?
As it turned out, I needed no academic encounter to see where the Shintoist-inflected Japanese approach would differ from China’s. All the evidence I needed—evidence that nearly knocked me off my feet from the moment I first stepped outside—was in the air. The clean, fresh, sweet-smelling, healthy-feeling air. After eight months of breathing in China, the air was so beautiful that I almost cried. There was no haze, no taste, no grit. You could see the world crisply and clearly ahead of you for miles—even better than I could recall from home in the U.S. I realized in that moment how much I had forced myself to forget what this could be like, in order to just get on with daily life in China. But like an elephant, the lungs never forget. So I guess it’s time to confront the great elephant in the room of Chinese environmental issues and talk about the experience of living with China’s notorious air quality problems.
Everyone knows that air pollution is a serious problem in China. The World Health Organization reports that some 700,000 Chinese people die each year from air-pollution related respiratory diseases. Many of the world’s most polluted cities are in China, and we took serious account of this reality in contemplating our Fulbright voyage. In Beijing, particulate pollution levels regularly exceed the scale that the U.S. government normally uses to monitor it (such that air quality problems are quite literally “off the scale”). Shanghai air is a little better, but still far worse than the worst air quality days in the worst air quality years of Los Angeles’ experience. A friend at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reports the common wisdom there that a bad day in Los Angeles can get as high as 90 on the PM 2.5 particulate pollution scale, while a bad day in Beijing can exceed 400 (and occasionally even tops 500). He says "if it's less than 150, I'm usually happy, because then I can see the sun." (For full comparison's sake, in 2009, the average PM 2.5 particulate pollution level for the entire U.S. was just under 10, and the average in Los Angeles was just under 15.) The State Department actually pays the American embassy staff in Beijing “hardship compensation”—extra pay for enduring hazardous working conditions, just by virtue of breathing there. [For a good-day/bad day photo comparison, see this follow-up post.]
And foreigners aren’t the only ones concerned. In recent months, the people of Beijing witnessed an important demonstration of their own political power when public unrest ultimately persuaded the Chinese government to change its air quality monitoring norms. For years, China had monitored only airborne particulates measuring at least 10 microns across, even though it is the much smaller particles that can do the most damage—passing through the alveoli in the lungs directly into the blood stream. The U.S. embassy in Beijing monitors particulate matter as small as 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) on an hourly basis, and had been making the data available to the public over the Internet. So the Chinese air quality reports made air quality problems look a lot less serious than the American reports.
But this winter was worse than usual—much worse. The U.S. Embassy data showed sustained levels of seriously hazardous pollution—the kind that could harm any healthy person, not just the especially sensitive young, old, or sick. Air filter sales surged in Beijing, and residents donned surgical masks in (mostly futile) efforts to reduce their inhalation of choking auto exhaust, coal-fired power plant and manufacturing emissions, and dust from the ubiquitous construction projects and nearby Gobi desert. A New York Times report that managed to jump the Great Firewall told of some Party officials who had retrofitted their homes with equipment to cleanse the toxic air, infuriating the 99% who had to breathe it without recourse.
As public agitation mounted, the Chinese government reportedly requested that the U.S. Embassy stop publishing its PM 2.5 monitoring data (likening it to inappropriate meddling in domestic affairs). Beijing residents were enraged by these purported efforts to keep them in the dark about genuine threats to public health. In the Twitter-like microblogs that dominate the Chinese blogosphere, one after another vented their outrage—mothers wanting to keep young children inside when the air was most hazardous, sons wanting to keep aging mothers at home on the days of elevated stroke risk. In a stunning victory for transparency in Chinese governance—and an important signal of how seriously average Chinese people are taking air quality—the government reversed itself and finally began monitoring at the PM 2.5 level.
In fact, I had been graciously offered connections to some of the nation’s leading universities in Beijing when my Fulbright placement was being set. But given Beijing’s air problems (and with memories of my son’s respiratory complications from swine flu still fresh in mind), we pursued a placement in the coastal city of Qingdao instead, as much for the city’s famously clean air as for Ocean University’s vibrant environmental law program. And indeed, when we arrived in August, the wisdom of our choice seemed confirmed. Our introductory week in Beijing—while culturally thrilling—was environmentally chilling. None of my ample armchair research into Beijing’s air quality problems prepared me for the experience of actually breathing air with physical heft. Air with taste and texture. Air that we knew—our bodies as physically as our minds did intellectually—would eventually make us sick. We were elated to finally get to Qingdao, where indeed, the summer air was comparatively pristine.
But even in Qingdao, everything changed in late November, when the heat went on in northern China. In China, the heat (like most else!) is centrally coordinated. So the heat for the entire northern part of the country goes online around November 15th, bringing to life the countless coal-fired power plants that freckle every city landscape, some large but many quite small. One such sleeper turned out to be directly across from my son’s preschool. Its curiously squat smokestack was coupled with a more slender companion, both raised just above the higher floors of the surrounding residential apartments. They seemed old and apparently unused in the fall, so we had assumed it was an old factory abandoned after residential infill. Once we realized that it was really an eye-level conduit for mercury-laden, throat-choking coal dust, we panicked considered our alternatives. But the truth is that these little generators are everywhere. So many, so little, that installing appropriate scrubbers would require the kind of massive financial commitment currently beyond reach for most developing economies.
It’s easy to cite the mind-boggling statistics of how bad the air quality can get here. It’s hard to describe the actual experience of it. Harder still to endure it. There is a kind of low-level panic that sets in when the air begins to go bad. You hope against hope that this time will not last as long as the last time, and you unconcsciously start to breathe more shallowly. Then you assume a bunker mentality and try to keep the bad air out of your home as much as possible. You close all the windows and become extremely careful about closing the doors as fast as possible when you come and go from the apartment. You have to give up the charade when you leave for work, but eventually it doesn't matter because the bad air eventually finds a way into every room. In large enclosed spaces like airports, the haze can even obstruct your view of the far interior wall. At this point, you just have to submit to the situation and try not to think about what's actually in the air. There is nowhere to go, nothing you can do to avoid it. But you still try not to breathe too deeply.
After the winter heat went on, the blue skies of Qingdao disappeared behind a grainy haze of automobile fumes and coal plant smoke. On the worst days the weather report is simply “smoke,” and breathing is like inhaling in the wake of buffed chalkboard erasers that have been tainted with some kind of chemical. We use packing tape to try and seal the faulty window frames and the gaps around our doors. Surfaces in our home are perpetually coated with once airborne dust and particulates. We are no longer so keen to take walks to the lovely mountain behind the university (which we very often can’t even see, as in the prior photo). We avoid strenuous exercise—even running to catch the bus—because deep breathing hurts. On days when we can only hazily see the building fifteen meters from our own (and the others beyond disappear fully into the smoke, as in the photo below), we try to not even leave the apartment.
In the early days of winter, the stress of adjusting to the air pollution was oppressive. We felt sick most of the time, and were always anxious. Eventually, we adapted to the circumstances and we were once again able to find joy and fascination in our new world. But even now, we finish most days by lying down in bed to cough the day's residue out of our lungs. And on many mornings, I wrestle with the decision to send my son to preschool, which requires both him and my mother to troop a half-mile up a steep hill directly toward the belching power plant.
In fact, when the EPA announced the new mercury rule that it finally promulgated in late 2011 after twenty years of trying, I metaphorically jumped for joy and then literally wept with grief when it forced me to connect the primary source of U.S. mercury—coal-fired power plant emissions—with our own experience here. I thought of all the environmental risks to which we are subjecting my little boy, who turned four here this winter. So ironic, after all our fastidious caretaking in his first three years (organic milk, physician-approved sunscreen, no cigarette or pesticide exposure, etc.)! What was the point, when we are now subjecting him to more hazard than he may experience for the rest of his life? Almost every day in January, I questioned whether I did the right thing bringing him here. About every other day, I was pretty sure that I didn’t.
Then again, we take the objectives of our cultural diplomacy here very seriously. Raising a child here has enabled us to access a depth of Chinese culture that most visitors never come close to understanding. We understand China in a way we never could have imagined before now, and we have shared our American ideals just as profoundly. At the moment, my son is a living bridge between our cultures, in a way that fills our neighborhood with joy and hope for the future of our nations’ friendship. So I tell myself that the air pollution is really very temporary for us, and that we will come home in just a few more months. (And then I wrestle with the guilt of knowing that all the people I’ve come to love here will not have the same luxury.)
Seriously folks—I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—every American bellyaching about the costs of environmental regulation in the United States really needs to spend a year living in China. Especially from this vantage point, the proposition that Americans no longer need so much environmental law because our environment is so clean (thanks, of course, to environmental law…) makes me want to break something. I try to muster some empathy for those making this argument, because they obviously have no perspective on what the lack of meaningful environmental regulation would actually mean for their daily lives. Which is why they should come to China for a while—preferably with their small children and aging parents. (Then we’ll see how much they miss the EPA!)
Here in Qingdao, without the benefit of enforced environmental regulations, we have learned simply to pray for cold weather. The northerly winds from Siberia blow the smoke out to sea and provide a day or two of respite, so bitter cold is our new favorite forecast. In fact, Qingdao’s famously clean air is probably a result of this standard winter weather pattern—but the weather patterns here shifted this year, as they have been doing all over the globe. Whether for reasons of climate change or unknown factors, the winds that once regularly purged Qingdao’s smog barely blew this winter, and air quality plummeted accordingly. In just the first three months, bad air quality days already exceeded the previous year’s by 400%. Qingdao residents have complained bitterly about the problem, even prompting some new local regulations. But as one of my students wryly observed, “would they rather their homes have no heat?”
In fact, northern Chinese winters get very cold, and most of our Chinese friends easily prefer the heat with all of its downsides. But we should also give credit where it is due for the many ways that Chinese people avoid making the problem even worse—by not living the way that most Americans do. For example, the roofs of all Chinese buildings are barnacled with rows and rows of solar water heaters, avoiding the need for yet more coal-fired electricity. The taxi fleets all run exclusively on natural gas, and city public transportation is exceptional—cheap, easy to use, and everywhere. Almost nobody here has an electric clothes dryer, among the most notorious energy hogs in the American household. Some fear this may change for the environmentally worse as 1.4 billion Chinese get richer and more interested in exotic appliances—but Japan has a fully developed economy, and line-drying remains the norm there as well. Finally, China appears to have made a serious national commitment to reducing greenhouse gas production in its Twelfth Five Year Plan, now beginning implementation in the seven largest metropolitan areas. (Perhaps in the meanwhile, they can work on small coal-plant scrubbers.)
Anyway, we are now counting down the days until the heat finally goes off on April 15th. What seemed unendurable in the first few months eventually became routine, such that the days we once barricaded ourselves inside are now days that I will (if reluctantly) take my son outside to play. We say things like, “the air is bad today, but at least the chalk dust doesn’t have too much chemical in it.” For better or worse, we have adjusted to our new environment—fully appreciating that it is still better than most Chinese enjoy. After November 15th, I alternated between horrified, angry, and desperate that I had submerged my family in the very sort of environment that I had pledged my professional career to avoid. I still have all of these feelings at times, but the desperation has mostly given way to determination. What environmentalists do is important. (Indeed, even the Tsingtao Beer Museum includes a display about environmental protection efforts tracing to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.) What environmental scientists and lawyers do is important. What environmental law professors do is important. Keep doing it, everyone.
April 7, 2012 in Air Quality, Asia, Cases, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Governance/Management, International, Law, Legislation, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, Travel, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Recently, editors of this blog have reported on some of the impressive sustainable efforts of schools around the nation. Perhaps because I am fortunate to have two of the best little boys on the entire planet, I think the subject matter is worth an ongoing dialogue. Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, explains the charge: “With so many of our country’s schools in disrepair, it is critical to highlight the importance of providing our children with healthier, more sustainable educational environments that enhance learning.”
On February 27, 2012, co-authors Lindsay Baker and Harvey Bernstein - on behalf of the Center for Green Schools at USGBC and McGraw-Hill Construction – released a report entitled, The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Learning: A Call for Research. The report addresses the very important question of how we research school building design, maintenance, and operations to assess and maximize the relationships between building performance and student health and performance. The report highlights the state of research on the subject and identifies areas where attention to building performance may reap substantial rewards for our children. In particular, the authors provide an inventory of student needs in the classroom based on how students hear, breathe, see, feel, move, think, and learn. The authors also identify the roles and responsibilities of the various stakeholders in researching the impacts of buildings on childhood education: school staff and leaders; teachers and students; building professionals; researchers; governmental agencies; and other supporting networks and organizations. The paper suggests a need and basis to account for the already 2,300 schools across the nation that are already participating in the USGBC’s LEED green building program.
One take-away from the report is that the information needed to complete research on this relationship is becoming easier to access, at least in part because high-performing buildings are becoming an easier sell to higher education administrations. At least, sustainable initiatives are quite popular and stimulated on the campuses of higher educational institutions.
Nevertheless, to many the ultimate challenge remains the cost, a nagging obstruction that is exacerbated by the growing price tag on higher education. However, the evidence on cost savings associated with energy efficiency continues to grow. For example, Gregory Kats argued in 2006 that “Green schools cost on average almost 2% more, or $3 more per ft2, than conventional schools. The financial benefits of greening schools are about $70 per ft2, more than 20 times as high as the cost of going green.” More recently, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Appliance Standards Awareness Project recently released The Efficiency Boom: Cashing In on the Savings from Appliance Standards, in which it reported that the existing energy efficiency standards governing appliances will net consumers more than $1.1 trillion in savings cumulatively through 2035. New and revised energy standards will improve these savings, resulting in typical household savings of over 180 MWh of electricity and over 200,000 gallons of water between 1995 and 2040.
An equally promising trend concerns school investments in “Green Revolving Funds” to facilitate cleantech and other sustainability improvements on campus. Harvard’s $12 million Green Loan Fund is self-described as follows:
The Loan Fund provides capital for high-performance campus design, operations, maintenance, and occupant behavior projects. Basic project eligibility guidelines state that projects must reduce the University’s environmental impacts and have a payback period of five to ten years or less. The model is simple: GLF provides the up-front capital. Applicant departments agree to repay the fund via savings achieved by project-related reductions in utility consumption, waste removal, or operating costs. This formula allows departments to upgrade the efficiency, comfort, and functionality of their facilities without incurring any capital costs.
The number of schools utilizing the GRF model has been growing steadily, aided in large part by AASHE’s Billion Dollar Green Challenge. Of course, the GRF model may not suit every school, at least because the initial investment may feel like the type of discretionary spending that simply is not available. Ideally, the lessons learned from existing and contemplated green schools, the predicted market shifts, and the associated forward-thinking will outgrow this misperception.
- Keith Hirokawa
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Climate change regulation is dead? Not in California, which this week adopted the nation's first economy-wide cap-and-trade program.
The Tenth Circuit, in a 120-page decision, upheld a Clinton-era rule protecting 50 million acres of forestland from logging and roads.
The Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy released its first annual rankings of states; Massachusetts was first, with California second.
An advocacy study observed that FCC standards for cell phones "grossly underestimate the amount" of radiation that "smaller adults and children retain," as reported by Greenwire.
BP received approval for a plan to explore for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, its first such approval since the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
There is a fascinating article this week in The New Yorker about the aftermath of the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan. (hat tip: Joe Tomain)
October 23, 2011 in Asia, Cases, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Environmental Assessment, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, Law, Legislation, Science, Sustainability, US | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Sunday, September 4, 2011
* The Obama administration decided to abandon proposed ozone regulations, which the oil industry and other business interests had criticized as unnecessarily costly.
* Although most of the 9 million people who lost power due to Hurricane / Tropical Storm Irene have had their electricity restored, utilities have gone on the defensive, launching PR campaigns in the face of likely investigations from regulators.
* Tropical Storm Lee has forced evacuation of over a third of oil and gas production platforms and drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
* Japan has adopted a feed-in tariff that will take effect next year and seeks to incent 30,000 MW of new renewables installations in the next decade.
* A beetle called the goldspotted oak borer is threatening trees in southern California.
* President Obama is pushing for a transportation spending bill, to fund federal highway projects and keep fuel taxes in place.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
* The famine in Somalia continues to worsen.
* Shell received conditional approval from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Enforcement and Regulation to drill in the arctic Beaufort Sea, off the coast of Alaska.
* EPA proposed a rule that would exempt carbon dioxide streams from hazardous waste regulations under certain conditions. The hope is to spur greater use of carbon capture and sequestration technology.
* A new PAC has formed to promote energy efficiency legislation.
* If you haven't seen it yet, Science has out an impressive set of materials on population trends, their environmental impacts, and prognostications about what it all means for the future of the planet.
* The leopards are not happy.
August 7, 2011 in Africa, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Energy, Land Use, Law, Legislation, North America, Science, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, US, Water Resources | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Saturday, July 23, 2011
I am in Seoul participating in the Korea Legislation Research Institute's conference, "Architecting Better Regulation to Overcome Energy Crisis." The conference has produced a fascinating discussion about how best to transition to a renewable energy economy.
Korea has been using a feed-in tariff ("FIT") system to promote renewables deployment. That changed in 2008 when the system came under criticism, in large part because it placed a strain on government finances. This goes to show that how policies are designed very much matters. FITs that raise consumer prices too much are subject to challenge on that ground, but those that choke government coffers may make the point even more acutely.
The plan now is to switch to a renewable portfolio standard ("RPS"), much like what many of the states in the U.S. are using. It will be a very interesting case study that puts these two mechanisms in sharp contrast. Debates about whether FITs or RPSs are better at incenting renewables deployment are longstanding; others have advocated that they can work together. Korea's change may add some clarity to the discussion.
It may also prove to drive home some of the themes that emerged from the conference speakers:
- Jannik Termansen, a vice president at Vestas, noted that what industry needs is not as much one scheme over another, but rather, "TLC": not tender loving care, but "transparency," a "long-term, stable commitment," and "certainty." He noted that installed wind capacity in the Asia-Pacific region has now surpassed that of North America, and looks to grow even further in coming years.
- Penny Crossley from the University of Sydney argued that renewables are important not just from a climate change perspective but also from that of energy security. "Energy security is another reason why renewables are important," she said. She noted six different ways that renewables promote energy security, and argued that we should commoditize those security benefits.
- Prof. Wu Zhonghu and Libin Zhang reminded us of the heavy role China will play in shaping the world's energy future. They noted that China is now a leader in world energy consumption, and that China remains in a transition from a centrally planned system to a market-based one. How this affects renewables development long-term remains to be seen.
- Nicolas Croquet highlighted the EU's 20-20-20 challenge. It is ambitious indeed: By 2020, 20% renewable energy use, a 20% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, and 20% decreased primary energy use. Is this a goal to which Korea, the U.S., and others should aspire? Should we go further?
It is a lot to chew on, both for the energy outlook for Asia and at home in the U.S. as well.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
A recurrent axiom in energy law today is that "efficiency is our cheapest resource." It's true. Every day, we forgo massive amounts of monetary and environmental savings we could achieve without ever building a new wind farm or replacing gasoline with natural gas, simply because our energy systems are not as efficient as they could -- or should -- be. The beautiful thing about efficiency, moreover, is that it is generally non-controversial. It's cheap. It's green. So everyone loves it.
Earlier this year, the kerfuffle in Congress over light bulb regulation drew into question the political legs of the efficiency argument. A portion of the 2007 energy bill signed by President George W. Bush -- and supported by industry -- required the phase-out of lower-efficiency incandescent light bulbs. But at least some members of this Congress, newly invigorated by the anti-regulation flare of Tea Party Republicans, took issue with this measure, using it to highlight their philosophical aims.
Now, however, at least two bills pending in Congress pack enough efficiency punchto make one forget there ever was a light bulb debate.
The first, S. 398 or the Implementation of National Consensus Appliance Agreements Act of 2011 would update existing, and institute first-time, efficiency standards for numerous appliances and devices, including refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, furnaces and A/C units, portable electric spas, and drinking water dispensers. Supported by a broad coalition of environmental groups and appliance manufacturers, the bill would conserve enough energy to fuel "4.6 million homes" save consumers a net "$43 billion by 2030," according to an analysis by the Alliance to Save Energy.
The second, S. 1000 or the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2011, would address efficiency in further ways. In addition to establishing efficiency standards for appliances, it would strengthen national model building codes, encourage private investment in residential and commercial efficiency upgrades through DOE loan guarantees, create a "SupplySTAR" program to enhance the efficiency of companies' supply chains, and require the nation's largest energy consumer, the federal government, to institute efficiency and energy-saving measures. Industry also is getting behind this bill. Eric Spiegel, Siemens Corp.'s president and CEO, said this: "Federal, state and local budgets are as tight as they have ever been, but energy efficient products and solutions that will be advanced through this important piece of legislation can help government, industry and consumers save energy and millions of dollars, create jobs and spur competitiveness."
For those who are endeared by measures that both save money and our nation's environmental future, these bills should come as welcome news.
And if that's not enough, take a walk down the aisles of your local hardware store. You might be pleased to find some of the light bulbs that are now for sale.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
At the end of April, Speaker John Boehner told ABC News that he would be open to reevaluating billions of dollars of subsidies received by the largest oil companies. "It's certainly something we should be looking at," he said. "We're in a time when the federal government's short on revenues… They ought to be paying their fair share."
President Obama and many in Congress seized on his remarks and renewed calls to end subsidies for big oil (see statements by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Harry Reid as examples). For many, ending these subsidies does not just make economic sense, it also makes sense from an environmental perspective. While Speaker Boehner has since tried to distance himself from his comments, in the days following his statement, some in Congress used the political attention created by his words to rally around a proposal that President Obama has had on the table for some time: cut oil subsidies and divert that funding to promote renewable energy and other policies that would reduce the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels.
Yesterday, a number of Senators made another push to reduce oil subsidies by proposing to repeal $21 billion in tax incentives over 10 years for the five biggest oil and gas companies (ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Chevron Texaco). Unlike the President's idea to divert money from oil to clean energy, the Senators’ proposal would use the saving to reduce the federal deficit.
While the proposal to cut oil subsidies is by no means new, the tack of using the money to reduce the deficit has promise given the day’s broader political discussion focused on the debt and the deficit. Oil subsidies, however, represent just one of many sorts of subsidies that deserve rethinking; the government subsidizes all sorts of things that exacerbate environmental problems. In terms of political feasibility, perhaps current political pressures will provide avenues to make environmental progress by ridding ourselves of some of these harmful subsidies, particularly those that go to thriving corporate giants. Given that the debt and the environment both deserve our attention, in my opinion this sort politics in Washington is long overdue.
-- Brigham Daniels
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
If the Clean Air Act Displaces Public Nusiance Claims, What Happens if Congress Displaces the Clean Air Act?
During yesterday’s oral argument of AEP v. Connecticut, it seems that things did not go so well for the states attempting to address climate change through public nuisance litigation, see for example here, here, here, and here as representative of typical prognostications of the argument. Because those reading the tea leaves seem to agree the states will lose, the main question up for grabs is how they will go down.
Earlier today, Richard Frank posted a very thoughtful post on this subject. According to Professor Frank, the states will likely lose on the grounds that the Clean Air Act displaces the ability of litigants to bring public nuisance suits arising from greenhouse gas emissions because they are covered by the Act. This is certainly the gist, for example, of the now familiar Justice Ginsburg barb: “Congress told EPA to set the standards [in the Clean Air Act]. You are setting up a District judge as a kind of ‘super EPA.’”
I agree with Prfoessor Frank. However, if this is how the case is resolved, it is interesting to speculate whether or not congressional attempts to strip EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, if indeed successful, would reopen the door for public nuisance claims. In other words, by displacing the Clean Air Act’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases would Congress also displace a litigant’s ability to argue that the Clean Air Act displaces such public nuisance claims?
Indeed, as the attorneys and the Justices have prepped for AEP’s oral argument over the past few weeks, the news has been filled with the unfolding saga of many of those in Congress attempting to eliminate or cutback the Clean Air Act’s reach to regulate greenhouse gases.
Additionally, as the Justices work into the summer attempting to hammer out an opinion in this case, it also seems likely that further efforts to eliminate or cut back the EPA’s power in this area will continue. In fact, on the heels of the most recent attempt to make EPA’s regulation the ransom necessary to avoid a shutdown of the federal government, Speaker Boehner told us this will not be the last attempt to go after EPA’s regulatory powers. Looking forward, it seems that the question of raising the country’s debt ceiling, which is probably going to be debated within the next few weeks, is a very likely flashpoint in this ongoing congressional battle.
As disturbing as it might be if litigants like those in AEP v. Connecticut ask a district court to act like a Super EPA, one has to question what happens if EPA is forced to act as a Miniature EPA or stripped of its power to act like EPA at all.
-- Brigham Daniels
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Following report comes from the Hill:
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) isn’t ruling out putting curbs on EPA regulations in play when lawmakers cast high-stakes votes next month on raising the federal debt ceiling.
The House passed legislation last week that strips EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gases, but the Senate rejected the measure and Republicans failed to graft temporary limits to spending legislation.
Asked at a Thursday press conference whether he expects the issue to be part of negotiations on the debt limit, Boehner replied that there have not been decisions yet about what’s on or off the table in the debate.
He added: “Clearly, the direction of the EPA and the direction they're heading with their numerous regulations are going to cripple our economy and cripple the ability of employers to create jobs.”
Congress is likely to take up a debt limit increase measure after it returns in May, so stay tuned.
-- Brigham Daniels
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
In a 50-50 vote, the Senate today rejected the Energy Tax Prevention Act. (A tiebreaking vote was not cast because the vote that took place related to cloture—which requires 60 votes.) As a comic side note, it is worth knowing that House member Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) suggested that the bill be renamed the “Koch Brothers Appreciation Act” or “Protecting Americans from Polar Bears Act.” Regardless of what one calls the bill, however, had it become law, the bill would have stripped away a substantial chunk of the EPA’s power to use the Clean Air Act to address climate change. While the bill would have preserved the more stringent mobile emission standards put in place to address greenhouse gases, it would have put an end to other regulations under the Act, particularly the regulations associated with major stationary sources. While the House is almost certain to pass the bill later today and while President Obama would have been likely to veto the bill had it made it to his desk, all of this doesn’t matter much given its death in the Senate.
(For those following the legislative process closely, note that the Senate also decisively rejected a number of other amendments, including amendment 215 proposed by Senator Rockefeller, amendment 236 by Senator Baucus, and amendment 265 by Debbie Stabenow.)
Despite the fact that that the Senate rejected the bill, it should not come as a surprise to anybody that Congress is rethinking EPA regulations. And, this is not just because many in Congress oppose addressing climate change (though that is true). In fact, it was not all that long ago that many of the present defenders of the EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations assumed that Congress would and should preempt these regulations. The major difference being that at the time, these same advocates assumed that we would not only dump these regulations but also replace them with some other form of regulation, most likely a cap-and-trade. For example, consider the following response to a question that Administrator Lisa Jackson received at a press conference held at the White House on the day that the Obama administration announced its intention to regulate light-duty vehicles many months ago:
Q: If Congress doesn't come through, though, on some sort of climate legislation, would you be ready to pull the trigger using the Clean Air Act with some of the work that you’re doing right now?
ADMINISTRATOR JACKSON: I have said before that I actually hope that doesn’t come to pass. I believe very strongly that legislation is the preferable route. It allows for a comprehensive economy-wide discussion of the issues that are going to make for a successful program. That being said, the Clean Air Act is a strong and extraordinarily successful piece of legislation. It has made huge differences in air quality in our country.
And we have an obligation under the law, based on the Supreme Court ruling, to continue to do our job. And that is what we will do. I have also said that I believe strongly that that job can be done in a way that's, step one, that's reasonable, that complies with all administrative processes.
It is uncertain whether, as some have argued, the EPA actually used the Clean Air Act to force Congress into addressing climate change back in the days when Democrats controlled both chambers. Regardless, the EPA is living with the reality that its endangerment finding and regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act have come at a political cost. While the EPA is not likely to have its statutory authority clipped by our present Congress, the EPA is not out of the woods. It seems quite likely that it will still face a substantial budget cut or—at the very least—have to live with the burdens that go along with a mobilized opposition both inside and outside the halls of Congress.
-- Brigham Daniels
Update: The House indeeded passed the Energy Tax Prevention Act passed by a 255-172 vote. However, because the same bill died in the Senate, it is largely a symbolic gesture at this point.