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2007's Best: Our Foreign Correspondents
Alex Steffen, 31 Dec 07

We have a global network of writers, but a handful of them are regular columnists and contributors. For instance, Mara has done a great job as Worldchanging's China correspondent, with a number of terrific stories, including

Revitalizing China's Dust Bowl

Western China is turning into a massive dust bowl. Desertification now affects fully one-third of the world's population -- and what's happening in Western China represents the largest conversion of productive land to desert anywhere in the world, consuming over one million acres of land each year. The dust isn't confined to the west: every spring, massive sandstorms roar through Beijing, blanketing the city with tons of dust.

Tackling China's Dirty Transport Woes

[I]t used to be that every week was green transportation week in China. Now the country's sturdy Forever bicycles have been eclipsed by cars. From 2000 to 2006, the number of cars on the road in China more than tripled, from 6 million to 20 million. One of the things about Beijing that impresses out-of-towners the most these days is the traffic - the city alone adds 1,000 cars a week. From a taxi, Beijing can look like a tangle of six- and eight-lane highways, extending out in seemingly interminable concentric rings.

Meanwhile, green transport now suffers from an image problem. Subways are only just tolerable. Buses are uncool. And biking has an even worse reputation. On an episode of a Chinese "Sex in the City" knockoff that aired a few years ago, a Beijing woman cuts off contact with a man she is dating after she spots him on a bike. The subtext: if he is on a bike, he must be poor.

China's Air Quality and the Olympics

As an amateur runner in Shanghai's half-marathon on Sunday, I wasn't overly concerned with my time. But what was I doing to my lungs?

There's reason to worry: In August, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warned that endurance events at next summer's Beijing Olympics might have to be postponed because of air pollution. And in October, a United Nations Environment Program report cast more doubt on the prospects for cleaning up the city in time for the Games. In some cases, the report found, Beijing pollution levels are more than three times the safe limits set by the World Health Organization.

...Shanghai is only around two-thirds as polluted as Beijing. But to put that into perspective, Shanghainese go to Hong Kong to enjoy clean air -- and Hong Kong air contains around 30 percent more particulates than air in Los Angeles, America's most polluted city. At the Hong Kong marathon last February, one man died and 20 people were hospitalized. The event was held when the air pollution index was at 150 -- a number the city classifies as a "very high" level, at which healthy, sedentary people are warned to take care when breathing the air. In Shanghai, the average API hovers in the "severe" 200s.

China Eco-Cities Update

I saw Peter Head speak at April's Holcim Forum, a gathering of sustainability-minded architects and engineers, in Shanghai. During his presentation, he showed a video that had been produced by the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation, the developer responsible for Dongtan, the city Arup designed for an island outside of Shanghai. The city presented in the video suggested the myriad gated communities that surround Shanghai: gaudy and dramatic, with very little of the restraint and economy that most would associate with sustainable design.

That is precisely the problem in China. People in developed countries have had a few decades to try out and reject excess. It isn't just an awareness of environmental degradation that pushes us to go green; it's a knowledge, gleaned from firsthand experience, that conventional living generates a level of waste that makes us uncomfortable. In urban China, however, bigger is still better. Most middle-class Chinese are still preoccupied with finding ways to display their wealth, not minimize its impact on the world.

Such attitudes -- which are understandable, if not admirable -- are behind the problems now surfacing in the transformation of urban China. To accomplish their goals, Western designers working in China might partner with local government officials, as McDonough has done. But such officials might be more concerned with project success than with enforcing land rights or securing public participation -- also critical to creating healthy, enduring communities. On the other hand, another solution is to trust eco-city properties to the market, as Arup has done with Dongtan. Visitors to that project, which is now taking shape, decribe large single-family homes and suburban-style planning.

Lenovo's $266 Computer Targets China's Rural Computing Market

The computer firm Lenovo recently unveiled a desktop computer targeted at Chinese farmers, the 1,999-yuan ($266) Tianfu, or "Heavenly Prosperity."

...The platform is designed to provide peasants with "one-button access," Ford writes, "to websites that provide information on crop raising, animal disease control, market prices, distribution networks, and other topics of interest to farmers." Buyer Wang Shunxiang tells Ford he is confident the Tianfu will improve his mushroom trade business: "If this helps me know more about market prices and find more dealers to sell to ... it won't take me more than a few days to make back the money I am spending." Sounds harmless, right?

I'm not convinced. The Chinese government is promoting the Tianfu as part of its "new socialist countryside" strategy -- a component of Hu Jintao's "harmonious society" program, which aims to narrow the urban-rural development gap. Hu's program is a worthy undertaking -- but it's also inspired by a desire to quell rural unrest, which is responsible for a good portion of the 87,000 protests and other mass incidents that sweep China every year. Many of the Tianfu units -- an initial batch of 600,000, according to Ford -- will be distributed through government offices. One Chinese report says a local Guangdong government already trains residents on Tianfu units at a "countryside information training center." Lenovo is also opening 2,000 of its own training centers throughout the provinces.

It's worrisome to see governments with a habit of restricting free exchanges of information getting involved with computing initiatives at the hardware level. In the case of Lenovo, Beijing appears to have had a hand in developing -- or at least approving -- the Tianfu. It will be interesting to note whether the computer also provides one-button access to political sites and chatrooms.

A Maverick’s “Ecological Civilization” Goes Mainstream

Earlier this year the Chinese government dealt Pan a blow when it scrapped the Green GDP (leaders paid so much attention that some of them apparently lobbied to have local numbers withheld). But he's now making inroads with the ecological civilization idea. Hu Jintao highlighted the concept in a report to China's 17th Party Congress last month. Since then, the term has been appearing everywhere. The Party Congress news site suggests that "ecological civilization" will be this government's legacy. Prominent environmental activist Ma Jun has weighed in. And the China Daily recently published a long justification of the idea:

This concept reflects an important change in the Party's understanding of development. Rather than emphasizing economic construction as the core of development as it did in the past, the Party authorities have come to realize that development, if sustainable, must entail a list of elements including the right relationship between man and nature....[W]e need to put our relationship with nature in a new perspective: consider nature as part of our life rather than something we can exploit without restraint.

China's leaders are fond of adopting signature phrases to describe their policy concerns. In the 1980's and 1990's, Deng Xiaoping espoused "socialism with Chinese characteristics" -- essentially, capitalism -- and under him China saw unfettered growth. Jiang Zemin had his "Three Represents," an inclusive doctrine that further opened up the Party to business interests (but did little for the masses). Then Hu Jintao came along and started to tone things down with talk of "scientific development," a more restrained model focused on narrowing the gap between rich and poor, as well as undoing some of the effects of decades of unchecked growth. Now it looks like "ecological civilization" is the latest buzzword.

New Zealand is a country we love and admire... we're glad to have such great teammates there...

Josie's New Zealand Aims to be World’s First Carbon Neutral Nation

New Zealand has declared its aim to be carbon neutral in electrical energy by 2025, in stationary manufacturing energy in 2030 and in transport energy by 2040.

The strategy includes plans for substantial reductions in emissions, along with carbon offsetting projects such as increasing national forest area by 250,000 hectares by 2020. By 2025, the goal is to obtain 90 percent of all electricity from renewable sources. Is this achievable? We think so: Provision of renewable electricity is cheaper in New Zealand compared to other countries due to abundant renewable energy resources. Around 70 percent of New Zealand energy production is already from renewable sources, and a number of large scale wind farm proposals have recently been approved.

(see also my New Zealand's Green Energy Future)

Billy's Kiwi's Intersect for Sustainability

As New Zealand moves further towards its goal of becoming carbon neutral the need to share ideas and information, ideas and inspiration is becoming more widely appreciated, especially for those young professionals at the leading edge of change....

Building on popular initiatives like Green Drinks the Intersect group has a program of events, social gatherings, workshops, lectures, and debates planned. Wellington, which is home to New Zealand’s government, some of the leading scientific and policy agencies, as well as many corporate head offices is a natural place for such a project to emerge.

The Intersect network aims to get people from diverse disciplines to engage each other in problem solving. Intersect’s focus is fostering sustainability by developing individuals to practice leadership within their spheres of influence, to grow powerful connections with people and build and leverage off their personal capacity.

The UK

Hana's London's Climate Change Action Plan

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, is no stranger to making bold and often controversial moves - a recent deal with Hugo Chavez to buy cheap oil in exchange for sending officials to help with infrastructure planning being a good example. But he is also well known for his enthusiasm for all things green - we've covered his policies and projects many times before. This week he launched by far the most radical green initiative yet - a climate change action plan that aims to reduce London's emissions by 60% from 1990 levels, by 2025.

So much for the aspiration, hailed by environmental pressure groups as "probably the best city-level plan of its kind in the world," -- what about the tools to make it work? Livingstone has set aside £47m per year for the initiative but, it has to be said, £47m is not a lot of ready cash.

Livingstone is placing a lot of emphasis on behavioral change of Londoners, estimating that London could achieve 25% of the reduction through these no-cost measures. "The simple message is this: to tackle climate change you do not have to reduce your quality of life, but you do have to change the way you live."

Joel's London Goes Carbon Crazy

Walkers Snacks Ltd., a maker of crisps (potato chips, to us Yanks), already has added carbon labeling to its products. (Walker is a unit of Pepsico.) And Tesco, the U.K.'s largest supermarket chain, announced in January that it would be the first supermarket chain in the world to assign a carbon label to every product on its shelves. It said the label would record the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during the production, transport, and consumption of the 70,000 products it sells.

Tesco is the largest U.K. supermarket, but hardly the only one that has found its green gene. Britain's four top chains -- Tesco, Asda (owned by Wal-Mart), Sainsbury, and Morrisons -- are vying to out-green one another in the public's eyes, variously improving their products and practices. "An out-and-out arms race," as one of my London friends put it. And none of them is even considered the "greenest" supermarket. Thoe bragging rights belong to the Waitrose chain, according to one report.

Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer, which sells both groceries and apparel, announced plans earlier this year to go carbon neutral by 2012 and has a 100-point action plan to get there. The program is called Plan A ("Because there is no Plan B") and is aggressively touted in its stores.

(For more on London, check out my earlier pieces London 2012: The World's First One-Planet Olympics, SolarCentury and RED, Active Mobs and Redesigning Public Services.)

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The link to "New Zealand Aims to be World’s First Carbon Neutral Nation" is broken.

Great articles though... I wish I had time to read everything. What I really want is Worldchanging TV! I'd happily donate towards that. :)

Posted by: OrangeJon on 3 Jan 08



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