China's Pollution Revolution

Could Beijing's coal addiction be its downfall?

Many of us have nostalgic memories of waking up on winter mornings to welcome news of a snow day, allowing us to skip school or stay under the blanket for a few more precious hours. As temperatures drop in the Chinese mainland, schoolchildren there have become acquainted with their own version of a snow day: The smog day, which occurs when schools and workplaces shut down due to hazardous levels of pollution and heavy haze. But you can't make smog angels. Indeed, citizen discontent at China's off-the-charts environmental degradation is quickly growing into a potential menace to the ruling Communist regime. Issues like unmet demand for political rights are no longer the party's only existential threat.

In one symptom of China's growing environmental menace, city-wide shutdowns are becoming the new normal. In January, a thick blanket of soot descended on Beijing, bringing life to a near halt. In October, the level of pollution in Harbin, a city of 10 million in northeast China, exceeded the level acceptable to the World Health Organization by a factor of 40; schools, roads, and airports were forced to close. In early December, an entire swath of central and eastern China -- Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, and Henan provinces -- suffered a bout of heavy and dangerous pollution. In Nanjing, a city of 8 million, schools, ferries, highways, and airports shut down. And in Shanghai, China's financial hub, visibility was reduced to a several feet for much of early December, as many covered their faces with masks and authorities issued warnings for children and the elderly to stay indoors until the air cleared. Even in Hong Kong, a special administrative region with different laws and much higher living standards than the mainland, pollution reached a "very dangerous" level on Dec. 10. 

The all-engulfing environmental crisis China faces is not about melting ice and rising temperatures -- in fact, it is the unusually cold winter that is driving up energy use and hence pollution. (In China, coal is king, which is why winters are particularly polluted times.) Rather, Chinese citizens are angry about much more pressing and existential needs: to breathe clean air, for example, and to escape cancer and other pollution-related afflictions. Lung cancer rates in China are skyrocketing, and not only due to smoking. Skin cancer, on the other hand, is much less widespread. U.S. rates are over 50 times China's -- melanoma grows far less frequently where the sun is blocked by tiny airborne particles.  

None of this is really new. What is different is the degree to which the problem has entered Chinese public dialogue. Chinese are more aware than ever of the poor quality of their air and are growing increasingly irate with their government's failure to demonstratively address the problem. Prosperity has sent millions of Chinese to sunny foreign destinations, where tourists have discovered that the sky is actually blue and, hence, that their country's air quality is abnormal. News reports about pollution have been appearing frequently in China's state media, air purifiers and pollution readers have become popular household gadgets, and citizens can tune in to the color-coded alert system of the China Meteorological Center, the country's weather service. PM 2.5, a measure of pollution describing particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers which can penetrate the bronchial tubes of the lungs, was a term until recently known only to environmental professionals. Now, it has become part of Chinese slang.

No one should doubt the sincerity of Chinese leaders' desire to address the problem -- they are aware that deteriorating air quality could be a chronic source of social discontent. During December's Smogageddon, a journalist from China Central Television, the country's main TV network, tried to put a positive spin on the situation, claiming that it unifies the Chinese people, and that it makes people "funnier" and more knowledgeable. Another article -- you can't make this up -- claimed smog could contribute to national security by reducing the effectiveness of enemy missiles and surveillance systems. Some Chinese responded furiously on microblogs, venting their anger at the regime's apathy. But a close read of the statements coming out of the party's Third Plenum, a high-level meeting to discuss China's political and economic future which took place in November, reveals that the leadership is deeply worried about the new menace. They know that their response can no longer be limited to symbolic measures like cracking down on outdoor barbecue stalls, anti-smoking campaigns, restricting car use, or even throwing money at the problem. 

But what -- if anything -- can be done? China will not be able to address its pollution problem without substantial reduction in the air pollution resulting from electricity generation. China now uses roughly as much coal as the rest of the world combined, and the commodity occupies 65 percent of China's electricity mix, with fully half of the country's rail traffic dedicated to transporting it. Rejiggering this massive imbalance would entail either replacing China's current fleet of coal plants with super clean, yet expensive, technology like Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC), which turns coal into gas while removing impurities before combustion, or the slow shift in power generation away from coal and toward natural gas, nuclear power, and renewables.

Each alternative to coal presents its own complications. Natural gas use could be vastly expanded if China cracked the secrets to exploiting its shale gas reserves, the largest in the world. But this is no simple task: China's shale deposits lie twice as deep as those in the United States, and the country lacks ample supplies of water, a resource necessary for fracking. Hydroelectricity is more promising, but that too poses environmental and power transmission problems, not to mention political issues with downstream countries that share these rivers. China is trying to expand that sector in the regions where water is abundant -- about 100 dams are being built or planned on the Yangtze River alone. And despite trepidation following the March 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan, China is ploughing forward with nuclear power, which currently accounts for only 1 percent of the country's electricity supply. Thirty nuclear plants currently under construction, with dozens more on the drawing board, will help increase the percentage of clean energy in China.

But no energy alternatives will be able to dethrone coal any time soon. China has over 300 proposed coal-fired power plants waiting in the pipeline, compared to roughly 650 in operation, and Chinese officials project that by 2020, coal use will have increased 36 percent over 2012 levels. The International Energy Agency's doesn't see China's coal demand plateauing until at least 2025.

Meanwhile, the oil-dominated transportation sector, a major contributor to air pollution, will also take many years to clean up. While local authorities are getting serious about capping the number of new vehicles allowed on the road, China's automobile market -- the largest in the world -- is still growing at a blistering pace: the most recent numbers, for November, show 14.9 percent year-on-year growth. Many provinces are experimenting with deploying vehicles fueled by natural gas or methanol, which in China is made from coal in a clean process. But the air quality gains accomplished by the shift to alternative fuels are not even close to offsetting the vast increase in emissions driven by China's growing demand for cars.

Making matters worse, China's energy prices are heavily subsidized, meaning they are far too cheap to incentivize energy efficiency. The price of a kilowatt hour of electricity in China is 8 cents. In the United States, where cheap natural gas and coal are abundant, the average is 12 cents; in Japan the average is 26 cents; and in northern Europe, it's over 30 cents. Due to price caps, gasoline prices are also relatively low for a country that just became the world's largest oil importer: 30 percent cheaper than in Japan, and just over half the average price across Europe. Allowing energy prices to rise to market levels by eliminating subsidies and price controls could curb energy demand while making clean coal combustion technologies more competitive. But a policy of de-subsidization would come at a cost: It would drive manufacturing capacity out of China, slow economic growth, breed social discontent, and hinder the very same reforms aimed at bringing President Xi Jinping's so-called Chinese Dream to the masses.

This is the hard truth with which China's leadership -- not to mention the rest of the world -- is starting to contend. China is caught between the desire to grow and the need to breathe. Ten percent annual increases in industrial output may elicit cheers from financial markets, but such a growth rate may come at a cost of national suffocation.

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National Security

Cool War Rising

With Washington and Moscow caught in a deteriorating relationship, is conflict inevitable?

Rising tensions in the relationship between the United States and Russia are beginning to cause a "Cool War" -- a sort of Cold War-lite -- that threatens both Washington and the entire global geopolitical system. Without a functioning relationship between Washington and Moscow, the chances of solving major challenges -- from Iran to Syria, the Arctic to Afghanistan -- decreases dramatically. Rather than accept the arc of a deteriorating relationship, the United States should actively seek every possible zone of cooperation we can find with Russia, despite the frustrations and setbacks.

The list of key disagreements is long: One of the more nettlesome challenges is Syria, where the United States believes in an international solution with intervention as an option and the removal of Russia's ally Bashar al-Assad. Syria represents Russia's strongest link to the region and access to the strategically important Eastern Mediterranean, as well as a market for arms and intelligence cooperation.

Likewise, the United States and Russia are at loggerheads about NATO missile defense systems being deployed to Eastern Europe, initially to Romania and Poland to defend against Iran's growing ballistic missile capability. Russia believes the system is actually directed against their strategic intercontinental ballistic missile systems, despite repeated U.S. assurances to the contrary.

Additionally, disagreement continues over Russia's continuing occupation of Georgia, following a short, sharp conflict between the two nations in 2008. At the same time, there is a tense dispute over continuing sanctuary afforded to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, as well as disagreements over Moscow's bullying of Ukraine, Serbia, and Moldova concerning their potential for integration in the Euro-Atlantic world of the EU and NATO. Finally, recent large military exercises on the part of both Russia and NATO in Eastern Europe have not been helpful in terms of US-Russian tensions.

All of this occurs against two important and challenging backdrops.

The first is the declining state of Russian society in terms of demographics (population declining swiftly over the past decade); tragically high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse (heroin as easy to get as "a snickers bar" according to Russian counternarcotics chief Victor Ivanov); and the ongoing rise of a radical Islamic insurgency within Russia's borders (especially in the war-torn province of Dagestan).

The second, of course, is President Vladimir Putin -- who clearly holds long-standing antipathy toward the United States and recently wrote in the New York Times about the arrogance of American exceptionalism. To say that he tends to bring the animus of his long career in the KGB into the U.S.-Russian dialog understates the case -- at times he seems to truly despise the United States.

Taken together, there is a sense of a Cool War mentality at work. On the positive side, however, it is a bit of a mixed picture, with some existing areas of cooperation.

First, and somewhat surprisingly, is Afghanistan. Despite their own failures in Afghanistan, Russia has been generally helpful to the United States and the NATO-led coalition there -- sharing intelligence, cooperating on counternarcotics, selling rugged Russian-built helicopters, and donating small arms and ammunition to the Afghan security forces.

Russia has also been a good partner in counterpiracy operations off the east coast of Africa. They have provided several warships to the international effort, shared information, and even linked up via a command-and-control network with the Western forces in place. And, as a general proposition, there has been cooperation on counterterrorism and counternarcotics.

Another area of cooperation, at least to date, has been in the Arctic, the so-called "High North." Russia has been an active and generally positive interlocutor with the United States through the mechanism of the Arctic Council. As the largest nation in terms of footprint in the Arctic, Russia wants to find ways to enhance cooperation in scientific research, search and rescue, environmental protection, and rationale exploitation of resources. While there is always potential for conflict up north, at this point it appears to be an area of cooperation opportunity.

There has also been progress on strategic arms control with the signing of the START II agreement, and some minimal discussion of possible follow-on strategic talks designed to further reduce the level of nuclear weapons -- assuming the knotty issue of missile defense in Europe can be solved.

The key is to find new zones where there can be further cooperative activity to reduce the possibility of drifting further toward a Cool War scenario. Here are several to consider:

Cultivating top-level leadership meetings: In addition to the regular contact between newly installed Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, other top-level contacts should be a priority.  With a new national security advisor, United Nations ambassador, supreme allied commander for operations at NATO, and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United States has a relatively fresh cast of characters to engage with Russian counterparts.

Exploring track II engagement: Using non-governmental diplomatic forums to engage with Russia could be very promising. The work by Sen. Sam Nunn and the Nuclear Threat Initiative is a good example, but there are many academic and think-tank options that could be explored.  One additional idea would be to have partnered think tanks sponsor "smart power" conversations with former senior policy makers and military commanders to create tactical recommendations for joint peacekeeping and disaster-relief operations.

Establishing joint data exchange centers: This has the possibility to help unclench the locked-up discussions involving missile defense in Europe by building physical locations, manned jointly, where monitoring of sites and radar information could occur, which in turn would help build confidence.

Looking for economic cooperation: Russia is a large, hydrocarbon-based economy, among the top 10 in the world. Yet we have very little relative economic cooperation for a variety of reasons, many of them political. Exploring opportunities for joint investment, perhaps in the Arctic, might be a means of finding a new zone of cooperation. This would require easing sanctions in the United States and better rule-of-law attitudes in Russia.

Sharing intelligence and information more fully: With the Winter Olympics around the corner, there are many situations globally where it is in both U.S. and Russian interests to share what we know. Sochi could be a test bed for some of this, which already occurs in certain scenarios but not broadly.

Syria and Iran: While not fully in synch in either scenario, there is both challenge and potential opportunity in terms of supporting international norms. In Syria, the work by the international community to remove the chemical weapons is a starting point of agreement, which might be built upon in a Geneva II round. On Iran, we need Russia's support as we hammer out an agreement that at least freezes and hopefully eventually dismantles the Iranian nuclear weapons program. These will be difficult areas, to say the least, but are worth examining for opportunities as well.

All of this will be challenging, especially for some on both sides of the U.S.-Russian relationship who favor a hard line. It would be easy, frankly, to drift from the current "Cool War" back toward the dim twilight of the long Cold War. Ivan Turgenev, the iconic Russian writer, said, "Circumstances define us; they force us onto one road or another, and then they punish us for it." We are not forced to walk either the path of endless tension or total cooperation. The trick for both the United States and Russia is to overcome the circumstances of our disagreements to find the path to better overall relations through specific zones of cooperation -- recognizing there will always be areas where we will not see things in the same way.