China’s Paradox: Economic Stimulation vs. Climate Catastrophe Aversion

Environmental inspectors in northern China have found that seventy percent of the businesses they examined failed to meet environmental standards for controlling air pollution. (Photo by Ella Ivanescu)

by Rachel Chiang
Staff Writer

This is a familiar story: China is to blame for climate change, with twenty-seven percent of global greenhouse gases emanating from within its borders. Operating under the desire to generate capital, the “authoritarian” Chinese state condones crippling levels of pollution, to the point at which face masks are daily necessities embraced by residents of Beijing. Any efforts to be environmentally conscious in the United States are futile since China will continue the reckless expansion of its carbon footprint.

China faces a daunting challenge: shifting away from their status as the second largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions towards more climate-friendly policies. Having undergone rigorous reforms over the last thirty years, China has become, and is still advancing as, one of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world. In face of this rapid growth, however, China must now consider policies to align its trajectory of economic growth with efforts to be environmentally sustainable, and placate inflaming concerns about climate change. 

It is no secret that citizens of some Chinese provinces reside under black skies, hazy horizons, and breathe in sooty air. Air pollution has become so problematic that some operations of solar panels have been hindered. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong have discovered that premature deaths and lost food production as a result of air pollution is costing China 267 billion yuan (US$38 billion) each year. Fortunately running counter to the “airpocalypse,” the Chinese government, despite not being held by any international treaty, has initiated measures to alleviate environmental crises. Contrary to popular belief, China leads the globe in clean energy investment which, when taken as a percentage of GDP, is ten times that of the United States. Waging a “War on Pollution” in 2013 , the CCP has henceforth given environmental sustainability the attention it deserves, carrying almost equal importance as other traditional Chinese policies, such as alleviating poverty. China also took the lead in green financing– according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), China is accountable for 40 per cent of global growth in renewable resources and has already exceeded its 2020 photovoltaic energy goal (the CCP’s 2020 photovoltaic goal is 105GW, which was surpassed in 2017). It is currently the world’s largest solar market with solar finance last year equaling that of the whole of Europe at $23.5 billion. Jonas Nahm, an energy expert at Johns Hopkins University, states that China’s clean energy supply chain is indispensable in the world’s efforts to meet the climate targets by 2030, and to curb the acceleration of the climate catastrophe. 

Masks are the norm for Chinese residents. (Photo by Arran Smith)

Amid all this, however, China faces two dilemmas. For Chinese political elites, economic growth is the only viable route towards amerioliating the quality of lives, increasing employment rate, and ending poverty. Unfortunately, pursuing economic growth is often at odds with the flourishing climate action movement. On one hand, China, the largest global consumer of energy and greenhouse gas emitter, staunchly refuses to commit to any binding international treaty for emission reduction. On the other hand, the country invests heavily in alternative energy and has made great strides in energy transition. While environmental depredations pose a serious threat to China’s economic growth, costing the country roughly three to ten percent of its gross national income ($227 billion), according to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, the polluting coal industry in China stimulates the most economic growth. The principle challenge for the future development of the coal industry is how to deal with carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Options such as a carbon tax, clean coal power plants, and increasing the price of fossil-fuel energy are considered to allow greenhouse gas emission reduction technologies to become economically viable and reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. 

The second paradox in China’s climate diplomacy and politics is the struggle to balance state interest and international role. As anthropogenic activities continue to accelerate the occurrence of extreme climatic events, whether or not China can continue adhering to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is a gray area. On one hand, if China remains unwavering in its reluctance to commit to international treaties and obligations to tackle climate change, it will be recognized as the “culprit of global warming,” thus risking the ruination of China’s reputation as a “responsible power,” and threatening China’s stance as an indispensable leading authority in international affairs. On the other hand, if China caves in to international pressure and prioritizes the environment over the economy, its rise to power may be thwarted as a result of economic stagnation that they believe would follow. International pressures may thus be imposed on China in the form of sanctions. It will be interesting to observe how China maneuvers this growth dilemma. 

China must decide whether to prioritize economic growth or developing more comprehensive environmental policies in the coming years (Photo by Markus Spiske).

Combating climate change must be a global effort and China’s engagement in climate diplomacy in this battle is critical. An EU delegate at the COP twenty-five meetings in Madrid observes, “If we get China, the rest of Asia will follow.” If nations do not cohesively advance towards  a climate change mitigation trajectory, the 2030 climate target will likely not be met in time. China’s direction of development will be crucial for global climate change in the next two decades. The strategies and role in international negotiations will be shaping the global response to climate change ever more profoundly. With its vast size, economic output and capacity to develop new models and technologies, China’s efforts will, by far, have the most profound impact on the global initiative to prevent a climate catastrophe.

AI: Changing the Tides of Water Sustainability

By Tanvi Bajaj
Staff Writer

In 2015, Senator James Inhofe confidently stepped onto the Senate floor, carrying a snowball. He then explained how global warming (and, in effect, climate change) could simply not exist since it was cold enough outside for the snowball he was holding in his hand to form.  

While laughable, Senator Inhofe’s argument is indicative of the centuries of neglect the environment has suffered at human hands. 

Today, sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting, forests are burning, and animals are dying. 

It’s clear that something needs to change. 

Over the last few years, the use of artificial intelligence and its potential repercussions have been the source of many controversies. Morality and ethics have been called into question, as people share their fears that AI may soon render humans (especially in blue collar jobs) obsolete. While these concerns are valid, recent findings show that the development of artificial intelligence may have an unforeseen benefit. 

Artificial intelligence is poised to become the biggest game-changer in the face of climate change. According to a World Economic Forum report, AI refers to computer systems that “can sense their environment, think, learn, and act in response to what they perceive and their programmed purposes”. 

In 2015, the 193 members of the United Nations passed a resolution that put into place a 15 year plan of achieving 17 Sustainable Development goals by 2030 (SDGs). Then in 2017, the UN Artificial Intelligence Summit in Geneva suggested refocusing the use of AI technology to help achieve these goals and encourage long-lasting global sustainability. 

All over the globe, 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water while 4.5 billion people live without safe sanitation systems–with nearly one thousand children dying due to preventable water and sanitation related diseases every day. 

The problem is twofold: not only do people not have access to water, but often times, the water they do have access to is contaminated. AI is being used to mitigate the effects of a lack of clean water in a number of ways. Clean Water AI tackles the issue of water filtration by alerting users when water needs to be further filtered. A prototype IoT device uses pattern recognition and machine learning to inspect water quality through a digital microscope. These test systems could dramatically prevent disease and save thousands of lives simply by providing accurate information that would alert users as to whether or not their water needs to be further filtered. 

And if the water does need further filtering, AI can help to do so. For example, EMAGIN, an Oregon-based company, is using AI to create more accurate and timely information about the kinds of pollutants in water, make recommendations for treatments, allow facility operators to more effectively clean incoming wastewater, and prevent overflows. 

AI has the potential to revolutionize access to water and waste management systems, culminating in the development of fully decentralized water systems: in this system, water and wastewater treatment plants are located at the site of the water supply–preferable to large treatment plans that require miles of expensive infrastructure and are subject to contamination. 

Preserving our Earth’s natural resources and focusing on sustainability have never been as crucial as they are right now. While most of this AI is still in the process of being developed, its very existence is key in impacting the future of the planet in the upcoming years. More importantly, using something like AI (which was originally developed solely for computational and technological purposes) to support environmental sustainability sets an important precedent for all technology that is, and will be developed. The very nature of the UN acknowledging AI as a worthy investment to reach its SDGs is a testament to the potential that this technology has to improve different aspects of human life. 

The widespread impacts that just AI prototypes have had point to the necessity for greater investment into this growing field. Technology can and will be repurposed to solve world issues; and the aforementioned technologies prove that AI should be used to serve our larger global community. The time for action is now. And when the rest of the planet realizes the undiscovered possibilities of artificial intelligence, waves of change will follow. 

Photos courtesy of:
Pixaby

Persecution of Environmental Defenders in the Philippines

by Calvin Manahan
Staff Writer

57-year-old Gloria Capitan was shot and killed in front of her 8-year-old grandson by masked assailants in the karaoke bar she owned just a few feet away from her house. Capitan was a beloved and active member of her community. She had been the leader of a movement to remove a coal power plant whose fumes had been adversely affecting the health of people in her village. The plant was owned by San Miguel, the largest corporation in the Philippines. To date, her killers have yet to be brought to justice

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