The World Speaks: We want Everything for Everybody – Now!

I am starting to write this blog on Thursday, October 1st. Pope Francis is back home in the Vatican, President Xi has returned to China, and most of the 150 or so world leaders that spoke in the United Nations’ 70th session and signed the global sustainable development agenda, are also on their way home. Now it’s time to start analyzing, contemplating and exploring the effects of their visits. I will start this week with a look at the new United Nations Sustainable Events declaration.

The declaration came out with 17 sustainable development goals for 2030 and 169 targets. The goals, in the form of attractive colorful tiles are given below:

UN_Sustainable Developments copyThese new goals and targets replace the Millennium Development Goals that were formulated in 2000.

The goals, the targets and the preamble to the agenda are published in a document that is too long to be reproduced here. The rest of the blog will summarize what I consider to be the essence of this document with a focus on sustainability of the physical environment.

More than 150 world leaders out of the 193 member states of the UN signed the document as representatives of their countries. I didn’t see accounts of the representatives of the 43 countries from which leaders were not able to attend. Nevertheless I consider the broad participation and the power and scope of the participants reflective of a legitimate voice for humanity.

The stated goals are to be implemented by 2030. I consider this time period shorter than my definition of “Now” that I use in my book, Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now (This blog derives its name from the book’s title.), where I equate it to the projected lifespan of my teenaged grandchildren.

The preamble to the document recognizes that the goals are not independent of each other:

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets which we are announcing today demonstrate the scale and ambition of this universal agenda seek to realize the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental.

It adds:


We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.

33. We recognize that social and economic development depends on the sustainable management of our planet’s natural resources. We are therefore determined to conserve and sustainably use oceans and seas, freshwater resources, as well as forests, mountains and drylands and to protect biodiversity, ecosystems and wildlife. We are also determined to promote sustainable tourism, tackle water scarcity and water pollution, to strengthen cooperation on desertification, dust storms, land degradation and drought and to promote resilience and disaster risk reduction. In this regard, we look forward to COP13 of the Convention on Biological Diversity to be held in Mexico in 2016.

Among the 17 goal I will enumerate the targets that are connected with accomplishing goal #6 (clean water), goal #13 (climate action) and goal #17 (partnership):

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

6.1 By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

6.2 By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations

6.3 By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally

6.4 By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity

6.5 By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.

6.6 By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes

6.a By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies.

6.b Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.

Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*

13.1 Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries.

13.2 Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning.

13.3 Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning

13.a Implement the commitment undertaken by developed-country parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion annually by 2020 from all sources to address the needs of developing countries in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation and fully operationalize the Green Climate Fund through its capitalization as soon as possible

13.b Promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in least developed countries and small island developing States, including focusing on women, youth and local and marginalized Communities.

* Acknowledging that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.

Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development


17.1 Strengthen domestic resource mobilization, including through international support to developing countries, to improve domestic capacity for tax and other revenue collection

17.2 Developed countries to implement fully their official development assistance commitments, including the commitment bymany developed countries to achieve the target of 0.7 per cent of ODA/GNI to developing countries and 0.15 to 0.20 percent of ODA/GNI to least developed countries; ODA providers are encouraged to consider setting a target to provide at least 0.20 per cent of ODA/GNI to least developed countries

17.3 Mobilize additional financial resources for developing countries from multiple sources

17.4 Assist developing countries in attaining long-term debt sustainability through coordinated policies aimed at fostering debt financing, debt relief and debt restructuring, as appropriate, and address the external debt of highly indebted poor countries to reduce debt distress

17.5 Adopt and implement investment promotion regimes for least developed countries.


17.6 Enhance North-South, South-South and triangular regional and international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation and enhance knowledge sharing on mutually agreed terms, including through improved coordination among existing mechanisms, in particular at the United Nations level, and through a global technology facilitation mechanism

17.7 Promote the development, transfer, dissemination and diffusion of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries on favourable terms, including on concessional and preferential terms, as mutually agreed.

17.8 Fully operationalize the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries by 2017 and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology


17.9 Enhance international support for implementing effective and targeted capacity-building in developing countries to support national plans to implement all the sustainable development goals, including through North-South, South-South and triangular cooperation.


17.10 Promote a universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory and equitable multilateral trading system under the World Trade Organization, including through the conclusion of negotiations under its Doha Development Agenda.

17.11 Significantly increase the exports of developing countries, in particular with a view to doubling the least developed countries’ share of global exports by 2020.

17.12 Realize timely implementation of duty-free and quota-free market access on a lasting basis for all least developed countries, consistent with World Trade Organization decisions, including by ensuring that preferential rules of origin applicable to imports from least developed countries are transparent and simple, and contribute to facilitating market access

Systemic issues

Policy and institutional coherence

17.13 Enhance global macroeconomic stability, including through policy coordination and policy coherence.

17.14 Enhance policy coherence for sustainable development.

17.15 Respect each country’s policy space and leadership to establish and implement policies for poverty eradication and sustainable development Multi-stakeholder partnerships.

17.16 Enhance the global partnership for sustainable development, complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships that mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources, to support the achievement of the sustainable development goals in all countries, in particular developing countries.

17.17 Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.

The strength of this pronouncement, in my opinion, lies in its global focus. However, global pronouncements of this magnitude require major compromises among the participating signatories in order to work. I suspect that these compromises will make up the framework required to enforce such a vision. These include population planning, research, and development to facilitate economic progress using sustainable tools. They also call for a more active role on the part of developing countries, which must contribute to the pattern of sustainable growth by way of the use of both domestic resources and good trade patterns with developed countries. More next week.

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Pope Francis’ US Visit

I am starting to write this blog on Thursday September 24th, two days after Pope Francis’ arrival to the United States, and the day after Yom-Kippur, The Day of Atonement; the holiest day of the year in Judaism. I am a Jew, which is reason enough for me to start a discussion with the Pope’s visit and the role of religion in shaping global events. Today Pope Francis delivered his address to a joint session of Congress. As usual, this blog will be posted this coming Tuesday, two days after the Pope’s scheduled departure from the US.

This week will be overwhelming dominated by events that have the potential to shake the world. In addition to the Pope’s visit to the United States, President Xi of China will be attending the opening of the United Nations’ 70th session in New York, along with approximately 150 other world leaders. The UN is expected to vote to formally adopt a global sustainable development agenda that will serve as a foundation for the upcoming Paris meeting on climate change this December. To cap it all off, Speaker John Boehner just made a sudden announcement that he will soon resign.

The Pope is the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. President Xi is the leader of a nation of 1.4 billion people. Each number represents close to 20% of the world’s population with very little overlap. Together they represent close to 40% of the global population. If humanity is in need of major global change, what these two leaders say and do is important.

If they call upon their followers to take immediate action, there are obviously major differences in their ability to enforce such action. One has a large army and police force to manually implement action, while the other has the moral authority of being traditionally considered a successor to Saint Peter to whom Jesus gave the keys to heaven. I will focus this blog on Pope Francis.

When it comes to my own religion, I fast during Yom Kippur, but I don’t go to pray in a synagogue. I observe all the Jewish holidays – most of them with my family, but I don’t follow many of the dogmas of the Jewish religion in my daily life, such as those pertaining to food restrictions and driving and working on Saturdays. Many orthodox rabbis would not consider me to be a “real” Jew. To them, I am a “soft” Jew, even though during the Holocaust the Nazis marked me as a Jew by murdering most of my family.

Similarly, many of the 1.2 billion Catholics are “soft” Catholics. They go to Church as often as they wish. They obey certain parts of the Catholic dogma and ignore others such as those regarding birth control and abortion.

The Pope made two key speeches during his visit that contained strong language focused on global issues that are directly or indirectly related to climate change. His first – to the US Congress – was delivered in English, while his second – to the United Nations – was in Spanish. I will use Al Jazeera’s translation to quote some segments below.

This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development

How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (ibid., 3). “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (ibid., 14).

In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid., 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid., 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead

The English translation of Pope Francis’ September 25 address to the United Nations, UN Headquarters, New York.

First, it must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man, for all his remarkable gifts, which “are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology” (Laudato Si’, 81), is at the same time a part of these spheres. He possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.

Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorised to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good (cf. ibid.).

The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action.

The dramatic reality this whole situation of exclusion and inequality, with its evident effects, has led me, in union with the entire Christian people and many others, to take stock of my grave responsibility in this regard and to speak out, together with all those who are seeking urgently-needed and effective solutions. The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the World Summit, which opens today, is an important sign of hope. I am similarly confident that the Paris Conference on Climatic Change will secure fundamental and effective agreements.

Ethical limits

The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species. The baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflection on man: “man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature” (BENEDICT XVI, Address to the Bundestag, 22 September 2011, cited in Laudato Si’, 6).

Creation is compromised “where we ourselves have the final word… The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognise any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves” (ID. Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone, 6 August 2008, cited ibid.). Consequently, the defence of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman (cf. Laudato Si’, 155), and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions (cf. ibid., 123, 136).

The present time invites us to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society, so as to bear fruit in significant and positive historical events (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 223). We cannot permit ourselves to postpone “certain agendas” for the future. The future demands of us critical and global decisions in the face of world-wide conflicts which increase the number of the excluded and those in need.

The picture below shows the Pope speaking to Congress. Behind the Pope are the two co-chairs of this joint session of Congress, Speaker Boehner and Vice-President Biden in his role as President of the Senate.

Pope addresses Congress with Biden and  Boehner behind him.Figure 1 – Pope Francis in Congress

Both are practicing Catholics. Speaker Boehner is a Republican while VP Biden is a Democrat. The two disagree on almost everything, a feeling that especially applies to the issue of abortion. Pope Francis referred to that matter peripherally when he said, “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” Vice President Biden supports Federal law following the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which gives a woman the right to choose with some restrictions. Speaker Boehner wants to ban all abortion in the country. On this subject, the Catholic Church, with the Pope’s support, agrees with Speaker Boehner.

Here is Vice President Biden’s explanation of how he reconciles his religious beliefs with his political stance:

Vice President Joe Biden, a Roman Catholic, said that while he accepts the Church’s position that life begins at conception, he will not share his position with others who do not have the same beliefs.

“I’m prepared to accept that at the moment of conception there’s human life and being, but I’m not prepared to say that to other God­-fearing, non-­God­ fearing people that have a different view,” Biden told Father Matt Malone, S.J., editor in chief of America magazine, in an interview published on Monday.

Speaker Boehner has made the announcement that he will resign from Congress at the end of October. Whether his resignation is connected to the conflict between the Pope’s recent teachings and his own religious and political beliefs remains to be determined. Certainly, he – along with many other Republican elected officials – has expressed strong disagreement with and disapproval of the Pope’s continued messages on climate change and other global issues.

In the next month or two, with the advantage of extra time to reflect and react, I will try to remove some of the pageantry from the discussion of this week’s events and try to examine some of the key actions and consequences that result.

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Assessment – Fall 2015: Religion’s Role in Saving the World

I missed my usual summer assessment this year. My main excuse is that it was scheduled for the first two weeks of July, when I was out in China.

As it stands, since my last assessment (April 21st, 2015), I have covered a variety of religious beliefs in support of environmental issues with an emphasis on climate change; this included Judaism, Islam, Pope Francis’ declaration on climate change by way of his recent Encyclical, and the environmental beliefs at the core of Taoism. Most of these entries came in the form of guest blogs written by young people who practice these various religions and are interested in the world around them. I also looked at global carbon taxation efforts and reactions to the recent sharp drop in the global price of fossil fuels.

In preparation for the incredibly important upcoming global meeting in Paris scheduled for December this year, I also discussed aspects of progress in the transition to more sustainable energy mixes in countries such as Canada (British Columbia), the US (Texas), and China – following my July trip.

Our school year started about two weeks ago. My course on climate change this semester will focus on the Paris meeting, with this blog serving as a resource for the students.

These topics will probably continue until the end of the year. They will be fueled by two very important visitors: President Xi Jinping from China and Pope Francis. Both are scheduled to arrive on September 22nd. President Xi will depart on September 28 and Pope Francis will leave one day earlier. The corresponding arrival dates are not accidental. Since these visits also coincide with the 70th session of the UN General Assembly, many other world leaders will show up to discuss pressing global affairs. There is expected to be a strong emphasis on the global refugee crisis; an estimated 60 million people around the world have already fled their homes because of wars – most of which have been triggered by government collapse. Climate change and the preparations for Paris’s December conference will also be at the top of the agenda. Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, will prompt the assembled leaders to try to provide global solutions to these impending global problems, at a time when such solutions are desperately needed.

My interest in these issues is not restricted to climate change. I was a child refugee after WWII and the fate of today’s millions of refugees – together with the world’s attitude and efforts to ensure their safety is of great concern to me. Of course, I created this blog specifically to tackle climate change, but climate change is a global issue with vast repercussions (including these refugee crises) that requires global solutions. Under current global governance systems it is very difficult to implement and enforce global solutions. The refugee problem suffers from this lack of administrative force.

The United Nations is certainly an organization that can tackle global problems such as the refugee issue and climate change, but it is not the only organization that can try to do the job. Major organized religions can also effectively influence solutions for such issues. In this blog I will mention the Catholic Church and Islam.

Figure 1 – Global Distribution of Catholics

The total number of Catholics worldwide is about 1.3 billion. When Pope Francis addresses the United Nations and several other US venues, chances are good that more than 1 billion people will listen. Pope Francis doesn’t have the enforcing power of a state, but for most of Catholics around the world he speaks with a higher command and believers will listen.

Figure 2, likewise shows the distribution of Muslims around the world, but Muslims don’t have a single authority similar to the Catholic Church. In fact, militant Muslim organizations are responsible for much of the unrest around the world, and have been the main trigger behind the massive refugee crisis.

The total number of Muslims around the world approaches 1.6 billion people; an estimated total membership of some of the most famous terrorist Islamic organizations is given below:

Al-Qaeda: 20,000-30,000
ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant): 52,000-250,000
Taliban: 60,000
Boko Haram: 7,000-10,000

This is obviously not an all-inclusive list, and the real numbers – including all of the affiliates in various countries is much larger; still, it represents a very small percentage of the Muslim population. Bear in mind that the vast majority of the victims of the atrocities that these terrorist organizations initiate are Muslim as well. Those who manage to escape such regimes comprise many of the aforementioned refugees. The point here is that Islam itself, as a global organized religion is not the enemy. It can actually provide great tools to counter the global instability that its more militant factions have brought about.

Map of World Distribution of Muslim PopulationFigure 2 – Global Distribution of Muslims (

A few weeks ago (August 17 & 18th) an “International Islamic Climate Change Symposium” was held in Istanbul, Turkey.

The preamble to the symposium reads as follows:

A group of top academics has been engaged in drafting an “Islamic Declaration on Climate Change” and the initial draft has been circulated widely for consultation. The symposium will be an experts’ meeting convened to seek broad unity and ownership from the Islamic community around the Declaration, and to further discuss the amplification of messages and mobilization of various actors and groups around COP 21 and in the future. In attendance will be senior international development policy makers, leaders of faith groups, academics, and other experts. This symposium shall also provide opportunities to connect with leaders from other faiths as well as secular organisations, and promote inter-faith and cross-movement cooperation around aligned and joint messages. It will moreover highlight the future role and contribution of Muslims to the climate movement, and present ample communications opportunities, the aim being to secure high level representation from the diversity of actors mentioned above.

I have asked Sofia Ahsanuddin, the student that wrote the June 16th guest blog about Islam’s position on environmental issues to follow up on the reactions to this symposium and provide us with another guest blog on the topic.

Fall 2015 Assessment: Since my Spring Assessment, I have gained 42 followers on Twitter (bringing my total to 332). I also had 698 profile visits, 48 mentions, 58 retweets and 50.6K tweet impressions. This is all readily accessible information. On Facebook, in the same time period, my page got an additional 30,028 impressions from 23,579 users.

On my blog itself I’m happy to report that I’ve had had 690 visits from 261 unique computers, 439 of them new visitors. To those of you reading, I thank you and (as always) welcome your comments.

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Guest Blog by Jay Pei: Taoism

We were approaching Shanghai’s City God Temple (Chenghuang Miao), a well-known Taoist temple. Our guide, Jay Pei, started to explain the essence of Taoism. He had done his homework before meeting us and learned of my background on climate change, so he may have weighted his description a bit to emphasize the religion’s attitude toward the physical environment. That aside, his explanation sounded to me very similar to the Gaia hypothesis (also known as the Gaia theory) that proposes:

… organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. Topics of interest include how the biosphere and the evolution of life forms affect the stability of global temperature, ocean salinity, oxygen in the atmosphere and other environmental variables that affect the habitability of Earth.

The difference of course is that Taoism had its origin 2,400 years ago, while the Gaia hypothesis has been around for less than 50 years. I immediately approached Jay and asked him to contribute a guest blog on the topic.

I thought that such a guest blog would serve well both as a conclusion to my recent set of blogs on China and as a prologue to a new series dedicated to Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States. Not only will this blog fit well with other guest blogs that tried to connect Judaism (May 26), Islam (June 16) and Christianity (June 23) with global environmental concerns, but the Pope has recently raised awareness of two immensely important global topics: climate change and the massive outpouring of refugees from certain countries.

This is a bit of a premature ending to the China series; I had wanted to include two more blogs: one would describe the close interaction between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, looking into the role I think Hong Kong will play in China’s future. The other blog would be a survey of where China stands in its energy transition to more sustainable energy sources. As usual, however, global events did not follow my plans, and ultimately the Pope’s visit, the issues that he will raise, and the American public’s reactions take precedence.

I will return to my thoughts on China after the Pope’s visit. Meanwhile, here is Jay:

Guest Blog by Jay Pei: An Introduction to Taoism

Founded during China’s Zhanguo period (457-221 BC, an era known for its warfare and bloodshed), Taoism is now one of the most prevalent religions in China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea.

In Chinese, Tao is 道, and Taoism is 道教, which are pronounced Dao and Daoism respectively. But just as Beijing has often been anglicized as Peking in English, the T in Taoism has often been pronounced the Western way for convenience. The literal meaning of 道 (Tao)is way, path, or road; similarly, Taoism as a religion symbolizes a pathway or solution for dealing with life in the real world.

Unlike Buddhism, Taoism is a multi-god religion; the highest deities are Sanqing (the Three Pure Ones; Qing is pronounced Ching) – a trinity comprised of Yuqing, Shangqing, and Taiqing. Yuqing represents the status of the universe when everything was unborn and unshaped, Shangqing represents the beginning of the universe along with the formation of yin and yang (brightness and shadow), while Taiqing represents the shaping and forming procedure. Aside from Sanqing, Taoism also has a massive branch of other deities and immortals who are differentiated from each other both by duties and symbols.

The totem of Taoism is the Taiji-Bagua. The Taiji (Taichi), is the middle ring, which is a combination of yin (the black half) and yang (the white half), and shows the fusion or balance of shadow and brightness. The eight shapes surrounding the Taiji, are the Bagua – the eight elements of nature. They are: Sky, Earth, Water, Fire, Thunder, Wind, Mountain, and Marsh.

As a religion, Taoism has its own set of complicated doctrines, but the central idea is as follows: Tao guides nature, which in turn rules over everything on Earth. In Taoism, only by learning from nature, following the natural order, and not destroying or damaging Earth, can humans live a life that is harmonious with their surroundings.

Taoism believes everything has two sides which balance each other: yin and yang. For example, happiness can only be experienced because of the existence of sadness, gaining is similarly paired with losing, and failure is a good foundation for success. You may lose something at this moment, but it might bring you awareness of something else, or you may gain something right now, but have to leave something behind in doing so.

Many people who live fast-paced, work-centered lives practice Taoism to remind them that human life is fleeting and shallow. It helps them refocus on getting back to contemplating and comprehending the value of nature.

Taoism emphasizes the spontaneity and simplicity of life, through meditation, healthy diet and other good habits. The religion and its philosophy shows up in so many aspects of Chinese life, including Fengshui (the art of deciding where to place a home or furniture), Taichi and Kongfu – two types of martial arts that share a common root but differ in both speed and function.

Taoism also has a strong influence on broader Chinese culture, especially in that it values staying calm, not putting too much focus on personal emotion, and considering arguments from different perspectives.

I think that these are good principles for everyone to keep in mind, regardless of religion, especially when it comes to our treatment of the world around us.

Jay Pei has been a tour guide at A&K luxury travel in Shanghai for 5 years. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Literature. He is a student of religious culture and incorporates ideals from both Buddhism and Taoism into his life.

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Mongolia’s Nomads

Last week I described sailing along a segment of the Yangtze River and my visit to the Three Gorges Dam – a project that displaced 1.3 million people. The Chinese government provided them with alternative housing, and in many cases, new jobs. These so-called environmental migrants that I spoke to had mixed feelings about the project and its consequences:

They are people who were forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of lack of natural resources and/or environmental disruption that had jeopardized their existence and seriously affected the quality of their life. Thus, home-region was not able to ensure them safe livelihood.

The phenomenon of environmental migration is not unique to the Three Gorges Dam or even to China as a whole. We went to Mongolia and spent most of our time there in the Gobi Desert. The Gobi occupies the southern part of Mongolia and the northern part of Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region of China). The map of the two Mongolias is shown in Figure 1.

Mongolia Map UNPOFigure 1 – Mongolia and Inner Mongolia (China)

The two Mongolias split in 1911 after they gained independence from the Manchu Qing dynasty in 1911. The history of the Mongols is long and rich, and I will not attempt to cover it here. Mongolia has a population of around 3 million people with a GDP/Capita of around $11,000. Of the population, about 95% is Mongolian and roughly 30% are nomads or semi-nomads that herd ship and goats. The country runs under a parliamentary constitutional government.

While we were in the Gobi Desert, we stopped in the village of Dal.

Herding in the Gobi (Dal-Mongolia)

Figure 2 – Herding in Dal (Gobi Desert, Mongolia)

Nomadic life (Dal-Mongolia)

Figure 3 – Wind, solar, and satellite reception in Dal

When we got there, the herd was just returning home. What we saw did not match the classical picture of herding Nomads that I had in my head. Indeed, after coming back to the US I found a short article in “The Diplomat” by Hannah Reyes that summarized the transition:

Mongolia’s vast steppe is home to one of the world’s last surviving nomadic cultures.

Some herding customs alive today pre-date the era of Genghis Khan

Slowly, however, the steppe’s landscape is changing, as more and more of its nomadic population move to urban areas in search of education, employment, and modern conveniences. Indeed, modernity attracts not only those Mongolians who have moved to the city, but also those who have chosen to continue with their nomadic lifestyle.

Today the nomads who remain on the steppe combine old traditions with new means. They continue their lifestyle as pastoral herders, but many use motorbikes to herd cattle and horses. To move their homes, trucks have taken the place of ox carts. With the growing use of motorbikes and trucks, gas stations now begin to dot the landscape. Solar panels are becoming an addition to the traditional Mongolian home, the ger. The panels are a way for them to gain access to electricity without being confined to one place. The nomads use solar energy to power television sets, and to maintain the use of mobile phones, which, for parents, are the only way to stay in touch with their children attending boarding schools in the city. Mongolian children, whether from urban or rural backgrounds, conventionally study in the city. During the summer, children with rural family backgrounds return to the steppe to help their families maintain the herds, and some come back to live in the steppe after finishing their education.

With the rise of accessible technology, changes in lifestyle are almost inevitable. But these changes also help longstanding traditions thrive. Rather than abandoning their lives on the steppes, Mongolia’s nomads are adapting to modernization in their own way. This culture in transition reaps the conveniences of modern society, while keeping an ancient and fascinating lifestyle alive.

Shortly after, a New York Times article summarized the situation on the other side of the border:

In Xilinhot, a coal-rich swath of Inner Mongolia, resettled nomads, many illiterate, say they were deceived into signing contracts they barely understood. Among them is Tsokhochir, 63, whose wife and three daughters were among the first 100 families to move into Xin Kang village, a collection of forlorn brick houses in the shadow of two power plants and a belching steel factory that blankets them in soot.

In 2003, he says, officials forced him to sell his 20 horses and 300 sheep, and they provided him with loans to buy two milk cows imported from Australia. The family’s herd has since grown to 13, but Tsokhochir says falling milk prices and costly store-bought feed means they barely break even.

An ethnic Mongolian with a deeply tanned face, Tsokhochir turns emotional as he recites grievances while his wife looks away. Ill-suited for the Mongolian steppe’s punishing winters, the cows frequently catch pneumonia and their teats freeze. Frequent dust storms leave their mouths filled with grit. The government’s promised feed subsidies never came.

Barred from grazing lands and lacking skills for employment in the steel mill, many Xin Kang youths have left to find work elsewhere in China. “This is not a place fit for human beings,” Tsokhochir said.

Not everyone is dissatisfied. Bater, 34, a sheep merchant raised on the grasslands, lives in one of the new high-rises that line downtown Xilinhot’s broad avenues. Every month or so he drives 380 miles to see customers in Beijing, on smooth highways that have replaced pitted roads. “It used to take a day to travel between my hometown and Xilinhot, and you might get stuck in a ditch,” he said. “Now it takes 40 minutes.” Talkative, college-educated and fluent in Mandarin, Bater criticized neighbors who he said want government subsidies but refuse to embrace the new economy, much of it centered on open-pit coal mines.

He expressed little nostalgia for the Mongolian nomad’s life — foraging in droughts, sleeping in yurts and cooking on fires of dried dung. “Who needs horses now when there are cars?” he said, driving through the bustle of downtown Xilinhot. “Does America still have cowboys?”

Experts say the relocation efforts often have another goal, largely absent from official policy pronouncements: greater Communist Party control over people who have long roamed on the margins of Chinese society.

Nicholas Bequelin, the director of the East Asia division of Amnesty International, said the struggle between farmers and pastoralists is not new, but that the Chinese government had taken it to a new level. “These relocation campaigns are almost Stalinist in their range and ambition, without any regard for what the people in these communities want,” he said. “In a matter of years, the government is wiping out entire indigenous cultures.”

I will finish this piece with a short description of Inner Mongolia: As we can see in the map above, Inner Mongolia is smaller than the republic of Mongolia, yet its population is around 25 million, and the average GDP/Capita is about the same as that in the Republic of Mongolia. Before doing my homework, I was a bit surprised by these numbers, but it shortly become evident that most of the population of Inner Mongolia is Han Chinese. The number of Mongolians in the area only amounts to about 4 million – a figure not too different from the Republic of Mongolia. During the 19 century, the Manchus that ruled Mongolia strongly encouraged the immigration of the Chinese Han to Inner Mongolia, primarily as a defense against the Russians. Inner Mongolia is now considered an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, but such regions actually have relatively limited autonomy. While the Chairman has to be a minority (mostly Mongolian in this case) he (or she) is then kept in check by the regional Communist Party Secretary (usually from a different part of China).

Next week I will temporarily conclude my series of blogs on China to start on another series dedicated to the Pope’s visit to the United States and the global issue of immigrants.

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China – Water, Energy and the Yangtze

It seems right now that when China sneezes the world is shaken. Not only does that apply to the obvious recent economic upset, but it also means that in tackling any global issue we need the country’s involvement. Climate change, of course, is no exception – China is a major player when it comes to sheer population, energy usage and emissions.

Water and energy are essential to the sustainable growth of every country. With 1.4 billion people and a recent economic growth rate of 7-10% per year, this is especially true for China. The sustainability of the Yangtze River is central to China’s growth plans. Wikipedia says the following of the Yangtze:

The Yangtze River (English pronunciation: /ˈjæŋtsi/ or /ˈjɑːŋtsi/), (Chinese: 长江, Cháng Jiāng), known in China as the Chang Jiang or the Yangzi, is the longest river in Asia and the third-longest in the world. It flows for 6,300 kilometers (3,915 mi) from the glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in Qinghai eastward across southwest, central and eastern China before emptying into the East China Sea at Shanghai. The river is the longest in the world to flow entirely within one country. It drains one-fifth of the land area of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its river basin is home to one-third of the country’s population.[6] The Yangtze is also one of the biggest rivers by discharge volume in the world.

The Yangtze’s role in the drive to a sustainable China is a big issue that I will return to in future blogs. Meanwhile, I’ll share some of the pictures from my visit to better acquaint you with some of the areas we are discussing.

yangtze438x295Figure 1 – Map of the Yangtze River

I took the popular tourist route and sailed on the Yangtze from Changqing to Yichang. The part that I found the most fascinating was the Three Gorges Dam near Yichang. The dam is essential to China’s efforts to ensure sustainable water and energy management. Not only is it the largest power station in terms of installed capacity (22.5 GW (Gigawatts)), it is the largest operating hydroelectric facility in terms of annual energy generation (84 TWh in 2013 and 99 TWh in 2014 (1TWh = one billion kWh). The dam was completed and became functional in July 2012. Contrary to wide perception, the primary reason for constructing the dam was not to provide sustainable hydroelectric power to China, although we will discuss that effect in more detail in future blogs about China’s transition to different energy sources. Instead, the dam’s main stated objective was to increase the Yangtze’s shipping capacity and reduce the damage of floods by providing a buffer area for overflow. The stretch of the river in which we were sailing from Chongqing became that flood storage space.

P1100649   Figure 2 – The Three Gorges Dam

The dam displaced around 1.3 million people, flooded renowned archeological and cultural sites and is causing significant ecological changes – in other words, it was no free lunch.

The Chinese government has made serious efforts to compensate the people that were directly affected by the project by providing them with alternative housing and job opportunities. I visited the nearby village of Fengdu and met some of the people who had been displaced (a few of them served as our guides). Figure 3 shows some of the housing that the displaced people now occupy. There is no question in my mind that my visit was heavily framed by government propaganda, but I also have no doubt that a serious effort was made to assuage the social outcry that came with the displacement.


Figure 3 – Housing in the village of Fengdu, constructed to accommodate the evacuees from flooding the dam


Figure 4 – Sailing through the Three Gorges


Figure 5 – Coal extracted and shipped on the river

The Yangtze originates in the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayan Mountains (see Figure 1). It’s also not far from the origin of China’s next largest river, the Yellow River, which flows to the north of China:

The Yellow River is called “the cradle of Chinese civilization”, because its basin was the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization, and it was the most prosperous region in early Chinese history. However, frequent devastating floods and course changes produced by the continual elevation of the river bed (due in part to manmade erosion upstream), sometimes above the level of its surrounding farm fields, has also earned it the unenviable names China’s Sorrow and Scourge of the Sons of Han.[2

The Chinese government is now seriously planning a solution to the water shortage in the north of China by moving water up from the Yangtze River. This is similar to the massive water projects that tried to solve California’s water problems by moving water from the north to the south of the state.

Of course, the feasibility of this idea depends largely upon the sustainability of the water flow in the Yangtze, which in turn relies heavily on the precipitation in the mountains that surround the source.

We also visited Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, in the beginning of July. The city’s altitude is about 11,500 feet, and it is surrounded by higher mountains that at the time were completely devoid of snow. Figure 6 shows one of these mountains immediately after a few hours of light rain in the city. They became almost immediately covered with snow. Unfortunately, the ratio between rain and snow in the city and surrounding areas is now constantly changing in favor of rain, and that change will have a big effect on the future of the river.


Figure 6 – Snow around Lhasa in July

Figure 7 is a photograph of the Himalayas taken from our plane. The glaciers are receding, and like mountain tops all over the world, the snow is slowly disappearing. Most projections predict that they will be snow-free by the end of the century. This transition will upset the water cycle and affect most of the world’s big rivers, including the Yangtze.


Figure 7 – The Himalayas

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China – Air Quality

My last two blogs described some of China’s largest cities’ attempts to limit their number of cars. A lot of this had to do with reducing the terrible air pollution in these cities. Pollution is one of the key reasons why many of those who can afford to leave China settle in other countries. Air pollution is also a huge obstacle for Beijing when it comes to not only hosting international events, but attracting foreign visitors to spend their money in China. All of these are important reasons for the Chinese government to take action, but perhaps the most important reason to address this issue is the damage that the polluted air is causing the residents of Chinese cities. A recent analysis by western researchers ends with the following paragraph:

During our analysis period, 92% of the population of China experienced >120 hours of unhealthy air (US EPA standard), and 38% experienced average concentrations that were unhealthy. China’s population-weighted exposure to PM2.5 was 52 μg/m3. The observed air pollution is calculated to contribute to 1.6 million deaths/year in China (0.7 – 2.2 million death/year at 95% confidence), roughly 17% of all deaths in China.

Of course, the most visible manifestation of the air pollution in China is the haze in the air that one encounters when visiting any of the major cities.

The photograph below (Figure 1) shows the haze I saw in Shanghai during my recent visit.

Hazy air from from the 100th floor of the Shanghai World Financial center

Figure 1 – Haze in Shanghai – photograph taken from the 100th floor of the World Financial Center.

The haze is usually a reliable way to convey air pollution. In China, it is often paired with photographs of people walking the streets with surgical masks on their face.

The photograph below shows a street photograph in Lhasa, Tibet.

Lhasa, Tibet

Figure 2 – Street photograph in Lhasa, Tibet.

Lhasa is the smallest city that we visited; its industrial base is tiny. In fact, the city’s car statistics didn’t even show up on any of the charts that I presented over the last two weeks. The air there is not hazy; nor is it particularly polluted by any other measure, yet the number of people wearing masks was the largest that we saw in China. In fact, many of the visitors to the monasteries that we visited in Tibet were wearing masks as well. The air in these monasteries is not polluted either. Instead, it became evident that the masks often serve more as cultural markers than indicators of air pollution.

Such use of masks is popular in parts of China, Korea and Japan. In these countries it is common for people to wear the masks if they think that they are getting sick and might infect others. In that case, people are wearing the masks to try to protect others, not themselves. However, anybody that is watching the consequences of the two recent explosions in Tianjin will notice the prevalence of masks in that area as well. The chemistry of the hazardous materials that caused the explosion has yet to be revealed. Whatever the initial combination, the air there is now loaded with cyanide, a powerful toxin, so the masks that people wear in the area are to protect themselves, not others. As we will see shortly, the Chinese environmental warnings include entries about recommendations to wear masks.

The best quantitative indicator for air pollution is the Air Quality Index (AQI). Here is how the index is defined:

An air quality index (AQI) is a number used by government agencies [1] to communicate to the public how polluted the air currently is or how polluted it is forecast to become.[2][3] As the AQI increases, an increasingly large percentage of the population is likely to experience increasingly severe adverse health effects. Different countries have their own air quality indices, corresponding to different national air quality standards

As is evident from this definition, the index depends on national standards, meaning that comparisons between countries are not always appropriate. Yet the index is almost always accompanied by the corresponding scale for its impact on health. Here is a “typical” map of an hourly AQI that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published few days ago for the region of the US where I live.

US EPA AQI of Region 1 from August 18, 2015Figure 3 – EPA published AQI for August 18, 2015 in region 1 (USG stands for unhealthy for Sensitive Groups).

Even in the US, we get warnings from our weather sites almost on a daily basis that advise us to stay indoors whenever possible because the AQI exceeds 100. Well, in our recent trip to China, the AQI in almost all the big cities that we visited exceeded 150. Figure 4 shows the data for Beijing and a few other cities.

Beijing AQI vs other citiesFigure 4 – Beijing air pollution report

The website even gives you more information about which masks are most efficient and where to buy them.

The amazing part of Figure 4 has less to do with Beijing’s AQI number and label of “very unhealthy”; far more impressive is the fact that it is being published in the first place, especially with so much accurate detail. In my second blog about China (August 4), I discussed how the Chinese government has tried to censor any information that might be interpreted as critical of China. Since a number of foreigners live in China and breathe the same air, the American Embassy in Beijing decided to take independent measurements and publish them. Figure 5 shows the results. Aside from an understandable small shift in timing, the results are identical. It is difficult to come up with better confirmations.

Beijing AQI China EPA vs US embassyFigure 5 – Comparison of Beijing air quality by the Chinese Environmental Protection Agency and the US embassy.

The common availability of real information about the polluted air is, perhaps, the strongest indication that the government of China recognizes the seriousness of the threat and is trying to devise ways to mitigate it.

It’s no secret where all of this air pollution came from: a combination of heavy fossil fuel consumption (mainly for the copious amount of cars), and the use of coal to generate electricity. Economic development took priority over health considerations. My last two blogs detailed what a few cities, including Beijing, are now doing to limit the number of cars. I plan to spend more time discussing the country’s use of coal and its eventual energy transition in future blogs.

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Cars in China – Cap and Pay

Last week’s blog ended with the following promise: “… a few of the largest cities in China are now taking drastic steps to limit car ownership – a fact that I was completely unaware of until my visit.” Time to unveil the mystery and go to some detail. Cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and now Shenzhen have decided to limit car ownership – not through any direct regulation or by imposing a tax on car ownership, but instead by making the license plates very expensive. I was told about the practice by our Chinese guide when we visited the first two cities and I was shocked. I was told that the licensing fee can cost as much as the car itself (it also applies to motorcycles). I had never heard about the practice, but immediately recognized its benefits to limiting the number of automobiles in a city. Also, as long as you don’t differentiate between imported and domestically manufactured cars you are not running up against any international trade agreements. The data for the first three cities is given in the three figures below:

Car ownership in Beijing Shanghai and GuangzhouFigure 1 – The number of registered automobiles (in 10,000’s) of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou

Shanghai license plate quota average price and biddersFigure 2 – The quota, average price and bidders for Shanghai licence plates (2002/01-2013/06)

Beijing license plate quota and lottery success rateFigure 3 The quota and lottery success rate in Beijing (2011/01-2013/07)

Figure 1 shows the rise in car ownership per resident in the three cities. It shows an uninterrupted growth from the time of my first visit (1992). The attempt to restrict car ownership through limiting the numbers of new license plates started at the tail end of this graph, between 2008 and 2011. Many cities in the developed world use policies including construction of more efficient public transportation to curb the use of cars. Once the Chinese realized that such measures were not sufficient for their purposes, some of its cities started to implement more austere restrictions. For various reasons, including the country’s accelerated urbanization and the perceived status enhancement associated with the purchase of a car, people have kept buying them as they acquire the financial means to do so.

Unsurprisingly, the attempts to limit car ownership through license plate restrictions started in Shanghai and Beijing – China’s two largest cities (details are taken from the Feng and Li article that I cited previously). Shanghai was the first city to implement a policy to control car ownership through an auction process. The policy started in 1986 but only reached full force by early 2000.

The auction opens to the public once a month. In recent years the quota has fluctuated between 8,000 and 9,000 license plates per month. The number of quotas/bidders together with the average price in the Shanghai bidding is shown in Figure 2. While the auction mechanism clearly limits the number of license plates, it also inherently restricts car ownership to rich owners.

During the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, driving restrictions were put into place in Beijing based on license plate numbers: the right to drive on any given day alternated according to odd or even numbers on the plates. After the Olympics the policy was modified to require that every car (again, based on its license plate number) be off the road at least one day a week. In the beginning of 2011 Beijing decided to expand the restrictions and follow Shanghai in implementing a quota, but tried a different tactic – namely, distributing the quota by lottery. Figure 3 shows the quota success rate in Beijing – it documents a steady rise in applications coupled with a steady decline in the success rate.

Two clear trends are visible through these descriptions: the decision process over how best to limit car ownership is local, and as result the various cities’ methods serve as experimental examples of the most effective (and fair?) mechanisms to limit car ownership in cities. Unfortunately, another impact of this highly localized approach is that it leaves itself open to work-arounds and fraud.

Some of these schemes are described in the Feng and Li article, while others are described elsewhere. Here are some of the techniques, as well as attempts that are being taken to mediate their impact.

  1. Since the license plate restriction policy only applies in a few cities, people register in another city and drive from there to their final destination/residence. In response, Shanghai (and presumably the other three cities as well) have started to restrict the driving of cars (mainly during peak hours) with non-local registration plates.
  2. It is not surprising that since license plates are becoming expensive and scarce a very active secondary market is developing in these cities. To try to cut down on the quick turnaround, Shanghai, for example, requires that license plate owners keep them for three years before selling them.
  3. One reported scam that tries to work around the restrictions is a collusion between the owner and buyer of secondary cars. The two parties construct an imaginary debt that the seller “owes” the buyer for which the car is used as “collateral.” The seller “defaults” on the loan. They both go to court and the “debtor,” who is actually the car owner, is ordered to hand over the car to the “lender,” the car’s buyer. Along with this transfer of ownership comes the already registered license plate.
  4. Another option is to obtain temporary plates by leasing them from a car rental companies. Rental agencies can charge sums equivalent to $500/month for the rent.

Revenues from the taxes are used to improve mass transit and transportation infrastructure.

In principle, if not in detail, China’s new techniques resemble the more widely known structure of cap-and-trade with regards to pollution rights. The key in both techniques is to set a fixed number of cars that that can be driven or total acceptable emissions.

China’s cities have a lot of reasons to want to avoid exceeding the “saturation range” that I discussed in last week’s blog. These include their inability to manage heavier traffic and increasing demands on parking, as well as their desire to minimize China’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions overall. Meanwhile, from China’s perspective, one of the most urgent driving forces is the need to minimize its infamously bad air pollution. I will discuss this topic in next week’s blog.

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China – How Many Cars Can a City Handle?

Right now, China has the largest global market for new cars. According to the last count by the International Organization of Motor Vehicles Manufacturers, there are 833 million light vehicles currently (2015) in use worldwide. About 10% of these cars (around 83 million) were bought in 2014. Out of that 83 million, 21 million went to China, while the US, the second largest buyer, bought close to 16 million. In other words, China – which still counts as a developing country (see July 28th blog) – bought about one quarter of all cars sold throughout the world. These numbers put China’s share of automobiles roughly in line with its current share of the global GDP, which is approximately 13%.

I visited several Chinese cities and was astounded at how much the traffic flow differs from that in New York City, where I live. The traffic is heavy but in most instances it flows smoothly; the roads are great and the traffic control systems work better than I have ever seen elsewhere.

Shanghai traffic

Shanghai (these photos are from my trip)

Traffic in Xian


I visited both of these two cities as well as Beijing 20 years ago – at which time the dominant traffic on the roads was made up of bicycles – so this dramatic change has taken place within the span of less than a generation. What changes will develop within the next generation?

In a report by China SignPost, a western consulting firm, we find a bit more detail. The two figures below show a summary of private car ownership in 36 Chinese cities in comparison to some major cities in developed countries outside of China. My home city, NYC, is on the list. As we will see in a future blog, the definition of “selected metro areas” especially in China, is open to discussion (e.g. where exactly the borders are). I checked the original reference for NYC, which only counts those residents within the five boroughs – a population of 8.4 million people. Beijing’s population is 11.5 million on the same basis (excluding suburbs, etc.). The figure also shows Houston, TX, with its population of 2.2 million for comparison. NYC has one of the lowest car ownership ratios per person in the US – largely due to the extent of the public transportation system. Figure 2, from the same source, provides the per-capita numbers for car ownership. Again, when calculating that 22% of NYC residents own cars, refer to the city itself, not to the entire metropolitan area. This stands against 21% car ownership in Beijing, 18% in Xian, and 11% in Shanghai. The figure also adds a horizontal band that stretches between 25-30% cars per person and indicates a “saturation point,” at which car ownership plateaus. The assumed plateauing seems to be independent of quality of the road, traffic management or availability of affordable alternative transportation modes. The main issue that I want to address in these next few blogs is the steps China is taking to actively keep the number of cars in its cities from growing further.

Figure 1 – Private passenger car ownership by selected metro area in China and abroad (in thousands of vehicles)

The numbers that I got on the ground, from speaking with the locals in some of these cities we visited, were considerably higher than demonstrated above. Meanwhile, the compilation of 36 cities in Figure 1 only represents about 30% of China’s total car ownership, which includes a fleet of 93 million private passenger cars.

Car Ownership per 100 Residents, By Metropolitan AreaFigure 2 – Car ownership per 100 residents, by metropolitan area.

City after city is now starting to conclude that enough is enough. My Chinese friends have long predicted that the growth rate, at least in terms of private cars in their cities, cannot continue at its present pace. Many of China’s major cities are taking similar steps to those being taken by developed countries – e.g. building the best public transportation systems that they can. I “tested” the underground system in Shanghai and found it competitive with the best systems that I have seen elsewhere.

Hong Kong is now part of China, but I will cover it separately in future blogs. It is one of the richest cities in the world, and was only recently re-incorporated into China as a result of an agreement with the British government. The latest accounting of the city’s transportation issues shows that Hong Kong has 500,000 private cars for a population of about 7.5 million people. This comes out to 6.6% of the population, which would fall within the far left side of Figure 2. Meanwhile, however, a few of the largest cities in China are now taking drastic steps to limit car ownership – a fact that I was completely unaware of until my visit. The details of what these cities are doing are important to all of us; I will explore some of these steps next week.

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China – The Price of Progress: Inequality and Transparency

While I was in China (see last week’s blog), one of the questions that I asked most often – especially of those who mentioned that they have small children – was how people imagine China 20 years from now. This question stemmed, in large part, from the immense changes that I saw since my first visit in 1992. Invariably, people answered they expect economic progress to continue at roughly the same pace as it has over the last 20 years. This prognosis is worth examining further because it has strong implications about the future of the world and it is thus relevant to all of us.

Last week I looked at China’s progress from 1992 to 2012 using data from The World Bank database (more recent data were not available). The World Bank also has country reports. Here is a paragraph from its recent entry about China:

Since initiating market reforms in 1978, China has shifted from a centrally planned to a market based economy and experienced rapid economic and social development. GDP growth averaging about 10 percent a year has lifted more than 500 million people out of poverty. All Millennium Development Goals have been reached or are within reach.

With a population of 1.3 billion, China recently became the second largest economy and is increasingly playing an important and influential role in the global economy.

Yet China remains a developing country (its per capita income is still a fraction of that in advanced countries) and its market reforms are incomplete. Official data shows that about 98.99 million people still lived below the national poverty line of RMB 2,300 per year at the end of 2012. With the second largest number of poor in the world after India, poverty reduction remains a fundamental challenge.

Rapid economic ascendance has brought on many challenges as well, including high inequality; rapid urbanization; challenges to environmental sustainability; and external imbalances. China also faces demographic pressures related to an aging population and the internal migration of labor.

It is worth mentioning here that RMB 2,300 is approximately equivalent (in today’s exchange) to $1US/day. China has two especially large challenges to rapid economic growth: the increase in income inequality and the environmental impact, but I will save the latter for another time.

Before starting on increased income inequality, I have to put my writing into perspective. I am obviously a very biased observer: an American tourist with enough resources to see the world from the balcony of five star hotels for the duration of my month-long visit, almost all of which was focused within Chinese megacities (cities with populations that exceed ten million people). This is not the view that one acquires from the residences of inhabitants who live off of $1US/day. To get some semblance of reality and balance, I will rely strongly on literature published by somewhat more objective observers.

Over the years, I have spoken frequently in this blog about the role of income inequality in the global response to climate change (see January 7, August 19, and September 9, 2014). There are various ways of measuring inequality; one of the most common is the use of the Gini coefficient:

The Gini coefficient (also known as the Gini index or Gini ratio) (/dʒini/ jee-nee) is a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the income distribution of a nation’s residents, and is the most commonly used measure of inequality. It was developed by the Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini and published in his 1912 paper “Variability and Mutability” (Italian: Variabilità e mutabilità).[1][2]

The Gini coefficient measures the inequality among values of a frequency distribution (for example, levels of income). A Gini coefficient of zero expresses perfect equality, where all values are the same (for example, where everyone has the same income). A Gini coefficient of one (or 100%) expresses maximal inequality among values (for example, where only one person has all the income or consumption, and all others have none).[3][4] However, a value greater than one may occur if some persons represent negative contribution to the total (for example, having negative income or wealth). For larger groups, values close to or above 1 are very unlikely in practice.

Yu Xie and Xiang Zhou recently published a paper called, “Income Inequality in Today’s China,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). PNAS is one of the most prestigious and selective scientific publications in the United States. It accepts papers for publication only through recommendations of members of the US National Academy and requires scrupulous reviewing before publication. Here is a segment from the paper’s introduction:

In this paper, we wish to address two research questions. How high is income inequality in today’s China and why is it so high? The first question appears to be simple fact that could be answered by government statistics. Unfortunately, this is not true for China. For a variety of complicated reasons, ranging from politics to practical difficulties, government statistics on Chinese well-being have been questioned for their accuracy. This concern is exacerbated by the long-standing concealment practices of China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), responsible for constructing and releasing government data on China, such that no original microlevel data are accessible to any independent researcher that could be used to corroborate the macro level statistics it releases. In the case of income inequality, the NBS stopped releasing the Gini coefficient after it reached 0.41 in 2000. It was not until an economist claimed that the Gini coefficient had reached the shockingly high level of 0.61 that the NBS, in early 0.61, released the Gini coefficients for recent years, which were slightly under 0.5.

The paper itself cites multiple supporting references, emphasizing the need to use multiple data sources to get the necessary information and not to rely on an “obvious” source – in this case, China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) – as the sole source. Please note that the World Bank data that I quoted last week originated in China’s governmental sources, so the skepticism that the PNAS paper expresses should fully extend to last week’s post.

We found the challenges China faces in its efforts to release only selected information to public consumption directly visible in our experiences during our short visit. Connectivity to applications such as Google, Facebook, ESPN, Bloomberg and The New York Times were all but nonexistent throughout mainland China, but one could circumvent most of the search restrictions by searching with Yahoo, Bing and Baidu and the news restrictions by going through the Huffington Post and other outlets. Once we crossed into Mongolia or Hong-Kong, suddenly all the applications were available as clearly as at home. The logic of all of this will probably never make sense to me, but I strongly suspect that with time, the government will become a bit more familiar with modern communication capabilities and many of these attempts of at needless and futile censorship will disappear.

The two most important findings in the PNAS paper are shown in the two figures below:

Gini coefficient trends - family income China & US

GDP per capita and Gini coefficients - family income in China vs 136 countriesAmong the conclusions we can draw from the two figures are:

  1. The sharp increase in inequality (rising Gini coefficient) started shortly after China’s 1978 shift to a market based economy.
  2. Around 2000, China’s Gini coefficient surpassed that of the United States, even as the GDP/Capita stayed well below that of most developed countries (see last week’s blog for more data, but keep in mind the disclaimer about the World Bank’s sources).

The second graph tries to demonstrate that the increase in GDP is not solely to blame for the rising Gini coefficient. It plots the Gini coefficients of 136 countries against their GDPs/Capita (in logarithmic scale – see August 6, 2012 blog). The data roughly fit (with a great deal of noise) the Kuznets curve, a hypothesis that states that after a certain threshold the Gini coefficient should start to return to a more equal distribution. It is obvious that China doesn’t follow the curve.

The PNAS authors offer data to show that the two biggest social determinants that factor into this high inequality are regional disparities and rural-urban gap. I will return to some of these issues in future blogs.

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