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Posts Tagged ‘recycling’

Once again Seattle, Washington is flexing its large, environmental muscle – one that not only seems to be superior in terms of size, but also seems to have the enviable ability to trigger movement and action in both the local and state governments.

In Seattle, it is now illegal to throw away food with rubbish (it has already been illegal, for several years, to throw away recyclable items with rubbish). This comes as a pumped-up version of mandates for composting that already exist in places such as San Francisco, Vancouver, and Vermont. The difference, however, is that Seattle homeowners failing to comply will be penalised directly, after being warned once – a warning displayed publicly with a large, red tag around the offender’s rubbish bin. These red tags also double as a public education campaign about the new law on recycling and composting.

While the establishment of this policy is something to be admired in and of its own right, the sentiment behind it sheds light on an exemplary dedication to the larger environmental goals of the people of Washington. This (comparatively) strict law did not come into place as a strong, last-ditch effort to fix some overwhelming problem. On the contrary, it was established to help the city increase its recycling and composting rate to 60%, only four percentages points higher than its current level, and was a result of the fact that the state’s recycling rate slipped to 49% in 2013 from 50% in 2012 – even though this 49% is still among the highest recycling rates in the US. This new law therefore symbolises just how committed Seattle is to its environmental and ecological responsibility. The people of Seattle and Washington are willing to push strong, novel policies in reaction to small (environmental) steps backward and/or in order to increase, even by relatively small amounts, their already exemplary environmental practices and lifestyles.

Excuse my implied pessimism for the rest of us, but this ambition to be ‘better even when already one of the best’ seems a refreshing deviation from the environmental attitude of setting discouragingly low goals and coasting once a level of ‘good enough’ has been achieved (restricting the growth of many an environmental muscle).

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The title of this post is the slogan of a campaign run by one of the speakers at the 3rd World Environment Conference – 2010: Year of China’s Green Economy. The conference was in Beijing last week and I was there to talk about how economic analysis can help solve environmental problems. Flying to Beijing for a 3 day conference and 3 day sightseeing trip was not low carbon of me but at least my flight emissions are offset as part of eftec’s annual carbon offsetting scheme. 

 The key topics covered at the conference included low-carbon technologies in every facet of the economy but in particular renewable energy. While the topics were of global scale (and hence the ‘world’ in the title of the conference), the delegates were mostly mayors from the provinces of China (remember how big China and its provinces are and you can gather the importance of having the mayors attend a conference on the environment), state owned enterprises and private companies from the emerging green industries.

China is a place of contradictions at a greater scale than most places and the conference was no exception. There were many encouraging speeches: not only talking about why a low carbon future for China is the only choice but also how such a future can be achieved.  Amongst many other actions, the following were most poignant:

–          Government leadership is needed

–          Systems (including stakeholder awareness) need to be improved

–          Experiences with different technologies and environmental policies from around the world and within  China need to be disseminated, and

–          International cooperation is crucial.

There were indeed many international speakers present, too. The speech by Mohamed Aslam. the Minister of Environment, Transport and Housing of the Maldives, was particularly inspiring. He re-stated Maldive’s target of becoming carbon neutral by 2020 and said they did not set this target because they have the technology, know-how and finance to achieve it but because it is the right thing to do. In addition, he stated that the announcement of this target had attracted many offers of help (technical and financial) that would not have come forward otherwise. Considering that sea level rise is already affecting the Maldives (to see a short BBC documentary – click here) and will threaten the country’s existence in future, it was not surprising to see their Minister at a conference in China – the highest carbon emitter.  But his speech was genuine and refreshing rather than overtly political and stale. 

Going back to the contradictions – some presentations were less progressive…like defending the use of coal and oil…because they are cheaper and because developed countries had ‘developed first and cleaned up later and China has the right to do so’. Why countries insist on repeating each other’s mistakes I don’t understand…worse still why they think they can continue to make decisions based on financial costs and benefits alone simply escapes me!

So, being the Daisy that I am, I said a few words on the subject…when compared on the basis of market price alone coal and oil are of course cheaper than renewable energy sources…first, the former two are generally subsidised while the latter are not. Secondly, the environmental costs of the fossil fuel options and the environmental benefit of the renewables (avoided cost of fossil fuels) are not reflected in prices. If they were, the balance is almost always likely to be changed in favour of the renewables.

Environmental costs are not trivial and no country can afford to postpone them – not because of some moral responsibility to future generations but because they are real, they occur now and people are paying for them. Those present only had to step outside the conference hall to see what I meant. Beijing is mostly covered in a thick smog – a mix of dust from the advancing Gobi desert and air pollution from coal-burning power stations, industries and of course the ever increasing traffic. The price of fuel may be cheap but the cost of the effects of this air pollution on human and animal health, agricultural productivity, forest growth and so on is expensive.

Air pollution is not the only problem, floods in southern China over the last month or so have also had very high costs in terms of human lives, damage repair and loss of environmental and built assets.

There is, however, good news too. At least in Beijing, they seem to have part of the waste management pretty much under control through the good old informal sector. All litter bins have a ‘recyclable’ and ‘other waste’ component and most bins are checked every ten minutes or so by (mostly old) men or women on bikes collecting in particular plastic bottles. I didn’t check how much they got paid but clearly the price is worth the hard work and the supply of material to be recycled is – unfortunately – unending with millions of people using plastic bottles at what seems like an increasing rate.  

To finish on a positive note – the Chinese leadership is incredibly fast and efficient once they make a decision. Conferences like this one are very useful in disseminating positive experiences from the world and from within China to assist the leadership in making good policy decisions. I look forward to seeing how this conference affects the environmental policy in China in the very near future.

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