10th IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Colloquium

10th IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Colloquium
More than 250 environmental experts from 35 countries gather at the University of Maryland for the 10th Colloquium of the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law in July 2012

March 2013 Environmental Field Trip to Israel

March 2013 Environmental Field Trip to Israel
Maryland students vist Israel's first solar power plant in the Negev desert as part of a spring break field trip to study environmental issues in the Middle East

Workshop with All China Environment Federation

Workshop with All China Environment Federation
Participants in March 12 Workshop with All China Environment Federation in Beijing

Winners of Jordanian National Moot Court Competition

Winners of Jordanian National Moot Court Competition
Jordanian Justice Minister Aymen Odah presents trophy to Noura Saleh & Niveen Abdel Rahman from Al Al Bait University along with US AID Mission Director Jay Knott & ABA's Maha Shomali

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hong Kong, Harbin, Holidays & Chinese Gas Taxes

On Monday night I returned to the U.S. after my latest visit to China. The atmosphere in Beijing seemed quite different from the pre-Olympic frenzy that gripped it when I left last July. There is far less construction in evidence and concern about the impact of the global economic slump is pervasive. Chinese students seem far more concerned about the job market than they were when I was last there.

I spent December 15-19 in Hong Kong, my first visit there since 1981. Not surprisingly, Hong Kong has changed quite a bit in the last few decades. One of the most striking changes is that Victoria Harbor is far less congested with boat traffic now that highway and subway tunnels provide alternative means for crossing it. I took the Peak Tram, a funicular that has been in operation since 1888, to the top of Victoria Peak, as I had done in 1981. The view from the Sky Terrace atop the Peak remains spectacular, though now it is marred by numerous, cheesy commercial enterprises that one has to pass through before emerging on the Sky Terrace. After descending from the peak I had a great lunch at M at the Fringe, a restaurant located in an historic part of Hong Kong that has the same owners as Shanghai’s great M on the Bund. Earlier in the week I met my Maryland colleague Professor Shruti Rana for lunch in Kowloon where I stayed. Shruti was in Hong Kong to do a site visit for a new clinical externship that Maryland is establishing there.

Hong Kong seems so different from Beijing. In Beijing the vast majority of taxis still do not have working seat belts for their passengers (most taxis drivers have removed either the belts or the buckles). In Hong Kong the taxis not only have seat belts that work, but they also prominently display a warning that the drivers can be fined if any passengers are discovered not to be wearing seat belts. While I certainly do not advocate a nanny state (and I still rail against the outrageous French regulation requiring male swimmers at public pools to wear bikini briefs), seat belts have become fundamental to public safety. Today is the anniversary of the day in 1970 when I was in an auto accident that killed my best friend and debate partner and another acquaintance because they were not wearing seat belts. I feel distinctly at risk in Beijing whenever I am in a taxi without working seat belts, particularly when the driver seems to be auditioning for NASCAR.

The Hong Kong press is distinctly freer than the press in Beijing. The Hong Kong newspapers carry reports about criticism of the Chinese government, demonstrations on the mainland, and books banned on the mainland that one would not expect to see in the Beijing press.

On Friday December 19 I flew back to Beijing and then spent the weekend in Harbin, a city of four million people located more than 600 miles north of Beijing. Harbin is the city where the December 2005 benzene spill in the Songhua River forced the authorities to shut off local drinking water supplies for an extended period. Harbin is close to Russian Siberia. Historically it has had a large Russian population and St. Sofia’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral is one of the major tourist attractions in downtown Harbin.

I arrived in Harbin the day after a snowstorm had hit the city and the temperature was as low as -24 degrees Centigrade (-11 degrees Fahrenheit). While the extreme temperature and a chill wind made it uncomfortable to expose any flesh to the elements, Harbin residents were reveling in preparations for the city’s annual Snow and Ice Festival. The festival, which features hundreds of elaborate snow and ice sculptures along the river, does not officially open until January 5, but many snow sculptures already have been completed. Locals were skating on the frozen Songhua River, roaring down ice slides, and a few were even diving into the freezing water through holes cut in the ice to demonstrate to tourists that they were unfazed by the cold.

I visited the Siberian Tiger Park outside Harbin where a captive breeding program has produced more than 400 of these magnificent animals. Tourists tour the park in specially reinforced vans and can watch the tigers feeding. Unfortunately, the precipitous decline in suitable habitat for Siberian tigers in Northern China has made it impossible to reintroduce them into the wild where it is estimated that a population of only approximately 200 remain. Photos of my trips to Hong Kong and Harbin are available online at: http://gallery.me.com/rperci/100366. Videos are available online at: http://gallery.me.com/rperci/100381.

Back in the U.S. for the holidays I noticed that the price of gasoline in Baltimore is now as low as $1.59 a gallon, less than 40% of what it had been in July when gasoline prices exceeded $4 per gallon. The precipitous decline in the price of oil since July may once again kill the incentive for expanded investments in renewable energy, as occurred when oil prices declined during the 1980s and 1990s. In China the government controls gasoline prices, which were among the lowest in the world until they were increased in the first half of the year when global crude oil prices soared. On December 19 the Chine government responded to the decline in global oil prices by reducing the price of gasoline by 14 percent. However, China also will increase its tax on gasoline five-fold effective January 1 from approximately 3 cents to 15 cents per liter (or roughly from 11 cents to 56 cents per gallon). Many believe that a similar strategy would make a lot of sense for the United States, see Thomas L. Friedman, “Win, Win, Win, Win, Win . . .”, New York Times, Dec. 28, 2008, p. 8 (Week in Review), though it is widely viewed as politically impossible.

While I was in China the Chinese press put a somewhat positive spin on the Poznan Conference, while stressing the importance of poverty alleviation and greater financial aid to developing countries as elements of any post-Kyoto regime to control emissions of greenhouse gases. They also reported on a largely symbolic auction of carbon credits that occurred on the China Beijing Environment Exchange on December 11. The credits had been “earned” by 81,670 commuters who opted to take public transportation from July 20 to September 20. They were calculated by scientists from Tsinghua University and Environmental Defense. Si Tingting, “Symbolic Efforts,” China Daily, Dec. 22, 2008.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Golden Tree" Awards & CUPL Moot Court Practice

On Thursday I arrived in China for a reunion with the students I taught last spring while a Fulbright scholar at the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL). On Friday morning I met with Professor Wang Canfa, the CUPL professor who is director of the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV). He had just received a copy of the Chinese edition of Esquire magazine that had named him one of the 30 hottest men in China. The magazine had an Annie Liebowitz-type photo of him standing next to the famous Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who directed the Beijing Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies. Ma Jun, the environmental law professor from Peking University also was one of the 30, which included Yao Ming and Jackie Chan.

After I met with the students on CUPL's International Environmental Moot Court team, Professor Wang and I went to lunch. We were joined by Professor Xu Kezhu and other members of the CLAPV staff. At lunch we discussed CLAPV's growing litigation docket and recent developments in Chinese environmental law. Professor Wang noted that there are now specialized environmental courts in at least four provinces in China. One judge from such a court has expressly recognized the right of registered NGOs to bring public interest litigation. CLAPV is involved in a wide variety of cases, many of which center on failures to comply wth environmental assessment requirements. On Monday Professor Xu will be appearing in court in Shanghai to represent CLAPV in its challenge to the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau’s (EPB’s) refusal to release certain environmental assessment documents in response to a request from CLAPV under China’s new open information law. Ironically, in May I spoke at a conference co-sponsored by the Shanghai EPB and NRDC to encourage broad use of the new law. The judge hearing CLAPV's challenge seems interested in persuading the litigants to settle, though CLAPV staff believe that the case can be a vehicle for establishing an important precedent for public access to information.

After lunch we returned to CUPL where we held an awards ceremony to honor the students who had made films in my environmental law class last spring. The awards were the result of voting by an independent panel of seven judges, including Professors Taunya Banks and Kathy Vaughns from Maryland, former Fulbrighter Alan Lepp, Maryland alums Karla Schaffer, David Mandell, and Lewis Taylor, and former student filmmaker Bob Clemons. "Golden Tree” awards were presented in eight categories. “White Pollution,” a film that examines the new law banning free distribution of plastic bags at Chinese grocery stores, won awards for Most Educational, Best Interviews, and Best Picture. “Disposable Chopsticks,” a film about the environmental consequences of using disposable chopsticks, won the award for Best Acting. “Red Beijing,” a film that examined the daily consequences of air and noise pollution in Beijing, won awards for Best Cinematography and Best Sound. ”Banana’s Fault,” which focused on the consequences of improper waste disposal, won the award for Best Use of Humor. A Special Judge’s Award was given to “Loving Animals Is Loving Ourselves” for Creativity for filming from the animal’s perspective.

Following the awards ceremony, we conducted a moot court practice session for the CUPL students who have entered the Stetson International Environmental Moot Court Competition. CUPL is becoming the first Chinese law school ever to compete in this event. I served as a judge along with my Maryland colleague Shruti Rana, who is in Beijing to lecture as part of our exchange program with the Central University of Finance and Economics (CUFE), and Maryland 3L Nathan Hopkins, who is participating in the Maryland/CUFE exchange program. Considering that it was their first argument, the CUPL students did an absolutely fabulous job. They were unflappable and yet appropriately deferential to the judges who peppered them with lots of challenging questions. I am really proud of the team that CUPL has put together for this competition.

Friday night I attended a performance by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at the National Center for the Performing Arts, the spectacular new structure near Tiananmen Square known affectionately as “the egg” because of its shape. It was the first time I had been inside this breathtaking building. I was a guest of CUPL Professor Xu Kezhu, who is leaving CLAPV this month to join her husband in Caracas, Venezuela where he is a diplomat with the Chinese Embassy.

On Saturday I flew to Shanghai where I visited my friends Dan Guttman and Zhenzhi Zhong. We had lunch and dinner together with Dan’s friend Jonathan Moreno, a bioethics professor at Penn who also works for the Center for American Progress. On Sunday I toured the Bund and then joined Dan and ZZ to explore the Taikang Lu art district before having dinner together at a Yunnan folk restaurant. On Monday I fly to Hong Kong.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

ENVIRONMENTAL FILMS, ANNIVERSARY OF CHINESE BENZENE SPILL, POZNAN CONFERENCE

On Monday my Environmental Law students showed the films they made this semester. Each year I encourage students in the class to form small groups and to choose environmental issues they care about to be the subject of short (5 to 7 minute) films. This year the class produced eight wonderfully creative films. They included: “Sustainable Harvest: A Visit to the Baltimore Farmer’s Market” by Natalie Baughman, Lisetta SIlvestri, Kim Stefanski, and Lynne McChrystal; “There Doesn’t Have to Be Blood” by Jordan Vardon (a film about the benefits of solar energy); “Urban Legends of the Inner Harbor” by Andrew Keir, Manali Patel, Eric Hergenroeder, Chris Montague-Breakwell, Daniella Einik, and Patrick Smith (a film about pollution in Baltimore’s inner harbor and the health consequences of falling into it); “The Percival News Network” by John Archibald, Carter Beach, Joey Chen, and Raima Taib (environmental news featuring an interview with Maryland Secretary of the Environment Sherri Wilson); “The Blue Mount Quarry and the Gunpowder River” by Talley Kovacs and Brooke O’Hanley (highlighting the environmental effects of an expanded quarry operation near the Gunpowder River); “Sustainable Shrimp Farming” by Eva Carbot, Aminah Famili, Jesse Iliff, Emily Lipps, Megan Mueller, Limor Weizmann (examining the how entrepreneurs in Maryland are trying to make shrimp farming sustainable); “Swann Field” by Katy Jackman, Rene Parks and Rebecca Seitz (focusing on the cleanup of arsenic contamination in a Baltimore park); and “Greenco” by Kim Myers and Scott Yager (a collection of environmental wisdom from commercials, including a marvelous scene of a Hummer talking to a Prius). After the students polish their films following exams, the films will be submitted to an independent panel of judges who will vote for “Golden Tree” awards that will be presented to the best films next March at our annual Environmental Film Awards Festival.

On Wednesday I leave for China for a reunion with the students I taught during the spring semester 2008 at the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) in Beijing. I am really looking forward to seeing them again. On Friday, December 12 I will host a “Golden Trees” awards ceremony to honor the top films made by the CUPL students in my class last spring. I also will host a practice moot court session for the CUPL students who will be competing in the International Environmental Law Moot Court at Stetson University School of Law in March 2009. CUPL will become the first law school in China ever to enter this competition.

Three years ago this month I was in Beijing for a meeting of the China Council on International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) that focused on the massive benzene spill in the Songhua River that then was creating an international incident. The spill was caused by an explosion at a chemical plant in Jilin. It forced the 4-day shutdown of public water supplies in Harbin, China, a town of 4 million residents that I will be visiting on December 20th. Despite Chinese efforts to control the spill, it flowed northward across the border into Russia, sparking public protests.

The photo above, which I obtained from Bie Tao, then chief legal counsel for China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), was taken when he traveled to Russia to discuss the spill with Russian officials. I showed it to my class and asked them whether anyone could translate the sign for me. After consulting with friends and relatives with Russian language skills, two students reported the following translations: “This is our order. If you take a crap, clean up after yourself.” “We have a certain procedure. Our rules are as follows: if you shit, you clean up after yourself.” The students explained that when spoken in Russian it actually rhymes and is quite clever, even if the spill was not.

On Monday the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP-14) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change convened in Poznan, Poland. Alan Miller, one of the co-authors of my Environmental Regulation casebook, is attending the conference. I spoke with him before he left and he noted that the incoming Obama administration is being represented by Senator John Kerry at the conference, which will conclude on December 12. It is hoped that this conference will produce some progress toward a new global climate agreement that could be signed when COP-15 is held in Copenhagen in December 2009.