I am publishing this blog entry a little early this week because tomorrow morning I will be flying to Havana for a 10-day people-to-people visit arranged by the National Geographic Society. Because I am uncertain about the state of internet access in Cuba, I do not know if I will be able to post more blog entries until after I return to the U.S. on December 19.
Final negotiations are underway in Durban at the conference of the parties (COP-17) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. On December 8 a courageous 21-year old college student from Middlebury College, Abigail Borah, interrupted a speech by Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate negotiator, by saying: “I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot. The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed action for far too long. I am scared for my future. 2020 is too long to wait. We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty.” Ms. Borah’s interruption was greeted with applause even though she was ejected from the meeting hall. Stern later called a press conference where he described Ms. Borah as a “very sincere and passionate young woman.” He then suggested that the U.S. might indeed go along with an EU proposal to launch a process designed to reach a new climate agreement in 2015, which would become effective in 2020, rather than waiting until 2020 to negotiate such a treaty. The Global Carbon Project reported on December 4 that global emissions of carbon dioxide rose by a half billion tons in 2010, a 5.9% increase that likely was the largest jump in any year since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
This was a tough week for breathing in Beijing as a brown haze encircled the city and levels of particulates skyrocketed to extremely hazardous levels. The pollution was so bad that 700 outgoing flights were canceled over a two-day period and roads were shut down due to poor visibility. Environmental activists pushed the Chinese government to be more forthcoming in releasing air pollution data to the public. On December 6 the China Daily reported that air pollution is causing severe health problems, noting that lung cancer in Beijing has increased by 60% in the last decade even though the rate of smoking was unchanged. Edward Wong, Outrage Grows Over Air Pollution and China’s Response, N.Y. Times, Dec. 7, 2011, at A15.
On December 9 the New York Times published a shocking expose showing that major U.S. battery-manufacturing companies have shipped huge quantities of used batteries to recyclers in Mexico where the lead is recycled with virtually no environmental controls. Last year U.S.-based Johnson Controls shipped 160,000 metric tons of batteries to Mexican recyclers. The percentage of used batteries in the U.S. that are exported to Mexico has jumped from 6% in 2007 to 20% in 2010. The exports are harming domestic battery recyclers who must comply with much tougher environmental regulations. Mexican children living near the recycling operations are suspected of having lead poisoning, but virtually no funds are available to test them. Elisabeth Rosenthal, Used Batteries from U.S. Expose Mexicans to Risk, N.Y. Times, Dec. 9, 2011, at A1.
A plan to build the $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River in Laos was deferred this week by a vote of the Mekong River Commission, whose members include Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. This is the second time this year that the project has been deferred pending further study of its environmental impacts. James Hookway, Environmental Concerns Delay Mekong Dam Project, Wall St. J., Dec. 9, 2011, at A11.
After three years of study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft report on December 8 that links hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Wyoming’s Pavillion field to contamination of drinking water wells in the vicinity. Companies using fracking to extract natural gas have long insisted that there is no proof that it has contaminated drinking water supplies. EPA discovered levels of various chemicals associated with fracking well above standards set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in groundwater monitoring wells near fracking sites. The Kirk Johnson, EPA Links Tainted Water in Wyoming to Hydraulic Fracturing for Natural Gas, N.Y. Times, Dec. 9, 2011, at A19. However, due to an amendment to energy legislation promoted by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2005, fracking has been exempted from the SDWA. The EPA study, which now will be subject to public comment and peer review, was undertaken in response to complaints from local residents about the smell and taste of their drinking water. The wells drilled in the Pavillion field were shallower than those used in fracking operations in other parts of the country.
This week the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law released a “Call for Paper/Presentation Abstracts” for the 10th Colloquium that will be held at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law from July 1-5, 2012. The Colloquium organizers welcome abstracts for papers and/or presentations on a broad array of topics. These include: approaches for improving global environmental law and governance, how to overcome political resistance to sustainable development policies, new strategies for promoting environmental justice and using law to advance sustainability, where are we after Rio+20 and where we should be going from here. Papers may focus on strategies for addressing specific environmental problems, new developments in national and regional environmental law, and the interaction of international and domestic law and policy. A copy of the call for papers is available online at: http://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/gelc/ A “Call for Films” for the same Colloquium, which will host a festival of short environmental films, will be issued soon.