On Monday and Tuesday May 6-7, I participated in a conference on “The Performance of Environmental Governance Systems: Comparing America and China.” The conference was co-sponsored by the School of the Environment at Nanjing University and the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California Santa Barbara. The conference website is located at: http://hjxy.nju.edu.cn/en_wbe/news%5Cpegs%5Cpegs.htm. On Monday afternoon Professor Zhao Huiyu of Shanghai Jiaotong University Law School and I jointly presented our paper on “The Role of Civil Society in Environmental Governance.” The paper compares how civil society influences the adoption, implementation and enforcement of environmental standards in China and the United States. We argue that while it may be easier to pass environmental legislation in China, it may be harder to enforce such laws because they are not the product of hard-fought compromises with the regulated community. The three types of NGOs in China - officially endorsed NGOs, international NGOs, and grassroots NGOs -- are playing an increasing role in Chinese environmental policy, though their greatest successes appear to be through transparency initiatives rather than litigation. This may reflect the more limited opportunities open to NGOs in China compared to the U.S.
There were several excellent presentations at the conference by prominent political scientists and environmental lawyers from China and the U.S. A major conference theme was an effort to discern which environmental initiatives had worked best and why. One of the most interesting commentaries was by China University of Political Science & Law Professor Wang Canfa who has been asked to help draft climate change legislation for the National People’s Congress. The Chinese bureaucracy is pushing back against this project from several quarters with arguments questioning why China should control its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when it is not legally required to do so by any international agreement. The answer to this question is because China’s GHG emissions are the highest in the world and still increasing rapidly. Although U.S. GHG emissions remain much higher than China’s on a per capita basis, China’s per capita emissions have been increasing to the point where they now are approaching those of the European Union.
These emission increases are a major reason why scientists discovered on May 10 that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have passed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time since the Pliocene Epoch several millions of years ago. This discovery was made by scientists at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory. The 400 ppm level is a dramatic increase from the level of 316 ppm measured at Mauna Loa in 1958. At the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 1700s, it is estimated that global CO2 levels were approximately 260 ppm. The last time levels of CO2 were above 400 ppm is believed to be in the Pliocene Epoch when the earth was 5 to 7 degrees warmer than today and sea levels tens of feet higher. Brian Vastag & Jason Samenow, Carbon Dioxide Levels Hit Troubling Milestone, Scientists Say, Wash. Post, May 10, 2013. The group 350.org has been campaigning for measures that would dramatically reduce GHG emissions in order to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere to 350 ppm.
During my trip to China much of the discussion focused on whether the recent horrendous environmental conditions experienced there would force the Chinese government to strengthen environmental regulation in some dramatic fashion. Yet the larger problem seems to be simply enforcing existing laws, as illustrated by an article in this morning’s Washington Post. Steven Mufson, In China, Pollution Resists Change, Wash. Post, May 12, 2013, at A12. The article reports that Huadian, one of China’s largest power companies, turned off the scrubbers at its Datong coal-fired power plants allowing its emissions of SO2 to soar to four times above legal limits. It then falsified paperwork in order to be able to sell its electricity at higher rates given to plants with lower emissions. While 80% of China’s coal-fired power plants have scrubbers, China continues to add one coal-fired power plant per week and the scrubbers are not always used. Huaneng, another Chinese electric producer, was fined $13,000 for turning off its scrubbers in February 2012, but the fine did not recoup the economic benefit of the violation, which was repeated last November. In the U.S. intentional violations of the Clean Air Act would result in criminal prosecutions, but at present there is little prospect of such strict enforcement in China.
After the Nanjing conference concluded on May 7, I took a very comfortable high-speed train from Nanjing to Shanghai. On the morning of May 8 I presented a lecture on the law and politics of environmental protection to students in Professor Zhao’s class at Shanghai Jiaotong University Law School. The students asked some terrific questions about China’s environmental prospects, U.S. public opinion about the environment, the constitutional basis for U.S. environmental regulation, and other matters. It always is a great pleasure for me to be able to engage directly with Chinese law students who hopefully will one day be directly influencing their country’s policies. After the lecture I flew from Shanghai to Beijing to catch my return flight to the U.S.
I returned to the U.S. from China on the evening of May 8. On Thursday May 9 I took delivery of my new all-electric, Tesla S Performance car at Tesla’s Rockville Service Center. Tesla’s service rep showed me the car’s cool features and we downloaded Tesla’s iPhone app that lets me remotely monitor the car’s charging status and location. I then drove the car from Rockville to Baltimore and plugged it in at one of the University of Maryland’s electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. I have now driven my Tesla nearly 200 miles and it is truly amazing. It is hard to believe that an automobile can have such incredible performance capabilities. The car became a traffic stopper on Saturday as I drove to Nationals Stadium in D.C. A policeman directing traffic started to wave me along and then suddenly stopped me in the middle of an intersection to ask about the car. Next weekend I will take my Tesla on its first trip outside of the Baltimore/Washington area when my son and I go to Atlantic City to see the welterweight championship boxing match between Lamont Peterson and Lucas Matthysse. In July when I teach the Comparative China/U.S. Environmental Law course at Vermont Law School (VLS), I am hoping to drive my Tesla to South Royalton since VLS has its own EV charging station.