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CFR experts give their take on the cutting-edge issues emerging in Asia today.

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Poison Air, Dead Pigs, and Cancer Rice: The Reform China Really Needs

by Elizabeth C. Economy
Cleaning workers retrieve the carcasses of pigs from a branch of Huangpu River in Shanghai on March 10, 2013. Cleaning workers retrieve the carcasses of pigs from a branch of Huangpu River in Shanghai on March 10, 2013. (Stringer China/Courtesy Reuters)

The bad news doesn’t stop coming. First, Beijing residents learned that breathing their air on a daily basis was akin to living in a smoking lounge. Then Guangdong residents learned that Hunan rice sold in their province in 2009 was contaminated with cadmium, which is carcinogenic and can cause severe pain in joints and the spine. And just this past weekend, Shanghai residents watched more than three thousand diseased pigs float down part of the city’s Huangpu River. Read more »

Choking to Death: Health Consequences of Air Pollution in China

by Yanzhong Huang
Chinese commuters make their way in heavy smog in Beijing Chinese commuters make their way in heavy smog in Beijing (Reinhard Krause/Courtesy Reuters).

In the past few months, I wrote about the food the Chinese eat, and, more recently, Liz Economy wrote about the water the Chinese drink. But the air that the Chinese breathe is now a major concern. As the nearly 3,000 delegates of the National People’s Congress (NPC) arrive in Beijing to attend the yearly event to formally endorse nominees for key government leadership posts and important national policies, it would be hard for them to ignore the poor air quality in the country’s capital. Last Thursday morning, readings near Tiananmen Square measured the concentration of PM2.5—fine particles in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and are considered dangerous because they tend to penetrate the gas exchange regions of the lungs—at 469 micrograms per cubic meter, which corresponds to a U.S. EPA Air Quality Index reading of 479 (the scale stops at 500). Anything above 301 is considered “hazardous” in that it can cause “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly,” and there is a “serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.” The PM2.5 levels in other famously polluted cities pale in comparison to those in Beijing; for instance, the highest PM2.5 level in a 24-period recorded in Los Angeles was 43 micrograms per cubic meter. Read more »

China: Dirty Air, Dirtier Water?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
A dead fish is seen floating in a polluted river on the outskirts of Yingtan, Jiangxi province, on March 20, 2010. A dead fish is seen floating in a polluted river on the outskirts of Yingtan, Jiangxi province, on March 20, 2010. (Stringer / Courtesy Reuters)

In recent weeks, the Chinese and western media have been all atwitter over the shocking levels of air pollution in Beijing and a number of other Chinese cities. But it really shouldn’t be all that shocking. After all, in 2007, the World Bank and China’s own State Environmental Protection Administration (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection) found that that as many as 700,000 people die prematurely annually from respiratory disease related to air pollution. And more recently, Greenpeace Beijing reported that in 2011 in four major cities, more than 8,000 people died prematurely as a result of just one pollutant, PM 2.5. Anyone who spends any time in Beijing knows that the city has not yet found a way to tackle the myriad sources of air pollution from construction to cars to coal. Read more »

Assessing the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) and the Sustainability of South Korea’s Contribution

by Scott A. Snyder
South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak delivers a speech at an inaugural meeting of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) in Seoul. (Courtesy Reuters) South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak delivers a speech at an inaugural meeting of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) in Seoul. (Courtesy Reuters)

When South Korean president Lee Myung Bak first offered to serve as a bridge between developing and industrialized countries on climate change issues in a speech August of 2008, it seemed implausible that South Korea, as a smaller country in the global climate change discussion, could have an influence on either group. In fact, the speech ultimately seemed more targeted at a domestic rather than an international audience, since it spawned the establishment of a Blue House-led Green Growth Committee tasked to reform national energy policy across all sectors (including the National Asssembly’s adoption of an emissions trading scheme) and to promote policies of adaptation through enhanced energy efficiency and promotion of Korean development of renewables. Read more »

“Winner Take All”—A China Story?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
A Chinese contractor walks at the site of the Nairobi-Thika highway project, under construction near Kenya's capital Nairobi, on September 23, 2011. A Chinese contractor walks at the site of the Nairobi-Thika highway project, under construction near Kenya's capital Nairobi, on September 23, 2011. (Thomas Mukoya / Courtesy Reuters)

It was with a mix of trepidation and anticipation that I read Dambisa Moyo’s newly-released book, Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What it Means for the World: trepidation because my colleague Michael Levi and I are currently finishing a book on China’s resource quest; and anticipation because it is actually fun to read a book on a topic on which you are writing … as long, of course, as it doesn’t say exactly what you planned to say. Read more »

China Tries to Breathe Free

by Elizabeth C. Economy
The National Stadium, also known as the 'Bird's Nest', can be seen next to a tower bearing the Olympic rings and a building under construction on a high air pollution day in Beijing on June 6, 2012. The National Stadium, also known as the 'Bird's Nest', can be seen next to a tower bearing the Olympic rings and a building under construction on a high air pollution day in Beijing on June 6, 2012. (David Gray/Courtesy Reuters)

After one day in Beijing, I had a sore throat. After two days, I had a cough. In nine days, the sun never made an appearance. So, when I returned to New York from Beijing earlier this week, I wasn’t surprised to learn from a friend who tracks China’s air quality that the pollution in the country’s capital during my stay had been among the worst since 2007.

There really isn’t any mystery as to why Beijing’s air pollution is so bad. Read more »

An Emissions Trading Scheme for South Korea: Momentum for Rio+20?

by Scott A. Snyder
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during the opening of the High Level Segment at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP17) in Durban (Rogan Ward/courtesy Reuters) United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during the opening of the High Level Segment at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP17) in Durban (Rogan Ward/courtesy Reuters)

Lee Myung-bak departs Seoul for the G-20 in Los Cabos and the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development with an unanticipated political feather in his camp in the form of ratified national legislation establishing an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) that is scheduled to take effect in 2015. But, as Jill O’Donnell describes in her latest ROK Green Growth Quarterly analysis, the legislation passed as part of a lame duck session of the eighteenth ROK National Assembly prior to its departure from office in early May has received relatively little public attention in South Korea. Read more »

Can China Change Its Growth Model?

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
The Oriental Pearl Tower is pictured through a glass wall as people walking past and the skyline behind are reflected on the wall in the financial district of Pudong. (Aly Song / Courtesy Reuters) The Oriental Pearl Tower is pictured through a glass wall as people walking past and the skyline behind are reflected on the wall in the financial district of Pudong. (Aly Song / Courtesy Reuters)
How many countries with nearly two decades of double-digit growth under their belt would look in the mirror and say, “Hey, it’s just not working anymore?”

I daresay, not many.

But that is precisely what some Chinese leaders appear to be doing.

Read more »

Guest Post: Jared Mondschein on Asia Behind the Headlines

by Elizabeth C. Economy
A worker unloads coal at a storage site along a railway station in Shenyang, Liaoning province on April 13, 2010. A worker unloads coal at a storage site along a railway station in Shenyang, Liaoning province on April 13, 2010. (Sheng Li / Courtesy of Reuters)

Jared Mondschein looks at the key stories in Asia behind the headlines.

Another Unfortunate First for China – Already the largest consumer and producer of coal in the world, China has now reached another milestone with one of the dirtiest of energy sources: It now imports more coal than any other country. Japan had been the top importer of coal since 1976, but China’s rapid economic growth and consequent energy demand have forced Beijing to seek energy sources wherever they can find them. Even more concerning: China’s coal consumption is projected to increase every year for the next fifteen years. Read more »

China’s Game-Changing Water Policies

by Elizabeth C. Economy
A farmer digs a trench to allow water to irrigate his field planted with winter wheat crop near the village of Lidong, located around 217 miles south of Beijing. A farmer digs a trench to allow water to irrigate his field planted with winter wheat crop near the village of Lidong, located around 217 miles south of Beijing. (David Gary / Courtesy of Reuters)

Water is an issue that preoccupies Chinese officials throughout the country, but nowhere perhaps as much as in Beijing. The already water-scarce capital has been suffering a continuous and precipitous decline in water availability over the past decades, as both population size and income levels have grown dramatically. Caixin magazine has a terrific new piece that details not only the current crisis but also the historical challenges Beijing has faced. The piece also explores what the capital should be doing but isn’t. Experts, for example, have been pushing pricing reform, water conservation, and recycling. Some of this is being done, but not enough. Instead, Beijing’s plans center on desalination, exploiting karst resources, and the South-North Water Diversion, each of which, as the article discusses, brings with it additional economic and potentially serious environmental costs. Read more »