U.S.-China Climate Agreement a Circle of Blue High Point

In an open pit coal mine east of Baotou, Inner Mongolia the economically and ecologically disruptive confrontation over water and energy are on full display. China's desperate focus on economic growth pushes men and machines to their limit in one of the driest regions on Earth. Photo/Keith Schneider
In an open pit coal mine east of Baotou, Inner Mongolia the economically and ecologically disruptive confrontation over water and energy are on full display. China’s desperate focus on economic growth pushes men and machines to their limit in one of the driest regions on Earth. Photo/Keith Schneider

There’s no pretending that providing secure stores of fresh water, and producing adequate supplies of energy and food is confounding the nations of Earth. In the era of climate change most of the world’s prominent energy and food producing regions are either getting dryer or more hydrologically unstable.

The consequence Is a growing list of global choke points – the economically and ecologically disruptive confrontations over water, energy, and agricultural resources that Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center, our project partner, are describing all over the world.

For five years the two organizations have documented the world’s urgent resource choke points with uncommon depth, skill, and on-the-ground expertise. From Mongolia to China, India to Qatar, Palestine to Peru, and all across the United States and Canada, our Global Choke Point project is helping the world understand the urgency of the contest for water, energy, and food. Just as importantly, our work is identifying opportunities to build international momentum for political and pragmatic solutions.

Never was the influence of our work more apparent than in 2014.

After briefing Congressional staffers about energy and water the Global Choke Point team marks the moment. From left - J. Carl Ganter, Nadya Ivanova, Jennifer Turner, Keith Schneider, Peter Marsters.
After briefing Congressional staffers about energy and water the Global Choke Point team marks the moment. From left – J. Carl Ganter, Nadya Ivanova, Jennifer Turner, Keith Schneider, Peter Marsters.

A Climate Breakthrough
In November, the United States and China reached agreement to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and take other measures to limit the stresses of industrialization on the planet’s ecosystems. Two of the six major provisions in the pact — one measure to spend $50 million to better understand the ties between energy production and water supply, and a second to treat and recycle wastewater from storing carbon in deep geological formations — are the direct result of Choke Point: China, one of our Global Choke Point reports.

This is no small accomplishment. The U.S.-China climate agreement was widely regarded during the U.N. climate summit, held in December in Lima, Peru, as the breakthrough political step that could lead to a binding global climate agreement later this year in Paris.

Mismanagement, corruption, lack of enforcement, and population growth that adds 25 million new mouths a year hinders India's progress and is wrecking its landscape. Here a swarm of residents live along the train tracks in Guwahati. Photo/Keith Schneider
Mismanagement, corruption, lack of enforcement, and population growth that adds 25 million new mouths a year hinders India’s progress and is wrecking its landscape. Here a swarm of residents live along the train tracks in Guwahati. Photo/Keith Schneider

The U.S. – China climate agreement also is a singular success for a distinctive online communications and policy development model that marries frontline data gathering to international networking and dialogue and is making a proven difference in the world.

That five-year-old Global Choke Point model was developed by Circle of Blue, and by Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center, a think tank  that fosters international scholarship and dialogue. Essentially, the two organizations wedded their strengths. Circle of Blue counted on Jennifer and her colleagues to provide context, and Jennifer’s wondrous directory of personal contacts in and outside China. Jennifer relied on Circle of Blue to dig out the new facts, interview the key players, travel to the resource choke points, and tell a new story of the confrontation between diminishing freshwater supplies and rising demand for energy and food, China’s two biggest water consumers.

Among our big findings in China: Unless energy production and water consumption trends changed quickly in a drying nation, China would run out of water to meet its energy demands by the end of this decade.
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Earth Pushes Back – Hard

China's coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is closing in on 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith
China’s coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is nearing 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith

There’s nothing demur about Mother Earth these days. She’s fuming and pushing back hard. Very hard.

The Ebola emergency that began in West Africa and has since spread to two more continents has produced 5,000 deaths and is accelerating. Deep droughts engulf Brazil’s largest city and America’s largest state. Hurricanes drowned two major American cities since 2005. The 2013 Philippines typhoon killed 6,250 people. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 228,000 people. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

All of these events illustrate Earth’s new temper tantrum and reflect two reasons common to its cause. The first is the massive population growth that is pushing mankind deeper into dangerous places to secure increasingly scarce supplies of water, food, and energy. In West Africa more people ventured into equatorial forests for land to grow crops and wood to heat fires. They unleashed a plague.

The second is how transportation, energy, food, water supply, and other public systems have been so weakened by disinvestment, mismanagement, and corruption that nations are not capable of summoning an adequate response.

In the case of the Ebola outbreak what was missing in West Africa was a competent health care system. The virus is loose now, spreading and dangerous.

The Earth doesn’t care. The Ebola outbreak is evidence of how nations are being pummeled by ecological emergencies that don’t seem natural — longer droughts, harsher floods, deadlier diseases, more severe insect infestations, earthquakes, tsunamis, and more powerful storms than ever before.

The tough droughts in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and in California are visible chapters in this new narrative. Disruptions in hydrological cycles have resulted in drier conditions across much of the planet.  Sao Paulo, a city of nearly 12 million residents that is twice as big as it was in 1980, was slow to recognize the severity of the shortage of moisture and did next to nothing to encourage water conservation.

The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider

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BEIGIN 2013: A Conference That Thrilled Students, Stirred Lifelong Friendship

At play on China’s Great Wall with five friends, from left, Luka Lesson (rapper, poet), Karima Grant (author, children’s museum founder), me, Geoff Morgan (educator, school builder), Bob Nameng (founder Soweto Kliptown Youth foundation), kneeling, Linda Ragsdale, artist and teacher of peace. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW YORK — Five years ago Linda Ragsdale, an artist and mother from Nashville, survived a terrrorist attack in Mumbai, India that killed 166 people. In a keynote speech at the BEIGIN H2O conference in Beijing, Linda described the orderly persistence of the attack on the hotel where she stayed. Not a soul stirred in the auditorium at the International School of Beijing as she recounted the sound, the smell, the sight of the gun barrel, and the determined and surprising empathy she felt for the attacker (he was about the same age as her son).

That gunman, neatly dressed in khakis, strode into the restaurant where she sat and unleashed bursts of bullets, like angry bees from a hive. One of them slashed through three feet of her torso. She was saved by strangers who pulled her into the restaurant kitchen and then into the back seat of a taxi that raced to the hospital. In the years since, Linda told 500 students, she’s devoted herself to founding a non-profit group, The Peace Dragon, and its signature The Peace Master Class, which helps students around the world “engage their human powers of view, voice, and choice to have a super life.” Her story, personal and riveting and inspiring, is all the more courageous because her life could be riven by resentment and revenge. “I know what a bullet can do to the human body,” Linda said. “And I’ve never held a gun.”

In early November I spent almost a week with Linda, and with four more people of accomplishment at BEIGIN 2013, a conference designed to immerse students from 42 elite international high schools from across Asia in the specifics of a dozen risks to global sustainability — among them global warming, fisheries depletion, poverty, disease, pollution, conflict, labor, deforestation, migration, weak Internet infrastructure and access, and water supply.

That’s a heavy list for the millennial generation to accept even as it’s compelled to think about solutions. It’s a dispiriting list for baby boomers. My generation developed and enforced the modern environmental policy and regulatory apparatus to limit industrial depradations in the West. We’ve been unable, though, to muster the resolve to adapt the rules to new conditions, and utterly failed to gain a grip in the developing world.

But it’s also a list that can be solved with the help of the fine young minds coming up the pike. That was the point of the BEIGIN conference, which was organized by faculty and staff at the International School of Beijing. The conference’s transactional and communications hub was a three-person team that included Simon Parker, the assistant director of student activities, and his faculty colleagues Zerlina Cheng and Brad Philen. Parker, Cheng, and Philen clearly set out to make a strong case for what the conference smartly referred to as H2O – Hope. Humanity. Opportunity.

Indeed, the world contends with all manner of environmental and economic risks, much of it caused not by a shortage of resources or of recognition, but by a desert of empathy and a barren storehouse of courage to act.

In Australia, a nation wracked by drought and water scarcity, much of it influenced by burning the nation’s abundance of coal, new elections bring to power lawmakers that are set on producing and combusting even more coal.

In India, where water supplies are draining from beneath the land and coal production is soaring to keep pace with escalating energy demand, the 700 million people connected to agriculture are provided free energy and free water as a function of 50-year-old law and policy. The national decision to drive economic growth with reckless resource policy encourages more profligate water use, much higher climate-changing coal consumption, and built-in inefficiencies that are doing the opposite of what India wants. India is producing massive food surpluses that rot in warehouses. And the country’s economy is slowing.

I could go on. More than 40 years ago my Great Lakes home region in the United States helped lead the work to enact the Clean Water Act, which scrubbed industrial and municipal pollutants out of the five big lakes. The nation acted with intelligence and persistence to enforce the law. The water got clearer, in fact much clearer. New conditions today, though, are pouring phosphorous into the lakes, leading to great blooms of toxic algae, now the most important and visible threat to the Great Lakes. But the states and the nation that embraced the Clean Water Act are politically and culturally helpless to respond to these new conditions, the result of a democracy deformed by economic fear, selfishness, and irrational ideology.

Young people today are aware of the challenges they face. What they say they need are new operating principles, an approach to engaging information and the world that leads to promise in an era of apparent peril. In choosing the conference’s keynote speakers and workshop leaders, Parker and his colleagues sought people who could help lay that kind of pragmatic intellectual and emotional foundation.

What the keynoters and workshop leaders discovered during the six days we spent together — teaching in classes, hanging out at meals, touring the Great Wall, drinking beer downtown — was that we were as open to learning from each other as the students.

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In China’s Coal Belt, A Refinery Drains Water and Life

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Qingwei Sun, former Greenpeace campaigner, and lead author of Thirsty Coal, a two-part report on the rising water demands of China’s largest energy sector. Photo/Keith Schneider

BEIJING — Qingwei Sun, who investigated and wrote two revealing reports for Greenpeace in the last two years on how China’s giant coal sector uses, and in some cases abuses the nation’s water reserves, is a 36-year-old geographer from Lanzhou, the capital and largest city in Gansu Province.

At the moment, he’s also one of the highest profile environmental researchers in China. Last month, as a campaigner for Greenpeace, he was the lead author of a revealing account of how Shenhua, China’s largest coal company, is draining groundwater supplies near Ordos, Inner Mongolia in order to keep the world’s newest coal-to-liquids refinery and associated plants operating.

Circle of Blue also knows a lot about the Shenhua refinery. Almost three years ago I visited the site of the refinery as part of our Choke Point: China report, interviewed the plant’s chief design engineer, and learned that coal-to-liquids refineries consumed so much water — about 10 cubic meters for every metric ton of fuel produced — that China’s program to build over 20 such refineries had been curtailed to constructing just three. Shenhua said the refinery consumed about 10 million cubic meters annually, or roughly 3 billion gallons.

Last month, in his second Thirsty Coal report, Qingwei reported that Shenhua’s refinery, and the complex of processing and power plants around it, consume 30 million cubic meters of water annually. All of it comes from wells drilled ever deeper into the region’s freshwater aquifers. So much water is being drawn to supply the complex that groundwater levels have fallen 100 meters (300 feet) since the plant went into operation in December 2008.

Qingwei and his colleagues documented how lower groundwater depths in the region dried surface lands, forced farmers to curtail crop and livestock production, drained a lake, and caused economic and ecological havoc. The report named Shenhua as the culprit, such a bold step for the Chinese office of a foreign NGO that the Central Government blocked Internet dissemination of the study’s findings in China. Meanwhile, over 500 news reports about the Greenpeace study were published and posted outside China, Qingwei said.

Earlier this week I joined Qingwei and a group of American and Chinese water researchers on a speaking and meeting tour to China’s leading natural resource science groups. During those meetings, China’s government researchers revealed just how deeply Qingwei’s report had penetrated the science and policy infrastructure in Beijing, and just how frustrated they were with its conclusions. One after another, government scientists sought to find fault with Qingwei’s numbers, raise questions about his tone and fairness, and express what they said was disappointment in his conclusions. None, though, said he was wrong.

The focus of both Thirsty Coal studies is the consequences to China’s water supplies from the construction and operation of enormous coal bases that China installed in its coal belt, which runs across the provinces of the dry north. Just like the first Thirsty Coal report, completed in collaboration with a unit of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the second study is a first-rate piece of reporting that merits the attention it is receiving.

The Thirsty Coal project came with a high personal stake for Qingwei, and not because of the government pressure. Almost three years ago he left Gansu, where he lived since 1994, and where his wife and nine-year-old son still live, to start a new job as a campaigner in Greenpeace’s Beijing office. His interest was water supply and coal production.

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In China, Responding to Water-Energy Choke Point Now a Government Priority

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Jennifer Turner (in red), director of the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum, introduces the Water and Energy Team to policy experts at China’s Development Research Center of the State Council, the government research group that provides policy recommendations to China’s highest executive agency. Photo/Keith Schneider

BEIJING — Almost three years ago a team of reporters and photographers from Circle of Blue, assisted by Jennifer Turner and her staff at the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum, mustered here in China’s capital city.

Our mission was straightforward and well-suited for a strong group of journalists. We wanted to know how China was managing its fast-rising demand for energy, which requires enormous quantities of fresh water, in a country that was getting drier.

We posted the answer in 2011 in Choke Point: China, a series of frontline multi-media reports on the immense confrontation between water supply and energy production. Among our many findings, perhaps the most striking was this one: At current rates of economic growth and energy production, China will not have enough water in its dry northern desert provinces to simultaneously produce food, supply farms, and mine, process, and combust coal in the region that produces 70 percent of the nation’s coal. We calculated that China’s northern coal-producing provinces would be 20 billion cubic meters short of water by the end of the decade.

In other words China’s economic development strategy, firmly planted in the growth-at-any-cost principles of the 20th century, is running to ground on the rocky reality of the drying, resource-scarce, climate-altered conditions of the 21st.

Today, we learned just how influential the 2011 Choke Point: China project, as well as follow-up reporting in 2012, has been in China. This morning, a team of American and Chinese water and energy specialists met in Beijing with the environmental scientists and sustainability experts of the Development Research Center of the State Council, the government research group that provides policy recommendations to China’s highest executive agency.

While introducing more than a dozen of his colleagues, Zhang Yongsheng, a senior research fellow and the deputy director general of a department in the Development Research Center, explained how the coal sector, which uses a fifth of the country’s fresh water, is being buffeted by drying conditions. Zhang said the contest for the two resources was a focus of research and policy development that is steadily elevating in priority in the central government. Zhang pointed to the Choke Point findings as a galvanizing influence that is helping to push China to a new and powerful thought about its development.

“We need to find a new growth model,” said Zhang. “This is especially true in the water and energy areas. We need to transfer the economy to a green economy. The economy needs to be more sustainable. This is the choke point for the country. We like your report. What you are doing is very important.”

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