After decades of ignoring soil, water and air pollution within its jurisdiction the Chinese government has notified the WTO that it will ban ‘foreign garbage‘ imports. To make room for the rapid economic growth that propelled China to the status of global manufacturer its authorities chose to shut an eye on the various environmental misdeeds consequent to economic expansion. That involved a tripling of waste generation within less than a decade. The decision to ban waste imports such as plastics, paper and industrial residues, is an indication that Chinese authorities are ready to deal with the negative externalities of their economic growth.
China imports 24 types of waste, most of which come from neighboring economies. The import ban covers almost exclusively solid waste such as plastic, paper, slag from steelmaking and textile waste, which are classified as a source of pollution resulting from their incineration or landfill deposition. While there are reasons to cheer for China’s ambitious to reduce domestic pollution and for that matter ban waste imports, this decision is poised to harm Chinese recycling businesses in coastal areas. The decision, due to enter into force towards the end of 2017, will shut off $3.7 billion worth of plastic waste and $1 billion worth of unsorted paper.
The impact of the ban is also not something of scale. Waste imports account for a small share of domesticaly produced Chinese waste volumes. For examples, imported plastic waste amounted to 7Mt in 2016 while domestically produced plastic waste was about 30Mt. A similar story applies for other waste streams. A follow-up on the import ban should, in consequence, be tackling domestically produced waste with hazardous consequences when incinerated or disposed in landfills.
A number of aspects emerge from the waste ban news, as:
- Chinese authorities are using their centralized power to tackle a sensitive issue such as waste, but their starting point is external (smaller) source rather than from within (the larger). Their impact can only be limited.
- This could also be a sign of maturity from the part of China, who is also committed to the decarbonization pledges made with the Paris Climate Agreement unlike some developed nations.
- Allegedly, the waste contamination problem of coastal Chinese provinces has been heavily under-evaluated with implication for water, soil and air contamination which could take a minimum of two generations to mend.
- The announcement to the WTO sends a political message to the neighboring economies who relied on China to off-take their polluting waste streams. This means that other economies in the region could take the role china has been playing so far, or these nations need to develop domestic disposal measures for the polluting wastes.
Hydrogen is considered one of the promising energy carriers to support global efforts to decarbonize global economies and one of the few viable solutions for the transport sector. It can be produced via two routes. The cheapest and widest available route is steam methane reforming, and as the name suggests, it is derived from hydrocarbons (typically natural gas). Alternatively, hydrogen can be produced by splitting the water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis, a process which is a few times more expensive in the current market conditions.
The high costs of electrolysis is only partly related to the equipment necessary to enable the molecular split. The largest cost component of the electrolysis-derived-hydrogen-production comes from its high demand for electricity, which in order to deliver the climate benefits it prides itself on, should be sourced from renewable sources. In such case, the electricity used would result from surplus power production when electricity prices are very low (even negative).
But why convert electricity into hydrogen when electricity can be used itself as an energy source for heating, lighting and propulsion. In case of power shortages over wide geographical region, peak demand or in the absence of alternative clean sources, hydrogen offers system back-up. From the available energy storage technologies available, hydrogen can deliver the 1GWh to 1TWh within 1h to 1month, in comparison with batteries whose storage range is a factor of 100.000 lower than hydrogen.
A few energy storage options are available at the moment in the market. Some are expected to improve retention capacity and discarge time, but the main solutions for large-scale energy storage feature pumped storage and hydrogen. Graph source.
An additional benefit of hydrogen is that it can cater to all the energy system’s functions (low-temperature heat, high-temperature heat, power and mobility), a characteristic which can make the molecule a one-stop-shop solution.
But a hydrogen economy has its hurdles as it requires consumer acceptance, a new layer of system integration, infrastructure retrofitting or even additional new infrastructure. And it all comes at a cost which needs to be swallowed by someone in the value chain.
The fascination of mankind with megastructure can be argued to have emerged in the early times, only in the course of time this fascination has mainly lead to some form of destruction. Seemingly the quest for new territories and resources, the attainment of security and self-sufficiency, has pushed nations into crafting large ships, spaceshifts even, aquaducuts, pipelines and dams, and the only limit to this has been creativity. The quest continues. One such example is the Indian space programme, a low budget innitiative with high aspirations, which aims to show the world how progressively active this 1.2 billion nation is with their space mission. Only too little is known about the opportunities and challenges that such undertakings bear. Closer to our present days is the Chinese innitiative to redistribute the water resources of the nation such that it will address the growing demand of the Northern provinces. The mega-structure is called the South-North Water Diversion Project, and its purpose is to create a 3,000 km long infrastructure composed of tunnels and canals, which will pump 14,8 billion cubic meters of water per year. Such a mega-structure will link Yangzi with the Yellow River, and will redistribute water from the humid south to the de-hydrated north. The environmental consequences of such projects is rarely accounted for before time, which begs the question: what is the deal with such massively irresponsible risk bearing projects?
Is it that their short term solutions outweight the environmental clean-up that follows? History proves us wrong. Dealing with environmental degradation in the form of biodiversity loss, watter supply disruptions, reduced run-off, mass wasting and pollution, is easier than looking for creative edge-cutting solutions that will ensure minimal environmental impact. The thin line between ignorance and the harsh reality is thining by the day.