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Burning Issue For Beijing

Underground coal fires are blazing out of control on the mainland, contributing greatly to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions

Tim Johnson – SCMP | Updated on Nov 17, 2008

The barren hillsides give a hint of the inferno underfoot. White smoke billows from cracks in the earth, venting a sulfurous rotten smell into the air. The rocky ground is hot to the touch, and heat penetrates the soles of shoes. Beneath some rocks, a red glow betrays an unseen hell: the epicentre of a severe underground coal fire.

“Don’t stay too long,” warned Ma Ping, a retired coal miner. “The gases are poisonous.”

Another miner tugs on the sleeve of a visitor.

“You can cook a potato here,” said Zhou Ningsheng, his face still black from a just-finished shift, as he pointed to a vent in the earth. “You can see with your own eyes.”

The mainland has the worst underground coal fires of any place on Earth. The fires destroy as much as 20 million tonnes of coal annually, nearly the equivalent of Germany’s entire annual production. The costs go beyond the waste of a valuable fuel, however.

Scientists identify uncontrolled coal fires as a significant source of greenhouse gases, which lead to global warming. Unnoticed by most people, coal fires can burn for years – even decades and longer – producing carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that warm the atmosphere.

“Coal fires are a disaster for all of humanity. And it’s only due to global warming that people are finally beginning to pay attention,” said Guan Haiyan, a coal fire expert at Shenhua Remote Sensing and Geo-engineering.

The rising demand for coal to satisfy a worldwide hunger for energy has given way to increased mining, and a proliferation of fires in coal seams and abandoned mines. The mainland, which has tripled coal production in the past three decades, has mobilised thousands of firefighters to combat the 62 known coal fires scattered across the north.

Major fires have been extinguished. However, Dutch scientists scribbling back-of-the-envelope calculations say that fires on the mainland may still be the cause of 2 per cent to 3 per cent of the world’s annual emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. They call for greatly increasing efforts to extinguish the mainland’s fires – and those in places such as India, Russia and Indonesia – as a practical step to fighting global warming.

It’s a relatively cheap way to stop greenhouse gas emissions,” said Horst Rueter, a German geophysicist who is the scientific co-ordinator for a Sino-German initiative to combat coal fires.

Dr Rueter said that mainland coal fires accounted for at least half the global emissions from coal fires around the world, making them a steady source of pollutants.

Others said that such runaway fires, while significant, paled beside overall emissions from the United States, a fossil-fuel glutton that may give off a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions.

Coal fires can occur naturally and are not a new phenomenon. Australia’s Burning Mountain has smouldered for thousands of years. An underground coal fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, began in 1962, eventually opening sinkholes that threatened to gobble and incinerate pets and children. Centralia became a ghost town, and experts say the fire there may burn for a century or more.

At the Rujigou coalfield in the Ningxia Autonomous Region of western China, fires have burned since the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Legend has it that miners who were angry over not being paid started a coal fire more than a century ago. “It was industrial revenge,” Mr Guan said.

Many coal fires begin spontaneously when underground seams come in contact with the air – either through fault lines from earthquakes or mining activity – generating a chemical reaction that can slowly heat and ignite the coal. Human activity can intensify the fires, however, especially when workers abandon dust-filled mines without sealing the airshafts, allowing temperatures to build.

The mainland’s coal fires stretch across a northern belt that runs nearly 5,000km from east to west. A cluster of them are in Ningxia and a little to the north in Inner Mongolia , at the edge of the Gobi Desert. The concentration of coal fires in the region puts it in the running for one of the world’s worst ecological disasters, and only humans can extinguish the problem.

“These fires just don’t go out,” said Anupma Prakash, a University of Alaska at Fairbanks expert on mapping coal fires.

Coal fires pollute the air with putrid smoke and wreak havoc on water supplies and above-ground ecology, creating “heat islands” where little vegetation can grow, not even hardy grasses. Wildlife flees.

“There used to be rabbits and pheasants around here, but not any more,” said Liang Guobao, who oversees a generator facility at the San Kuang coal mine in the sprawling Wuda coalfields in Inner Mongolia. His generator powers fans to clear the air in underground shafts.

Mr Liang walked with a visitor around the barren landscape, pointing out places where the ground had collapsed after subterranean coal fires ate away seams and left empty caverns.

“The mine started here in 1958, and almost immediately the fires began,” Mr Liang said.

Coal fuels the mainland’s roaring economy, powering its factories but also taking a human, social and environmental toll. The mainland uses coal for 70 per cent of its primary energy needs, far higher than the world average of 40 per cent. Mainland coal production topped 2.3 billion tonnes last year, equalling the output of the US, Russia, Australia and India combined, according to Yang Fuqiang of the Beijing office of The Energy Foundation, a San Francisco group that promotes energy efficiency.

Even as it provides power, coal exploitation leaves a trail of deaths.

Last year, 3,786 mainland miners died in accidents, a rate 70 times higher than for miners in the US.

Coal burning is a principal cause of air pollution on the mainland, where 400,000 people die each year from illnesses – mainly heart and lung diseases – related to that pollution, the World Bank estimates.

For those who grew up in the region, the scarring of the hilly environment from unseen coal fires is part of the landscape. Mr Ma recalled walking in the hills as a youth and discovering long, deep fissures in the earth.

“We wouldn’t know how deep they were. If we dropped a stone in, we could hear it bounce off the walls … but we couldn’t hear it hit bottom,” Mr Ma said.

As much as 40 per cent of the mainland’s coal comes from small local mines rather than big state-owned enterprises. Small operators follow a pattern when their mines catch fire.

“When they have a fire, they just leave and go to another place,” said Li Jing, the director of the Institute of Resource Technology at Beijing Normal University.

Over the past decade, Beijing has put far greater emphasis on attacking coal fires. The work is labour intensive, costly and dangerous in its initial stages. The blazes can reach underground temperatures of 700 to 800 degrees Celsius, imperiling firefighters.

“First, they shape the terrain and cool down the surface so the heavy machinery can work,” Dr Rueter said. Teams drill holes down through the burning coal in 50 to 60 spots and inject water for several months “to cool down the entire rock volume”.

Later, they may make up a slurry of sand, water, cement and some chemicals, and pour it into the holes. Once the fire is out, the entire rock area must fall below 70 degrees to ensure that the coal does not re-ignite. A layer of clay is put on top and trees planted to gauge whether the fire has begun anew.

Dr Prakash, the coal fire expert in Alaska, said she thought that worldwide efforts to combat coal fires had fallen short. “The coal exploration is more intense than the coal firefighting efforts,” she said. “In the areas I have seen – China, India, Indonesia, South Africa – they haven’t got any better.”

Beijing is sensitive to charges that it may not be doing enough to put out the fires. Fourteen months ago, it announced with much fanfare that it had finally put out the Rujigou coal fires in Ningxia that had burned for decades. A Xinhua report said the state had spent US$53 million over a decade to douse the fires.

A visit to the site, however, showed that the fires weren’t completely extinguished.

“The leaders said they’d put out all the fires,” said one miner, who preferred to remain anonymous.

There were many reasons that the work was never completed, he said. “One reason is that the investment to put out the fires was not enough. And the leaders changed too frequently.”



Brand-name Shops Accused Of Light Pollution

SCMP | Updated on Oct 31, 2008

A green group has accused five brand-name shops of excessive use of lighting on their outlets’ exterior walls and in advertising that has caused electric-light pollution in Central. The five shops are Louis Vuitton in The Landmark, H&M in Queen’s Road Central, the flagship shop of Coach in Central, Miu Miu in The Landmark and Dunhill in the Prince’s Building. The group Friends of the Earth patrolled Central at midnight on Wednesday and found the outlets all “glowing”, the group’s environmental affairs manager Hahn Chu Hon-keung said. “We do not object to reasonable commercial lighting but we are against wasteful lighting and light nuisances,” he said. “We oppose the shops’ overemphasis on profit-making at the expense of the environment.”

Should There Be Laws To Control Light Pollution?

SCMP | Updated on Oct 31, 2008

It seems that people are becoming more aware of the effects of climate change.

We appreciate the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet although people have this awareness, many do little in the form of practical action to curb the effects of global warming.

We must address environmental issues, because the problems we create are damaging Hong Kong’s reputation.

For example, regulations must be introduced to control the problems caused by light pollution. You see brightly lit advertising signboards. They remain switched on throughout the night, which is unnecessary.

We must have laws that ban this waste of energy.

Mandy Chan Man-hang, Lai Chi Kok

Hong Kong Night Light Pollution Under The Spotlight

James Pomfret – Reuters | Wed Oct 22, 2008

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong may be known as the Pearl of the Orient for its bright-light, big-city allure, but the ubiquitous practice of keeping neon signs and buildings blazing all night has come under growing fire from green groups.

One of the world’s most densely built-up and populated metropolises, Hong Kong is also one of the most brightly lit.

From bustling streets bathed in an array of neon signs to gargantuan spotlight-strewn advertising hoardings to massed light-specked skyscrapers twinkling off the waters of Victoria harbor at night, the glow over the sleepless city makes it difficult to glimpse stars in the night sky.

In an era of growing green consciousness and global warming fears, environmentalists are increasingly critical of this ostentatious display, calling it as unnecessary and wasteful.

“The trend is getting worse and worse,” said Hahn Chu, the environmental affairs manager for Friends of the Earth: “Hong Kong always thinks the brighter things are, the more prosperous we seem, but people often forget that we’re wasting energy.”

While Hong Kong doesn’t have compulsory measures for lights out, a recent public opinion poll on energy conservation by the Council for Sustainable Development found 71 percent of over 80,000 people backed turning off neon lights in the small hours.

In 2008, the city’s environmental protection department received some 50 complaints about light pollution, up from the 40 cases received in 2007, with neon signs posing a growing nuisance for the public.


A massive neon sign advertising luxury brand Prada was found to be one of the worst offenders in an online poll, spilling intense white light onto a near-deserted Central street until till 5 a.m. every day.

“This is flamboyant wastage and creates light pollution,” one respondent was quoted as saying.

A spokesperson for Prada in Hong Kong said it had noted the concern, was “actively seeking a solution and we will reduce the lighting,” she added without giving specifics.

In an initiative named “Dim It Please,” Friends of the Earth called on retailers and building owners to set a lights-off time after business hours to conserve energy and reduce emissions.

The group says Hong Kong’s electricity consumption grew 18 percent between 1997-2006, outpacing local population growth of 5.9 percent in the same period.

Light pollution however, is by no means unique to Hong Kong.

NASA photographs of global “artificial night sky brightness” display a conspicuous “luminous fog” around much of Western Europe and North America as well much of Japan, Taiwan, while Hong Kong shows up as a bright spot in the southern China region.

Global experts say light pollution has become so pronounced that two thirds of the U.S. population and about half the EU are no longer able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.

Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang seems to be seeing the light.

In his annual policy address last week he said the government would “assess the problem of energy wastage of external lighting and study the feasibility of tackling the problem through legislation.”

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by David Fox)

© Thomson Reuters 2008 All rights reserved.

Green Group Takes Dim View Of Prada’s Bright Signboards

Cheung Chi-fai – SCMP | Updated on Oct 20, 2008

Consumers will be urged to boycott upmarket fashion chain Prada if it refuses to dim its illuminated signboard in Central, a green group has warned.

The warning came as Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen last week said the government would study the need for legislation to control light pollution.

Friends of the Earth said the board at Prada’s flagship store at Alexandra House was unnecessarily lit from dusk until dawn.

While many of its neighbours kept their signboard lights on until early morning, Prada’s exterior lighting was the most extravagant, a survey by the group found.

Assisted by overseas activists, the group also found Prada’s Beijing store was lit up until at least 4am, while its counterparts in Singapore and Taipei showed more restraint by switching their much less extravagant lighting off no later than 2.30am.

A letter has been sent to Prada in Hong Kong asking it to rectify the situation, said Hahn Chu Hon-keung, Friends of the Earth’s environmental affairs manager.

“The brand shops show no taste at all in this unrestrained quest for brightness. The consequences are a waste of energy and an unnecessary emission of greenhouse gases,” he said. “If Prada does not stop the light pollution, we will appeal to consumers to boycott it.

“We have also written to two Beijing-based green groups to ask them to follow up the issue there.”

A spokeswoman for Prada in Hong Kong said it was looking at the issue to see if a solution could be found. “The exterior lighting is part of our architecture design and we are reviewing options to reduce the lights,” she said, without saying why the lights could not be switched off earlier.

In a poll by the group, Prada’s exterior lighting was voted the second-most-ridiculous in the city, beaten only by the advertising boards on Windsor House, Causeway Bay.

Spotlights In Causeway Bay

SCMP | 20 September 2008

I was dismayed to see extremely bright spotlights outside Windsor House, in Causeway Bay, which is currently under renovation.

Those spotlights are so bright that basically the whole area is lit up and it is difficult to tell the difference between day and night.

Maybe that is why we call Hong Kong the city that never sleeps.

I fail to understand why whoever is responsible for this has decided to use such bright lights, as there are no adverts on the wall being lit up. The spotlights are environmentally unfriendly and cause light pollution, which must affect people living in that part of Causeway Bay.

Stephen Leung, North Point

Baby Steps Towards Greener Economies

Michael Richardson – SCMP – Updated on Sep 06, 2008

China’s top legislature has just approved a new law designed to put production in what is now one of the world’s four-biggest economies on a more sustainable foundation. When the law comes into force in January, it will add weight to government efforts to get industry to use energy and other resources less wastefully and curb emissions that harm people’s health and the environment.

Dubbed the “circular” economy by officials, this is China’s latest effort to go green by raising efficiency and harnessing alternative energy to reduce reliance on coal, oil and gas. China pays a heavy price for waste and inefficiency in its economy. Ma Kai , head of the National Development and Reform Commission, said last year that, in 2006, China used 15 per cent of the world’s energy to produce just 5.5 per cent of global gross domestic product. “The overall growth of the Chinese economy is inspiring, but one of the worries is that we have paid too dear an environmental and resources price for such growth,” he said.

Enacting the new law will be the easy part. Enforcing it at all levels of the bureaucracy will be much more difficult, as provincial and local governments compete to attract and retain industries, even if they are dirty or only semi-clean.

Beijing, like the Bush administration in the United States, is wary of committing itself to a binding national cap on its greenhouse gas emissions because it knows that could undermine its competitiveness. This will happen unless there are agreed global rules, universally and equitably applied to all sectors of all major economies.

To see the buffeting facing governments and economies in the brave new world of environmental correctness, Beijing need look no further than Australia, one of China’s leading resource suppliers. Australia is the fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world on a per capita basis, mainly because, like China, it relies heavily on coal to generate electricity. However, Australia emits five times more per person than China. The government, under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, plans to launch a national cap-and-trade scheme by 2010 that will put a price on emissions and then oblige companies to buy permits to cover them.

The plan, which is still under negotiation with industry, has triggered a raging debate over how costs are to be apportioned among companies, consumers and the government. Mr Rudd said on Monday that the scheme would “help drive our long-term transformation to a low-carbon economy”. But industry has warned it could drive large emitters offshore or out of business, while sharply raising prices of electricity and other products for consumers.

The government has promised compensation for consumers and help for businesses facing higher energy costs. But, in doing so, it has distorted the “polluter pays” principle in an attempt to ease the burden on firms most likely to lose competitive advantage at home or abroad. Energy-guzzling companies with more than 2,000 tonnes of emissions per A$1,000 (HK$6,570) in revenue would pay for only 10 per cent of their emissions, while cleaner companies producing 1,500 to 2,000 tonnes would pay for 40 per cent of their emissions.

Wherever emissions-trading schemes have been mooted, they are proving controversial. The European Union has promised to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels. It has said it would deepen the cut to 30 per cent if other big economies like China and the US joined the global reduction effort.

However, some members of the European Parliament are now having second thoughts in the face of industry protests. They want a full impact assessment before cutting beyond 20 per cent. No wonder, then, that China is cautious. It does not want to cut its emissions to spite its economy.

Michael Richardson is an energy and security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

China Is No Leading Light In Energy Efficiency

JIM LANDERS – Dallasnews | Tuesday, August 19, 2008

BEIJING – China’s ballooning appetite for energy has helped push global prices higher for oil and coal, much of which is wasted.

Energy efficiency in China is just a fifth of U.S. levels. The government has put a priority on improving that by closing hundreds of small, coal-fired power plants and steel mills, raising fuel economy standards and consumption taxes on gas-guzzling cars, and pushing stores and apartment owners to replace incandescent bulbs with green ones.

But energy policy made through government fiat will only take you so far. Even as Beijing issues decrees about reducing the amount of energy used, it still subsidizes gasoline and electricity, and it’s falling short of its conservation targets.

Free-market economists – including some Chinese advisers to the communist government – argue that price is the best way to save energy. High prices have pushed down U.S. oil consumption about 3 percent this year, the biggest drop in a generation.

China’s motorists pay about $3.40 a gallon for gasoline – up 17 percent in the last two months – but that’s less than U.S. prices, and it hasn’t done much to slow oil consumption or car purchases.

(The price is also far less than the $8-a-gallon price in Hong Kong, where the government is trying mightily to discourage people from buying cars.)

China’s government finds it difficult to let go of price controls because some companies say higher energy costs are forcing them to close factories and move to cheaper locations such as Vietnam, eliminating thousands of jobs, said Huang Fanzheng, a senior adviser to the Chinese government and one of China’s most respected economists.

“So we should not only consider the influence of price on consumption, but also consider how much companies can bear, including foreign companies,” he said.

Price controls have other distorting effects. China imports most of its oil. China’s refiners pay world prices for those imports but collect far less from gasoline consumers. The losses are usually covered by government cash, but that’s no sure thing.

One result is an incentive to sell cheap, low-quality gasoline. It also discourages refiners from investing in expensive technology to eliminate pollutants such as sulfur, which automakers say ruins their more advanced emissions controls.

So while Beijing has ordered China’s governors to cut air pollution by 20 percent over the next decade, the oil refiners won’t be much help.

Nor will the power companies. China leads the world in renewable energy used for electricity generation, with 152 gigawatts of power from sources including wind, nuclear and hydro. (One gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts, or roughly the size of a large power plant.)

But China is the world’s biggest consumer of coal. Eighty percent of its electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Although coal is the country’s most abundant energy resource, China has been a net coal importer since 1992. Smoggy Beijing has giant coal smokestacks peeking out among the city’s skyscrapers. Most of those power plants are shut for the Olympics, but they’ll fire up again once the games are over.

Wang Jiacheng, deputy director of the government’s Academy of Macroeconomic Research, says China’s per-capita electricity use has climbed an average of 10.28 percent a year since 1990.

Coal importers, like oil importers, pay world prices for supplies but get discount payments from customers. So China is going through a coal shortage. That’s pushing companies to curb production or switch to diesel-powered generators, one of the most energy-inefficient ways to produce electricity.

What Do You Think Of Air-Con Levels?

Updated on Aug 18, 2008 – SCMP

Despite the high temperatures on the streets of the city during the summer, it is not surprising to see a lot of people carrying a jacket on their way to work, because their offices are so cold. Our shopping malls are also freezing.

Having to go from the extreme heat to the extreme cold is not good for our health, and having the air conditioners in these malls at such low temperatures is damaging the environment. I appreciate we all get into the habit of turning our air conditioners on automatically when it is warm. But the fact is we are using them too often and relying on them too much. We could at least increase the temperature a bit, as it makes no sense for people to be sitting in their offices wearing jackets and sneezing with the cold.

We are wasting too much money and energy and accelerating the pace of global warming. And obviously, as the planet gets warmer, we risk being subjected to more extreme weather patterns and more natural disasters. We need to recognise these risks and adopt the appropriate lifestyle changes.

The government should promote energy-saving measures. It should urge organisations to pay more attention to indoor room temperatures of offices and other indoor areas. Firms have to appreciate that if they introduce energy-saving measures it will reduce their costs. They also have to be made aware of their social responsibilities.

Parents also have a role to play. They should educate their children so they grow up with good habits.

Emily Lau Lai-fan, Ngau Tau Kok


Updated on Jul 24, 2008 – SCMP

Urban Hong Kong is one supersized billboard. Is anyone bothered? This city has always had many neon signs hanging along the busiest roads. Photos to promote tourism show these streets and Hong Kong’s buzz of activity. Owners compete by putting up bigger signs. Building owners are paid for allowing advertising; this has been seen as “normal” for the city’s commercial life.

In reality, putting up signage has been poorly regulated, even though signs can cause injuries if they should fall – indeed, one advertising sign crashed to the ground recently, killing a passer-by. No one in authority or political life seems too concerned about this overall state of affairs, however.

The smaller signs jutting out from buildings along narrow, busy streets are one thing, but the massive advertising signs that go on buildings and walls, and on top of buildings, are probably some of the largest in the world. There has been a quiet revolution in recent years; they have grown ever larger due to technological advances that allow advertising graphics to be enlarged to cover the side of a whole building.

You cannot escape several large signs hawking famous brands, when going up Cotton Tree Drive, for example. Building owners who are property developers like to place giant advertisements for new properties on their existing buildings.

Take the Cheung Kong Center in Central – an expensive building on Queen’s Road. On one side of the building, the developer has created a permanent structure to hold a large advertising sign to sell its new properties. Likewise, China Building, further down the road, also has advertising wrapped round one side of it. Thus, aesthetics and taste must take a backseat to the opportunity for a hard sell.

When the Ritz Carlton Hotel closed, the owners allowed a giant advertising sign, for men’s underwear, to cover one whole side of the building, and the owners of the Mandarin Oriental didn’t want to lose the opportunity to earn a few dollars, allowing a sizable sign for women’s cosmetics to go up for a few months while the hotel was renovated.

When we look across the harbour from either side, one unmistakable aspect is the multitude of massive signs, flashing their brand names, on top of many buildings. Some show moving images and light up even during the day, so you can’t miss them. That is the point, of course.

Whether massive, big or small, these advertising signs also consume a lot of electricity when lit. A scarce resource – energy – is being wasted. Moreover, Hong Kong uses electricity to advertise itself. The evening light show has become famous with tourists. Traders can afford to do so because the world is not yet pricing energy appropriately, and material consumption is good for business.

At various times, critical voices have been heard against either the subject matter of some adverts – such as emaciated, seemingly just assaulted, female models selling fashion items, or on environmental grounds; using energy causes pollution and exacerbates climate change. There have also been longstanding complaints from some residents, whose comfort and sleep is disturbed by glaring billboards and flashing lights.

Government officials, politicians and business leaders essentially take a commercial view that the city’s lights are part of promoting Hong Kong. When a sign falls off and hits some unfortunate soul, there are whispers that something may need to be done to fasten them more securely. But there is no discussion about whether things have got out of hand altogether.

Many people are bothered; it’s just that there hasn’t been a comprehensive look at the many disturbing aspects of “billboard” Hong Kong. A thunderbolt may come from outside. Remember how upset our leaders were when a tourist guidebook put a hazy picture of Hong Kong on its cover and talked about our air pollution? What if we were voted the most energy-wasteful city?

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange