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Mea Culpa

2 February 2014

Mea Culpa

By Gwynne Dyer

Confession is good for the soul, and my soul is certainly in need of improvement, so here is a confession. I got it wrong in my article “Geo-Engineering in Trouble”, sent out on 15 January. I couldn’t be happier about that.

The article said that a new scientific study, carried out by Angus Ferraro, Ellie Highwood and Andrew Charlton-Perez of Reading University, showed that the most widely discussed geo-engineering method for holding the global temperature down would have disastrous consequences for agriculture. The method is injecting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere; the (unintended) result would be devastating drought in the tropics.

The idea of using sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere to reflect back some incoming sunlight, thus lowering surface temperatures on Earth, has been the leading contender for a geo-engineering solution to runaway heating since the whole subject came out of the closet eight years ago. And then along come “Ferraro et al.” (as the scientists put it) to tell us that the side-effects will be disastrous. Thanks, guys.

So I ended the article by saying: “The sulphur dioxide technique was the cheapest and seemingly the best understood option for holding the temperature down. A great many people were glad that it was there, as a kind of safety net if we really don’t get our act together in time to halt the warming by less intrusive means. Now there’s no safety net.”

Almost immediately I got an email from Andy Parker, now a research fellow in the Kennedy School at Harvard University and previously a climate change policy advisor for the Royal Society in the United Kingdom. You’ve been suckered by the publicity flacks at Reading University, he said (though in kinder words). They have spun the research findings for maximum shock value. In other words, read the damn thing before you write about it.

Well, actually, I did read it (it’s available on-line), but the conclusions are couched in the usual science-speak, with a resolute avoidance of anything that might look like interpretation for the general public. I didn’t look long enough at the key graph that undercuts the dire conclusions of the publicists, presumably because I had already been conditioned by them to see something else there.

Drastic consequences would indeed ensue if you tried to geo-engineer a 4 degrees C warmer world all the way back down to the pre-industrial average global temperature by putting sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere. But nobody in their right mind would try to do that.

On the other hand, if you were using sulphates to hold the temperature down to plus 1.8 degrees C, in a world where the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere would otherwise give you plus 4 degrees C, then the effect on tropical rainfall would be small. And that is a far likelier scenario, because we are most unlikely to resort to large-scale geo-engineering until we are right at the threshold (around plus 2 degrees C) of runaway warming.

So the correct conclusion to draw from Ferrero et al. is that geo-engineering with sulphates is still one of the more promising techniques for holding the temperature down, and should be investigated further. As Andy Parker put it, “this does not tell us that we should do geo-engineering, but it does mean that the paper is a long way from being the nail in the coffin that the press release implies.”

And then I got another email, this time from my old friend Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, who took me to task for assuming that human greenhouse gas emissions “probably will not drop” fast enough to prevent us from going into runaway warning (unless we geo-engineer) later this century.

Not true, he said. “Since the Kyoto conference in 1997, most efforts to hedge climate risks have made four main errors: assuming solutions will be costly rather than (at least mainly) profitable; insisting they be motivated by concerns about climate rather than about security, profit, or economic development; assuming they require a global treaty; and assuming businesses can do little or nothing before carbon is priced.”

“As these errors are gradually realized, climate protection is changing course. It will be led more by countries and companies than by international treaties and organizations, more by the private sector and civil society than by governments, more by leading developing economies than by mature developed ones, and more by efficiency and clean energy’s economic fundamentals than by possible future carbon pricing.”

He pointed out how strongly China is committed to clean energy. Last year renewables, (including hydro) accounted for 43 percent of new generating capacity in China, as the extra coal plants ordered long ago taper sharply down. India is showing signs of moving in the same direction, and there’s even hope that Japan may decide to replace all the nuclear capacity it is shutting down with renewables rather than coal.

So I shouldn’t be so pessimistic, they were both telling me. I believe Andy Parker is right, and I hope Amory Lovins is right too. But just in case Amory is a bit off in the timing of all these turn-arounds on greenhouse gas emissions in Asia, I would still like to see a lot of research, including small-scale experiments in the open atmosphere, on the various techniques for geo-engineering.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 11 and 12. (“The idea…guys”; and “Not…pricing”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

Playing Chicken in the East China Sea

26 November 2013

Playing Chicken in the East China Sea

By Gwynne Dyer

Since Saturday, when China declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” (ADIZ) that covers the disputed islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, the media have been full of predictions of confrontation and crisis. On that same day Japan scrambled two F-15 fighters to intercept two Chinese aircraft that approached the islands.

“This announcement by the People’s Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region,” said US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, and on Tuesday the US Air Force flew two B-52 bombers from Guam into the ADIZ. A Pentagon spokesman said Washington “continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies.”

But forcing incoming aircraft to do just that is the whole point of creating an ADIZ. Aircraft entering the zone must provide a flight plan, maintain two-way radio communications and clearly identify their nationality, said the Chinese Defence Ministry, and aircraft that ignore the rules would be subject to “defensive emergency measures.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told Japan’s parliament on Monday that the zone “can invite an unexpected occurrence and it is a very dangerous thing as well” – but on Tuesday Tokyo instructed Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines (ANA) to simply ignore the zone when flying through it. It is turning into a game of chicken, and the East China Sea is just about the worst place in the world for that kind of foolishness.

China and Japan have been pursuing an increasingly angry dispute over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are under Japanese administration. They also have a long history of conflict (in which China was generally the victim), and they both have strongly nationalist leaders. Beijing is looking for a diplomatic victory here, not a war, but it is taking a very big gamble.

“The Japanese and US complaints that the ADIZ is a “unilateral” move that changes “the status quo” are inherently false,” wrote the China Daily. “The US did not consult others when it set up and redrew its ADIZs. Japan never got the nod from China when it expanded its ADIZ, which overlaps Chinese territories and exclusive economic zone. Under what obligation is China supposed to seek Japanese and US consent in a matter of self-defence?”

Fair comment, as far as it goes – but it would normally be prudent to discuss the matter with the neighbours before proclaiming an air defence identification zone that overlaps by half with one of theirs. (Japan already has an ADIZ that covers the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands.) Moreover, ADIZs usually require only aircraft that intend to enter the country’s national airspace to notify the controllers, not all aircraft transiting the ADIZ.

Just how does China intend to enforce its new ADIZ? By shooting down a Japan Airlines 787 and a US Air Force B-52? If not that, then how? National pride and the personal reputation of new President Xi Jinping are both seriously committed to this game now, and if the foreigners ignore the zone China cannot just shrug its shoulders and forget about it.

Which brings us to the key question: did Beijing really game out this move before it decided to set the zone up? Did it set up teams to play the Japanese and the Americans realistically, look at what they might do to challenge the zone, and consider its own counter-moves? That’s what most great powers would do before launching a challenge like this, and maybe China did that too. But maybe it didn’t.

When you put yourself in the shoes of a Chinese navy or air force commander trying to enforce the new ADIZ, you can’t help feeling sorry for him. He can shoot something down, of course, but even his own government would quail at the possible consequences of that. Quite apart from the grave danger of escalation into a full-scale military confrontation with Japan and the United States, the economic damage to China would be huge.

On the other hand, if he doesn’t compel aircraft transiting the zone to accept China’s new rules, both he and his political superiors will be open to the charge of failing to defend national sovereignty. This is a lose/lose situation, and I suspect that the Chinese government and military really didn’t game it through before they proclaimed the ADIZ.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are not worth a war, or even a single ship or aircraft. They are uninhabited, and their alleged connection with the seabed rights to a natural gas field around 300 km. (200 miles away) is extremely tenuous. This move is a deliberate escalation of an existing dispute, made with the intention of forcing the other side to back down and lose face.

It’s quite common in games of chicken to block off your own escape routes from the confrontation, in order to show that you are not bluffing. And in almost all games of chicken, each side underestimates the other’s will to risk disaster rather than accept humiliation. This could end quite badly.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The Japanese…ADIZ”)

 

 

Chinese Demographics

18 November 2013

Chinese Demographics

By Gwynne Dyer

The big news of the week is that China’s one-child policy is being relaxed. After 34 years when most Chinese families were officially limited to only one child, most couples will now be allowed to have two children. The reality, however, is that it will make very little difference.

It will make little difference because only about one-third of Chinese couples were still living under those restrictions anyway. The one-child limit never applied to ethnic minorities, and in the past fifteen years it has rarely applied to people living in rural areas either: couples whose first child was a girl are almost always allowed to have a second child (in the hope that it will be a boy).

Controls were stricter in the cities, but if both prospective parents were only children themselves they were exempt from the limit. And people with enough money can just ignore the rules: the penalty for having a second child is just a stiff fine up front and the extra cost of raising a child who is not entitled to free education. (The fines are reported to have raised $2.12 billion for the state coffers last year alone.)

The net result of all this is that the China’s current fertility rate (the average number of children a woman will bear in a lifetime) is not 1.0, as it would be if there were a really strict one-child policy. According to United Nations statistics, it is 1.55, about the same as Canada. Which suggests that most Chinese who really wanted a second child got one.

The new rules that have just been announced by the Third Plenum of the Communist Party say that urban people can now have a legal second child if just one of the would-be parents was an only child. This is not going to unleash a wave of extra babies; it will raise the fertility rate, at most, to 1.6. (“Replacement” level is 2.1.) Indeed, it’s questionable whether the one-child policy really held down China’s birth rate at all.

There are demographers who argue that the one-child policy hasn’t really made much difference. China was already urbanising fast when the policy was imposed in 1979, and the more urban a country is, the lower the birth rate. From about 1970 there was also a very aggressive birth control policy.

The fertility rate in China had already dropped from 5.8 children per woman in 1970 to only 2.7 in 1978, the year before the one-child rule was introduced. It has since fallen to 1.55, but that might well have happened anyway. For comparison, Brazil’s fertility rate has dropped from 6.0 fifty years ago to 1.7 now WITHOUT a one-child policy.

China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission claims that the one-child policy has spared the country an extra 400 million mouths to feed, but it would say that, wouldn’t it? The real number of births avoided by that policy is probably no more than 100 million in three decades. And if we accept these numbers, then three major conclusions follow.

The first is that the one-child policy is not the major culprit in China’s disastrous gender imbalance, with at least 120 boys born for every 100 girls. The social effects of this are very dangerous: by the end of this decade there will be 24 million “leftover” men who will never find a wife.

Any sane government would be terrified by the prospect of a huge army of unattached and dissatisfied young men hanging around the streets after work with nothing much to do. A regime with as little legitimacy as the Communists will be even more frightened by it. Unfortunately for them, ending the one-child policy will have little effect on this pattern.

Only state intervention as arbitrary and intrusive as the one-child policy could reverse the gender imbalance, and it is doubtful that the Communist regime is still confident enough to risk that degree of unpopularity.

The second conclusion we can draw from these statistics is that China’s population is going to drop whether the regime wants it or not. It will peak at or below 1.4 billion, possibly as soon as 2017, and then begin a long decline that will see it fall to 1.2 billion by 2050.

There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but it exacerbates what is already the greatest threat to economic growth in China: the population’s rapidly rising average age. The big, old generations will be around for a long time, but the younger generations are getting smaller very fast. Indeed, the number of people in the 20-24 age group in China will halve in the next ten years.

This means the dependency rate is going to skyrocket. In 1975, there were 7.7 people in the workforce for every person over sixty: by 2050, the ratio will be only 1.6 employed persons for every retiree.

No country has ever had to bear such a burden before, but ending the one-child policy won’t get the birth rate back up. The only way China could increase its workforce to lessen the burden is to open up the country to mass immigration. And what are the odds on that?

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 11. (“The new…policy”; and “Only…unpopularity”)

 

The Race to Mars

5 November 2013

The Race to Mars

By Gwynne Dyer

The Curse of Mars also applies to Asian countries. About two-thirds of the attempted missions to Mars have failed, many of them even before leaving Earth orbit, and most of the rest when they tried to land. Japan’s only Mars mission failed in 1998, China’s first try failed when the Russian rocket carrying its Mars orbiter into space fell back to Earth in 2011 – and so India seized the opportunity to be the first Asian country to go to Mars.

Fifteen months after the decision was announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an Independence Day speech from the Red Fort in Delhi, India’s half-tonne Mangalyaan vehicle blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the country’s east coast on Tuesday. It is already in Earth orbit, and within two weeks it will set course for Mars. Unless the Mars Curse gets it, of course.

There is something faintly ridiculous about India and China “racing” to be the first Asian country to reach Mars, but it’s no more ridiculous than the Russian-American space race of the 1960s. Besides, to be fair to the Indian Space Research Organisation, the launch window for making a relatively low-energy transition to a Mars orbit will close before the end of this month, and it won’t open again for more than two years.

Once Mangalyaan gets there, if it does, it will go into orbit around Mars and carry out various scientific experiments, notably a search for methane (an indicator of the presence of life) in the Martian atmosphere. At this point, various arrogant and/or sanctimonious people will point out that the American Mars rover Curiosity has already reported finding no methane on Mars, and that India is too poor to be indulging in such foolishness anyway.

The Indians will reply that NASA, the American space agency, also said that there was no evidence of water on the Moon – until the Indian lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 reported the presence of water molecules in the lunar soil in 2008. They might also mention that if the United States waited until there were no more poor Americans before sending people to the Moon, the first US mission might leave fifty years from now. Or maybe not even then.

The Indian space programme operates on an amazingly small budget (about $1 billion a year), but it has put dozens of satellites in orbit that provide practical benefits for earthbound Indians: remote sensing, flood management, cyclone alerts, fishery and forest management, etc. But that’s all in near space; the question is really whether long-range space exploration is a rational proposition.

Nationalism is part of the motivation behind every country’s space programme, and while it has its comical side it does at least persuade the political authorities to provide the large sums that are needed. China is planning to land a rover on the Moon next month, and is talking about a manned landing there by 2024. That will certainly speed up India’s manned space programme.

Like the old Russo-American space race, the Chinese-Indian one will accelerate the development of new technologies and techniques. It will fill some of the gap left by the loss of momentum in the older space powers, and some useful science will get done. But the biggest reason for welcoming the entry of major new players in space exploration is the one that everybody is too embarrassed to mention: the future of the human race.

Well, almost everybody. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, the private company that aims to dominate the delivery-to-orbit service once provided by NASA, actually wants to create a human colony on Mars in his own lifetime – and he’s 41 now.

He is a serious player, whose large fortune (derived from his creation and subsequent sale of PayPal) is now devoted to manufacturing electric cars and building space transportation systems. Both projects are prospering, and he sees them as providing the financial and technological basis for pursuing his real goal: spreading human beings beyond this single planetary habitat while the launch window for that is still open.

Musk was quite frank about that in an interview with Rory Carroll in The Guardian newspaper last July.”The lessons of history suggest that civilisations move in cycles,” he said. “You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians. We’re in a very upward cycle right now, and hopefully that remains the case. But it might not.

“There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact that it will be open a long time.”

I’ll let you in on a little secret. That is a big part of the motivation (though a rarely admitted part) for half the people who work in any of the national space programmes, including India’s. They value the science, and they may even revel in the glory from time to time, but that’s what it’s really about.