Environment Forum

Disasterology 7: Earthquake-scarred Sichuan village reimagined as tourist hub, memorial

For survivors of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. Northeast, the Sendai tsunami in Japan and the massive earthquake in Chengdu, China, the scars of disaster are still palpable. I’m part of a group of journalists brought together by the East-West Center in Hawaii to see how the people and environments hit by these catastrophes are faring, one year,  two years and five years later. We began our tour on Sept. 29. Here are the other posts in the series:

Come to the village of Yingxiu and see the elaborate carved gateway, the food stalls, souvenir shops and credentialed performers dressed as a cheeky monkey and a cuddly panda. It is the quintessential tourist town, ringed by mountains and at the confluence of two rivers. You also can leave the main street to see this community’s past, when the clocks stopped at 2:28 p.m. on May 12, 2008.

That was when a monster earthquake heaved almost directly beneath Yingxiu, killing about 70,000 people in and around China’s Sichuan province. Of those, 6,566 died in this formerly bustling factory town, more than one-third of its pre-earthquake population. Eighty percent of the buildings were destroyed.

One poignant reminder of the tragedy remains: a memorial to the 54 students, teachers and parents who died when the local school collapsed on itself. Pilgrims bring yellow flowers to place below a giant clock face, with fissures to indicate the time of the quake more than five years ago.

Some good news for a thirsty world

Amid the worry about water and food scarcity, some hints of good news: a five-year, 30-nation analysis suggests there might be enough water – and therefore enough food — for Earth’s hungriest and thirstiest as the human population heads toward the 9 billion mark sometime around mid-century.

Anxiety about food and water supplies stems in part from the effects of climate change, with its projected rise in droughts, wildfires, floods and other events that cut down on food production. Another factor is the increase in population, much of it grouped around water sources in the developing world. But water experts said at a conference this week in Brazil that there could be plenty of water over the coming decades if those upstream collaborate with those downstream and use water more efficiently.

The leader of the study, Simon Cook of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, said this is actually possible. And he said it wouldn’t require the repeal of the more selfish impulses of human nature.

A parka with windows, a big box in the sky

Could you find domestic happiness living in an angular white parka with windows? A big box set on top of an apartment building? A turtle-shaped shell? A modular Y filled with triangles?

At the U.S. Energy Department’s Solar Decathlon, visitors can try on — OK, tour — these avant garde houses, knowing at least that they’re supremely energy efficient. And with the solar power industry on the defensive after the Solyndra bankruptcy, it’s a decent showcase for new technologies.

Set up along the Potomac River on a slightly out of the way corner of Washington’s National Mall, the village of 19 solar-powered homes represents the work of collegiate designers from New York to New Zealand, the University of Tennessee to Tongji University in China. The requirements are strict: each house must be between 600 and 1,000 square feet, and no taller than 18 feet, and be powered by the sun. Any power taken from the grid must be offset by solar energy produced by the house. No fireplaces, fire pits or candles allowed.

from Entrepreneurial:

Innovation is how we make our living: Is China buying?

A wind turbine is seen near a gate of the ancient city of Wushu in Diaobingshan, Liaoning province January 18, 2011. REUTERS/Sheng Li

-- Tom Lyon is the director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, and Peter Adriaens is a professor of entrepreneurship at the Zell Lurie Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies, both at the University of Michigan. The views expressed are their own. --

President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union speech, called for America to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” But who is the competition, exactly? Who is presenting “our generation’s Sputnik moment”? Who are we racing against to put a million electric vehicles on the road? The president’s answer: China.

Encouraging American innovation is a major piece of the president’s strategy to win the future. And a global leadership position in innovation is ours to lose.

Hu’s visit is over, but China’s ecological footprint lingers

CHINA-PARLIAMENT/The Chinese flags have disappeared from Washington’s wide avenues after China’s President Hu Jintao’s visit this week, but one statistic is still in the air: the rapidly expanding size of the Chinese ecological footprint, compared to the huge but slowing impact U.S. consumers have on global supplies of food, water, fuel — everything, really.

China and the United States are generally considered to hold the top two spots in the world for emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases. But how do they compare when consumption of all goods is taken into account?

A report by Global Footprint Network indicates both countries are living beyond their means, ecologically speaking.

from Tales from the Trail:

Panda diplomacy: the remix

USAThe latest chapter in the long story of panda diplomacy was written at Washington's National Zoo, where the Chinese government agreed to lengthen the "loan" of popular panda pair Mei Xiang and Tian Tian for another five years. Actually, the loan is conditioned on whether they produce a new heir or heiress to the cuteness of panda-dom in the next two years;  one or both could be exchanged for more fecund substitutes.

They have a good track record: Washington native Tai Shan, born in 2005, headed back to China last year.

This was a big enough deal for President Barack Obama to mention it at an elaborate state dinner at the White House for Chinese President Hu Jintao.

from Reuters Investigates:

Solar energy vs wildlife

Sarah McBride reports on brewing battles between environmentalists in her special report: "With solar power, it's Green vs. Green."

It turns out the perfect place to build a big solar plant is often also the perfect place for a tortoise or a fox to live. This means developers of large-scale solar plants are running into legal challenges from people who one would expect to be natural allies of alternative energy providers.

Here's a map of some of the more contentious projects.

One local resident of the Panoche Valley, Sallie Calhoun, had this to say:

"I am passionate about preserving open space," she says, adding she believes the solar plant achieves that goal. "The idea that we're going to protect every lizard, every drainage, seems counterproductive."

Robots rule at Silicon Valley solar factory

Solyndra, a Silicon Valley solar module maker, took some heat in November when it decided to close a factory, lay off workers and delay expansion of a new manufacturing plant that was built with a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee.

In making the move seven weeks after opening the new factory, called Fab 2, the company cited the need to rein in capital expenditures in the face of aggressive competition from low-cost Chinese manufacturers.

Still, the $733 million plant is up and running and Solyndra this week released a video of the automated factory. It’s obviously a commercial for the company but the video also shows how in the long run U.S. companies may be able to compete against China in the global market.

China ramps up solar manufacturing

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China’s increasing domination of a rapidly expanding solar module industry is revealed in a report that shows that Chinese companies are expected to account for nearly 72 percent of new photovoltaic manufacturing capacity this year.

For instance, China’s LDK Solar will add the most new capacity in 2010 with 1,420 megawatts coming online, according to iSuppli, an El Segundo, Calif., technology research firm.

Norway’s REC took second place with 1,090 megawatts of manufacturing capacity expected to be added by year’s end.

from MacroScope:

Will China make the world green?

Workers remove mine slag at an aluminium plant in Zibo, Shandong province December 6, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

Joschka Fischer was never one to mince words when he was Germany's foreign minister in the late '90s and early noughts. So it is not overly surprising that he has painted a picture in a new post of a world with only two powers -- the United States and China -- and an ineffective and divided Europe on the sidelines.

More controversial, however, is his view that China will not only grow into the world's most important market over the coming years, but will determine what the world produces and consumes -- and that that will be green.

Fischer, who was leader of  Germany's Green Party, reckons that due to its sheer size and needed GDP growth, China will have to pursue a green economy. Without that, he writes in his Project Syndicate post, China will quickly reach limits to growth with disastrous ecological and, as a result, political consequences.

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