Searching For Gold In China's Poison Land

Decades of unbridled industrialization has left much of China's soil badly contaminated. Some are set to make millions cleaning it up.

China already has air and water pollution prevention laws -- but so far nothing regarding soil pollution
China already has air and water pollution prevention laws -- but so far nothing regarding soil pollution
Yu Han

BEIJING - For two years, Zhang Yong has been waiting for a good opportunity to capitalize on China’s polluted soil.

Zhang is a partner at Qiming Venture Partners, and like many other investors, sees a bright future in the soil remediation industry – which purifies and revitalizes polluted soil. The demand for such services has been picking up lately, but Zhang has decided to adopt a wait-and-see approach.

“The nature of land in China is complicated,” Zhang says. “Different land-use rights and distribution mechanisms have a big impact on the interests of soil cleanup investors and beneficiaries.”

Zhang was initially drawn to BCEG Environmental Remediation Co., Ltd. two years ago, but another investor beat him to it. Since then, many soil cleanup companies have emerged, but none have stuck out. Zhang says that the current industry is eager to achieve quick growth and instant returns, but many enterprises don’t have the technology to back up their ambitions. Some just dig out contaminated soil and throw new soil in its place.

So far, this has been a workable model because real estate developers prefer dealing with the issue quickly and cheaply -- and there are not yet suitable government standards to regulate the industry.

Business opportunity

Up to now, it’s mainly been first-tier cities that are trying to tackle chemical factory and metallurgic plant pollution that’s accumulated over several decades.

In Beijing for example, about 200 factories were relocated outside the Fourth Ring Road from 2003 to 2008 in the run up to the Olympics, which left 9 million square meters of land that had been contaminated by various chemicals. These patches are often referred to as “brown land” or “poisoned land”. Before it can be rebuilt upon, the soil must be cleaned up.

The residential block of Songjiazhuang alongside subway line 10 had been occupied by Beijing Chemical Plant No. 3 for 50 years, until it was demolished in 2006. The following year, a new item appeared in the guidelines for whichever developer bid on the land. It said that the winning bidder must strictly carry out the soil pollution management plan that was approved by the municipal environmental protection bureau. The company that won the bidding went to inspect the site with a few specialists and began China’s first soil remediation project.

Ms. Song, 64, has witnessed the rise and fall of Beijing Chemical Plant No. 3. She remembers its once glorious production era, but for her, the most memorable thing was the pungent smell that filled the air. “At that time, who dealt with pollution?” she said. “Who even knew what pollution was?”

When Ms. Song’s family wanted to apply for the affordable housing built on the former factory’s land, she opposed it, saying the groundwater there must have problems. So she and her family moved to the Red Lion community just across the street. But the Red Lion community had actually been a paint factory since the 1980s, and before that, a pesticide factory for 30 years before that. Residents who’ve lived in the area since prior to the 1980s remember that a horrible chemical smell used to emit from the factory.

Before the construction of these two residential blocks, BCEG Environmental Remediation Co., Ltd. undertook the cleanup work on the land, becoming the first successful case of domestic soil treatment.


Currently, there are issues regarding who is qualified to clean up the soil, what the standards are and who will be in charge of regulating the industry. Insiders are expecting these issues to be standardized after the launch of the China Soil Pollution Prevention Law.

Work teams have been going through six years of soil research in order to draft the law and last year they entered the legislation stage. China already has an Air Pollution Prevention Law and a Water Pollution Prevention Law, but so far nothing regarding soil pollution.

In 2010, the Ministry of Environmental Protection submitted a draft with soil remediation technical guidance for contaminated sites, but there’s still been nothing codified into law. An official from the technology standards division of the ministry told the Economic Observer that nothing so far has been confirmed and that standards won’t be released before the legislation passes.

The EO learned that both legal and technical branches of the Ministry of Environmental Protection hope to introduce standards as soon as possible, but it’s not a simple process. “How to formulate soil standards is related to a series of factors like the local environment and land usage factors,” the official said. “Some key issues need to be coordinated, and many ideas need to be repeatedly discussed.”

At the beginning of 2013, the State Council proposed making full use of market mechanisms to guide and encourage private funding in soil protection. The 12th Five-Year Plan also listed soil treatment as a strategic focus in environmental protection.

However, China currently has no soil pollution data available to the public. The 2012 Report on the State of Environment in China issued on May 28 by the Ministry of Environmental Protection mentioned that an investigation of the country’s soil pollution situation was completed in 2012, but no specific results have been announced. Companies and investors are waiting for more specific policies and documents.

Zhang Yong thinks the potential of the soil remediation market is huge, but at present he’s keeping a cautious attitude. “On one hand, it’s relatively difficult to treat soil,” he says. “There could be situations where the symptoms are treated but not the root cause. On the other hand, how to divide the returns between investors and beneficiaries still isn’t clear.”

Translated by Zhu Na

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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