Environmentalists v. Big Business - The Fight Comes To China

Local environmental concerns could undermine big Chinese economic ambitions. That tension, well-known in the West, is playing out near the site a petrochemical plant in Yunnan province.

Protesters in Kunming on May 4, 2013
Protesters in Kunming on May 4, 2013
Brice Pedroletti

KUNMING – In a middle of this small valley, a gaggle of trucks is heaving clouds of dust into the air. Welcome to Yunnan Province, in southwestern China.

We are 30 kilometers away from the provincial capital – Kunming – and its four million inhabitants. This huge construction site is where the Anning petroleum refinery will be built. Seven villages have been torn down, and their residents are now living in long rows of prefabricated buildings on the edge of the building site, like the survivors of a natural disaster. Each family member gets a 1,100-RMB monthly compensation ($190). In a year, maybe two, they will be resettled 10 kilometers from here.

Since the beginning of May, there have been two demonstrations in Kunming against the project; and now, those living near the site are starting to worry: “In the farming sector, we were struggling financially because of the drought, and I hope the government will find jobs for us. People in Kunming, 30 kilometers from here, are worried about the impact of the refinery on their health. For us, who are living much closer to the plant, does no one care about our health?” asks a young woman, before a village official arrives and puts an end to the interview.

Having an environmental conscience is not encouraged in China. It “contaminates” the souls and threatens the country’s most extravagant dreams of development.

With oil coming in through the upcoming Burma-China pipeline, the giant refinery of Anning is a key project that will turn Yunnan into a hub for trade and transport towards Southeast Asia.

Bordering Vietnam and Laos to the south and Burma to the west, Yunnan Province – population 45 million – has been chosen by the government to be at the forefront of this future expansion. Three new railway lines will be built, two of which are already underway. The first one will link Kunming to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The second one links Yunnan to the Burmese port of Kyaukpyu, on the Bay of Bengal. The oil and gas that arrives by boat in Kyaukpyu will be sent from there to China through the Burmese oil-and-gas pipeline.

This is a strategic breakthrough for China, which should provide an alternative to shipping routes and put an end to its dependency on the Strait of Malacca – where most of its hydrocarbon imports transit. It will also facilitate access to Yunnan with three pipelines supplying the rest of the province. According to China’s five-year economic development plan, Yunnan will be turned into a major petrochemical refining and production center.

But everything is not going as smoothly as the Chinese government would hope. Problems started at the end of March, when people found out about a paraxylene (PX) production plant that would be built alongside the future petroleum refinery. PX, a carcinogenic petrochemical used in the production of polyester and plastics, can become dangerous in case of an industrial accident. Plans involving PX have already been the targets of spectacular protests in China: Xiamen in 2007, Dalian in 2011 and Ningbo in 2012.

“PX, get out of Kunming”

On May 4, thousands of people took to Kunming’s main pedestrian street. They wore black facemasks that said “NO PX” in green letters, and carried banners that said “PX, get out of Kunming.”

In the following days, the local government made a clumsy attempt at damage control. On May 10, a televised press conference with the mayor was cut short by the broadcaster. The next day, the city of Kunming sent its constituents text-messages saying the mayor would call off the project if the majority of people opposed it.

The Yunnan general manager of PetroChina, the company, which will be operating the Kunming petrochemical complex, went on to say there would be no PX facility and that the complex would not produce PX. This only deepened the public’s mistrust.

Meetings were organized with powerful Internet bloggers and heads of non-governmental organizations. A dozen of them were even invited on a trip to Qinzhou, in the neighboring Guangxi province, to visit a PetroChina refinery.

In Yunnan, blogger Bian Min, who writes about environmental issues, says the situation is not encouraging – the refinery will not benefit locals, either in terms of employment or gas prices, contrary to what the local government has led them to believe.

He has also discovered that the refinery has been criticized by the Chinese environment ministry for falsifying data on the emission of pollutant gases.

As the word started to spread that another demonstration would take place on May 16, the authorities launched a vast prevention operation: universities, high schools, state-owned companies, taxis and NGOs were asked to ban their employees from demonstrating, and to apply sanctions if they did. “This angered people even more. The main issue is that we cannot trust our government”, a young demonstrator says, defining himself as an “observer,” but admitting he is “angry.”

On May 16, a crowd of people came together on Justice street, not far from the headquarters of the provincial government. They had new slogans: “Only life is important!” could be read in English and Chinese. “The fear of PX has made people aware of this issue,” says the young demonstrator.

He spent his childhood on a military industrial compound near Kunming, which was later dismantled but not before it had done irremediable damage to the environment. After spending several years on Beijing, he came back to Kunming, nicknamed the “city of eternal spring” because of its lovely weather.

“People in Kunming are known for their kindness, but frustration is mounting. There are construction projects all around the city, everything has been destroyed,” he says.

Because of the extraordinary biodiversity in the province, there are many Chinese and foreign NGOs working on environmental projects in the region. As a result, locals are very aware of environmental issues. L., a 30-year-old accountant, was among those who got involved and organized the demonstration on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo. The police paid a visit to her mother on Friday 17 and her Weibo account was blocked. She likes camping, hiking, is a vegetarian and like many other young people in the province, she rejects the idea of a forced development. “Climate imbalance is increasing – we have had a drought for the past five years. What’s the point of all the dams they built in Yunnan? People don’t want polluted air.”

Whether the PX plant is built or not, the new objective of militants is to “fight against the refinery,” she says. A new demonstration has been scheduled for June 6. The date is highly symbolic; it marks the opening of the first China-South East Asia fair, which will push forward the new ambitions of Yunnan.

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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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