Pictured above: Hanyang “Johnny” Wei stands on a beach near Hong Kong, that may soon be the site of a major liquified natural gas (LNG) importation terminal. Wei is the cofounder of CECA, the Cross-border Environmental Concern Association, which has worked successfully to reduce the project’s impact on local marine ecosystems.
This piece is the second of a three-part series on China’s natural gas landscape and the trans-Pacific LNG trade. Part 1 is here.
From most people involved in today’s environmental movement, the name Copenhagen elicits drawn lips and words like “catastrophe” and “wake-up call.” Johnny Wei gets a gleam in his eye.
Even as the effects of 2015’s major climate agreement begin to spread around the world, the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference remains for many a story of failure, a message from world leaders to their people saying This one’s on you. But the affable, clean-cut Wei says that even as negotiations dragged on and hope for progress dimmed, he was inspired.
Wei was in Hong Kong studying economics and finance when the call came for Chinese youth delegates to the conference. He had never been heavily involved in climate change issues, but decided to attend all the same. The leaders he met in Copenhagen were articulate and committed, and he says it was there that he first saw the possibility of a career in environmental advocacy.
Returning to his hometown of Guangzhou, Wei began to take notice of the profound environmental issues affecting the region. The Pearl River Delta (PRD), encompassing Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Macau, in 2015 became the world’s largest megacity. At 42 million people, the PRD fits a population larger than that of California into an area half the size of urban Los Angeles. The region has long been a manufacturing base for the country as well as a center of toxic E-waste recycling, and its three major ports collectively shipped almost twice as many containers in 2013 as the Port of Shanghai (the world’s busiest port that year).
Big numbers are not new to the region, though. What most struck Wei upon his return was the “increasing government fashion to pursue sea reclamation and wetland development.” Sea reclamation involves dumping massive quantities of sand and rock into the ocean in order to expand or create new areas of usable land. Recently in the news for its role in disputes in the South China Sea, this technique is used in coastal areas to expand waterfront areas for shipping or construction.
Unfortunately, the coastal areas most valuable for development tend to be delicate and biodiverse tidal regions such as reefs, mangrove swamps, and estuaries. Moreover, reclamation impacts usually spread miles beyond the immediate reclamation site, as ocean currents carry sand afield.
Searching for a way to reduce the environmental impacts of reclamation, Wei engaged friends and colleagues and found a rare instance of civil input in the Chinese halls of power: the public comment period of environmental impact assessments (EIAs). As in many other nations, each of the PRD area governments requires major construction projects in their jurisdiction to undergo a (nominally) independent assessment of the project’s probable environmental impacts.
“Many people think China has no environmental regulations, but it does. Very detailed ones.” Wei says. The problem, as is so often the case, is with enforcement.
As the team began studying area maps, legal codes and past EIAs, they found what they saw as a key flaw in the region’s environmental protection practices: EIAs in all three regions often neglected environmental concerns outside of their immediate jurisdiction. Because PRD borders pass near and sometimes through fragile coastal wetlands and marine reserves, environmental impacts cannot be contained within regional borders.
Out of this understanding grew CECA (Cross-border Environmental Concern Association), founded by Wei, Jiayue Zhang and Manling Li to improve local conservation efforts through independent and integral EIAs.
Wei defines CECA as an attempt to “disseminate the idea of ecological conservation, and engage…[in] decision-making processes of major projects.” Composed mostly of students and recent graduates, the group’s members are part of a generation of Chinese youth struggling to define itself against a backdrop of newfound prosperity, spiraling consumerism, burgeoning civil society and environmental crisis. Even as the nation attempts to develop beyond the manufacturing base that defined so much of its last quarter century, Wei and others like him seek to form “a new-generation public voice,” defined by engagement in positive change.
One clarion example of CECA’s niche in the PRD conservation community came in the form of a 39.7 hectare sea reclamation project on the Shenzhen coastline, adjacent to Hong Kong. PetroChina, the listed branch of China’s state-owned oil company, planned the project as the site of an LNG importation terminal.
The mainland government allows for only a five-day public comment period after the release of a project’s preliminary EIA. CECA heard reports of the imminent release of the LNG terminal’s EIA back in 2013, and prepared its own independent research. Upon the report’s release, they worked around the clock to compare it to their own research, prepare additional research, and write their own comments.
The preliminary report downplayed or ignored entirely impacts to some of the area’s only coral reefs and to natural reserves. Both were across the border in Hong Kong, but within a distance that CECA advisers said would put them at risk.
Common knowledge states that in China, such large-scale projects need friends in government, and that once they secure such friends they meet little resistance. But the State Ocean Administration overseeing the PetroChina reclamation project sent the company back to the drawing board.
The next round of plans reduced the reclaimed area from 39.7 to 26 hectares, but that was nearly a year ago, and approval from the State Ocean Administration has not been forthcoming. The administration has not released a timeline for their decision or commented on the reasons behind the delay. Meanwhile, in 2015, China overtook Germany as the world’s leader in solar generation capacity and reduced its greenhouse gas emissions from coal by 2%.
Despite CECA’s recent success, Wei seems to viscerally feel the restraints given to environmentalists working in China. He was a little too quick to correct me when I once referred to him as an activist. The Chinese government does not allow public demonstrations, and any overtly emotional protest can connote danger. “Not activist.” He told me. “We are advocates. In China you can’t object directly to [such projects], so you just have to search for improvements.”
“Other campaigns have more emotional appeal, but with [our] actions we always just try to be rational.” Wei says. Appeals to the officials are more professional than heart-wrenching: “We just hope for a better environment…we hope that the laws will be followed.” Still, they are often frustrated in their efforts, and other projects have ended with “no improvement at all.”
As Wei explains, “Traditionally Chinese people–the former generations–thought that only modern infrastructures and/or human buildings are useful for people, while the nature is set to be conquered and modified by people.” In defending their local environment, Wei and his colleagues challenge cultural attitudes that have prevailed through generations and still pervade many positions of power.
Within the organization, Wei admits, people sometimes become frustrated with their “relatively mild approach” to change. Nevertheless, they try to remain positive and insist that in the future “opportunities may allow” for more fundamental change.
Header Image Credit: Cross-border Environmental Concern Association (CECA)