Your iPod is Polluting China and L.A.–and Wyoming Might be Next

March 27, 2011 § 2 Comments

When you bought your last Apple iPod, you may have been aware that it had been manufactured at a factory in China, perhaps the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen in the province of Guangzhou.  (Let’s put aside for the moment the working conditions there.)  You may have been aware too that in manufacturing your electronic marvel, the Shenzhen plant emitted roughly 25 pounds of the greenhouse gas, CO2.   It’s even possible that you were also aware of the 9-10 pounds of CO2 emitted in transporting the device to you from China (see Apples’ environmental report for the iPod classic).

Here’s what you probably didn’t take in account: that the coal that powered the Foxconn plant in the south likely was mined in the far northern province of Shanxi, transported by lorry or rail to coal terminals on the coast (e.g., the port city of Tianjin), and from there shipped by freighter to Shenzhen in the far south.

Nor did you likely consider that the air above the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen moves eastward, making its way to Los Angeles in about three weeks’ time.  Scientists have calculated that roughly 30% of the air pollution in Los Angeles originates in China.

Thus far, then, your iPod has contributed to glacial melting in the Himalayas, the dirty air in Guangzhou, and the increasing incidence of respiratory disease in China.  And once the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter released by the coal that fired the Foxconn plant to manufacture your iPod arrive in LA, your purchase can claim a small contribution to the heavy smog that hangs over the city of Los Angeles—and to the ozone-polluted air Angelinos breath in daily.

But soon there may be yet a new environmental twist you’ll have to factor into your iPod purchase.  As China’s energy needs skyrocket, the country is importing ever more of its coal, even as it mines its own generous reserves.   It makes sense, of course, that Vietnam, a nearby neighbor with large coal deposits, would be the big exporter to China that it is.   But, the state of Wyoming?  Yes, Wyoming will soon be supplying some of the energy needed to produce the Chinese-made iPod that will then be shipped thousands of miles to the States for your use.

Powder River Basin coal mines

That’s if Peabody Energy and Australian-based Ambre Energy get their way.   Their plan is to mine the low-sulfur coal in the Powder River Basin in Southeast Montana and Northeast Wyoming, move it by train 1367 miles (note: Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway estimates that 500 pounds of coal are blown from each rail car for every 500 miles traveled) to a newly- built shipping terminal in Longview Washington, and load it there on to a vessel that will carry it 5852 nautical miles to ports along the southern and southeastern coasts of China.

map by Michael Newhouse, Sierra

Opposition to the plan is growing according to an excellent article in Sierra magazine.  But if Peabody and Ambre do win, next time you buy an iPod, don’t forget to add the CO2 cost of moving coal from Powder River Basin, Wyoming to Guangzhou, China.

One last thing: if you actually use your iPod, every time you give it a full recharge it’s emitting another ½ pound of CO2 into the air.

At a minimum, then, your 4.9-ounce jewel of an iPod, over the course of its life, is responsible for 200 times its weight in greenhouse gas emissions.   And, there still remains the matter of recycling….

I wish I didn’t love my iPod.

Reprinted with permission from

High on China’s Radar: Economy, Environment, and Social Well-Being

March 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

Premier Wen bows to the National People's Congress before delivering his "Report on the Work of the Government"


This past Saturday, Premier Wen Jiabao delivered his 2011 “Report on the Work of the Government” to the 3000 delegates gathered in Beijing for the National People’s Congress.  The report, delivered annually, is comparable to U.S. President’s State of the Union Address, laying out the successes of the past year and the direction the government plans to take in the next year.  But, as this is a year that the Congress will issue the next Five-Year Plan (the 12th), Wen’s report looks beyond 2011, down the road as far as 2015.

Parsing the “Report on the Work of the Government” is no easier than parsing the State of the Union address.  It is long on ideals, goals, and aspirations, and short on details, short on plans for implementation.  It reflects, we can assume, the concerns of the leadership; and it reflects, no doubt too, what the leadership perceives the people may expect from the government in the coming years. Yet there is one important difference with the State of the Union Address: the SUA presents the views of one person, the President, and perhaps those of his party’s leaders—but not those of the opposition party; the “Report on the Work of the Government” presents the collaborative views of the entire CCP leadership.  What this means simply is that while the goals put forward in the “Report” might never be realized, it won’t be because an opposition party stands in the way.

Bulleted below are points from the “Report” that strike me as significant or interesting, followed by a brief comment or two.

GDP is to grow by 7% annually over the next five years.

This has caught most China watchers by surprise, as the 7% target is down from the 7.5% figure of the previous 11th Five-Year Plan (and down from the 8% figure for 2010).  The day after Wen delivered the report, Xinhua News led with the headline:  “China Prepares to End GDP Obsession.”  That’s probably going too far, but the question remains, why the reduction? « Read the rest of this entry »

Will the 10-Day Mega-Jams End?

August 30, 2010 § 3 Comments

The 60-mile jam on the Beijing-Tibet Highway, beginning on August 14th and lasting for 10 days, is now old news.  The media were filled with pictures of trucks and cars at a standstill, of drivers outside their vehicles sleeping, smoking, washing, chatting, relieving themselves, and playing cards, and of vendors biking and wheelbarrowing from vehicle to vehicle selling water, noodles, crackers and other refreshments to the captive motorists at 1000% inflated rates.  Truckers and motorists emerging from the virtual standstill reported being caught in the mother of all jams for 5 days and nights.

The real worry is that this sort of gridlock, mindboggling as it is, soon won’t be newsworthy.   As the first jam broke up, another 19-mile one was already, a mere four days later, forming.   Are the back-ups destined to become routine, a common occurrence on China’s roads and highway system?  A look at the range of factors that explain these recent mega-jams doesn’t offer much hope for the immediate future.

China, to be sure, is focused on increasing wind and solar energy, but coal still supplies more than 70% of the country’s energy needs.   After the government shutdown of the coal mines in Shanxi province last year following a series of deadly accidents, Inner Mongolia has become the country’s largest coal supplier.  Truckers pick up their load (usually an overload) of coal near Baotou in Inner Mongolia and transport it to the outskirts of Beijing by way of the Beijing-Tibet highway, where it is then moved to the city’s steel mills and power plants and to ports just east of Beijing, from which it will be shipped to power plants in south China

The population of Beijing is skyrocketing, approaching 20 million; construction continues to boom; and energy consumption (both in the aggregate and per capita) is on the increase.  Trucks ferrying their overloads to feed Beijing and China’s growing energy and construction appetite break down—and you have a jam.  Trucks rumble along the highway with their enormous loads and a portion of the road gives way under their weight—and you have a jam.   One big truck veers into another—and you have a jam.  The collapsed roads require repair and the congested highway system requires expansion—and you have a jam.

Then there is the love affair with the car.  In 2009 China for the first time became the world’s largest automobile market, buying more than 13 million vehicles.  In 2010, in Beijing alone nearly 2000 new vehicles enter the roads each day.  Roadway construction simply can’t keep up with demand.   And even as the government tries to build the system out, it creates construction hazards and blockages for the trucks and cars on the road.

The Beijing leadership is working to expand public transit—subways, trains, and the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system—but this will require time and even when the expansion has progressed we might find that Chinese (not unlike Americans) still prefer to drive their own vehicles.

A populous Beijing, increasing energy needs, massive construction, a love affair with the car—all factors producing the mega-jams of August 2010—aren’t going away soon.  Can the mega-jams?

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