Chinese researchers at Tsinghua University, Beijing, have found plastic films chemically bonded to rocks, marking a discovery of a new type of plastic material in the environment.
Deyi Hou, one of the study’s authors and soil and groundwater scientist, said the research is the first to uncover chemical bonds between plastic and rocks in the environment.
The plastic rock complexes form when debris irreversibly absorbs into a rock after a flood. The complexes comprise LDPE or PP films stuck onto quartz-dominated mineral matrices.
The study writes that “future research should evaluate this phenomenon regarding ecosystem fluxes, fate and transport and impacts of plastic pollution,” indicating that more research is needed to draw concrete conclusions about the plastic rocks.
The study was published in Environmental Science and Technology. The source of the plastic waste was accumulated around a creek in Hechi City, China. The plastics discovered were PP and PE films.
In 1992, the United Nations classified China as a developing country, as hundreds of millions of its citizens lived in poverty.
A lot has changed since then: China is now the world’s second-largest economy and the biggest annual emitter of planet-warming greenhouse gases. Average Chinese today are 34 times richer and nearly four times more polluting. But the classification has stayed the same for the past three decades, frustrating diplomats from developed nations who say it has allowed Beijing to avoid paying its fair share to help poor countries cope with the ravages of climate change.
China’s Sinopec Corp said on Monday it has put into operation the country’s largest carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) facility in east China, and plans to build two more plants of similar size by 2025.
I am a policy expert who studies international research collaboration as it relates to global problems and geopolitical polarization. I understand the need for democratic countries to respond to the the growing strength of authoritarian countries such as China and acute crises like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But reducing or stopping international research comes with its own risks. It slows down the production of knowledge needed to address long-term global problems and reduces the potential for future scientific collaboration.
First, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to an increased openness in global scientific exchange. In particular, there was growth in the number of students from developing and non-Western countries going to universities in the West. This movement formed networks of researchers from many countries. Second, massively collaborative scientific efforts – such as the Human Genome Project – as well as the ever-growing importance of expensive, large research laboratories and instruments have fueled international collaboration. Finally, the digital revolution has made it much easier to communicate and share data across borders. This all resulted in collaborative and fruitful research in many fields including gene technology, climate science and artificial intelligence.
In the latter half of the 20th century, China, India, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and many other nations all significantly improved their scientific capabilities. In doing so they have greatly contributed to human knowledge. China in particular has invested heavily in its scientific capabilities and today is the world’s largest producer of scientific publications.
The development of scientific capacity in many parts of the world and the building of academic ties is critical when it comes to responding to a new virus or tracking changes in climate. The more countries that share data and coordinate policy responses, the easier it should be to contain a virus or understand global warming.
In May 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it. Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.”
China’s rise in science and technology has been met with stern responses from the West. Australia passed legislation in 2020 that gave the federal government veto power over foreign agreements in research. In the U.S., the Export Control Reform Act of 2018 was designed to reduce dependence on China for emerging and foundational technologies.
Science as a tool of politics
Given this framing of research as a part of international competition between China and the West, it is not surprising that science is increasingly being used as a political tool.
The U.S. government has taken significant steps to try to limit China’s scientific progress and international influence. In 2018, the U.S. launched a large-scale anti-espionage effort called the China Initiative. Under this initiative, the FBI broadly investigated U.S.-Chinese links within the corporate and academic sectors. The China Initiative failed to find any Chinese spies. But three U.S.-based scholars were convicted for failing to disclose Chinese ties.
China is also using science, technology and scholarly research generally to serve national interests. The government has explicitly pushed the idea that research shall primarily serve national needs, and Chinese scholars are increasingly under political control. In 2021 there were 18 research centers devoted to studying and promoting Xi Jinping’s ideas on matters such as rule of law, economics and green development.
Many researchers in the U.S., Europe and China have voiced concerns that geopolitical rivalries are curtailing international research collaboration at a time when the world needs it the most.
There is a major risk that the impediments to international scientific collaboration will further increase, further harming data sharing, the quality of research and the ability to disseminate results that contributing to solving problems. I often hear researchers, university leaders and funding agencies in Europe, the U.S. and China vent their frustration with the current situation. Many in the research community would like to see a more open and global science landscape.
It is possible to work toward a future where science is more separate – but not naively isolated – from changing power dynamics. As issues like climate change increase in severity, it will become only more important that researchers build international relationships that are responsible, reciprocal, transparent and equitable.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in February mailed letters to 22 U.S. universities: Cut ties with Chinese institutions that have previously “ensnared” scholars in schemes to steal valuable information, he wrote. China’s military, he said, is attempting to acquire and develop cutting-edge technology, sometimes through theft under the guise of academic collaboration.
Texas A&M University and its governing system responded one day later with a letter to the Florida senator. They had already “mitigated” or eliminated 200 A&M “instances of activity” with evidence of foreign influence, including a climate modeling center called the International Laboratory for High-Resolution Earth System Prediction, according to the letter written by administrators.
The university system coordinates with the FBI on a “near daily basis,” the administrators said. And one affiliation that Rubio specifically questioned—Ocean University in Qingdao—is being severed, according to the letter.
The correspondence provides the clearest picture to date on the Texas A&M University System’s attempts to extensively monitor other countries’ involvement in its research. But more broadly, it raises questions about the conflict between universities’ research goals and policymakers’ concerns about foreign interference in U.S. research and technology.
China, as the world’s largest producer and consumer of seafood, is well known for its voracious international fishing fleet. But a comprehensive understanding of the country’s efforts on marine protection, at least in its domestic waters, has remained elusive—even to many experts within China. Now, an international group of researchers has compiled the first database of marine conservation efforts in the country, and it is more extensive than many expected.
When it comes to climate change, no nation is more important than China. It consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined, and it is the leading emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 30% of global emissions.
Unless China takes rapid steps to control its greenhouse gas emissions, there is no plausible path to achieving the Paris climate agreement aim to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F), or even the less ambitious target of “well below 2 C” (3.6 F).
So, what is China doing to help the world avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and is it doing enough?
China’s record is mixed. Over the past year, China has signaled that it intends to continue on its well-worn path of making modest, incremental contributions to combat climate change, an approach inadequate for achieving the Paris goals. Yet, as an expert in environmental diplomacy who has followed China’s actions for years, I see reasons to think China might increase its efforts in the coming years.
China’s measured approach to climate change
A common misconception is that China either lacks climate policies or fails to implement them. The reality is that China has a robust set of climate and energy policies and a strong track record when it comes to fulfilling its pledges to the international community.
When it comes to China’s approach to climate change, the problem is not lack of policy implementation but rather a lack of policy ambition. China’s climate policies are admirable for a middle-income country that only recently escaped the ranks of the poor, but, like most of the world’s nations, it is still not doing enough.
Current policy and recent history have also raised concerns that China’s coal use will not decline fast enough over the 2020s to achieve the 1.5 C target.
Three times in the past four years China responded to either an energy shortage or economic slowdown by allowing coal production and consumption to surge. In 2020, it added almost 40 gigawatts of new coal capacity, roughly equal to the entire coal fleet of Germany, the world’s fourth-largest industrial power.
Reasons for cautious optimism
There is still a chance that China will enhance its contribution to the fight against climate change.
It is worth noting that China is still developing the policies that will guide its approach to climate change over the next decade. It has released twooverarching documents for reaching carbon neutrality and an emissions peak in 2030. Over the next year or so, it intends to release 30 sector- and province-specific documents to guide industries such as steel, cement and transportation.
Two key developments at Glasgow could also nudge China to do more.
First, a considerable number of countries increased their climate pledges, which ratchets up pressure on China.
Like any country, China’s climate actions are driven primarily by domestic political considerations. However, over the past three decades Chinese policy has responded to – and been shaped by – external forces including diplomacy, advocacy and scientific exchange.
Developing countries, in particular, can influence China’s approach to climate change. Because China has long positioned itself as a leader of the developing world and is sensitive to its international image, it can be hard for Beijing to resist pressure from other developing countries. The fact that several countries, such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam, made bolder-than-expected pledges at Glasgow could induce Beijing to offer more aggressive targets for controlling emissions.
The second key development is that the United States and China achieved a much-needed thaw in their relationship at Glasgow and laid a foundation for future cooperation.
Although there is some debate about whether the climate benefits more from Sino-American competition or cooperation, there was concern that hostility between China and the U.S. could derail the talks.
Therefore, it was a welcome relief when late in the summit China and the U.S., the second largest greenhouse gas emitter, released a joint declaration outlining their shared commitment to combating climate change.
They agreed to establish a “working group on enhancing climate action in the 2020s” and to meet early in 2022 to address methane emissions. China also indicated it would release a national action plan for methane. This is significant because China did not sign the Global Methane Pledge and has not traditionally included noncarbon greenhouse gases – about 18% of China’s total emissions – in its commitments.
Will developing country pressure and U.S.-China cooperation be enough to persuade China to take more aggressive action? Only time will tell, but Glasgow may have been the crossroad where China and the rest of the world chose a more sustainable path.
A new study by an international team of scientists led by Ellen Pikitch, PhD, of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS), provides the first comprehensive and publicly available database of area-based marine conservation in China’s waters. Published in Science Advances, the study provides insight into the country’s progress toward meeting global commitments to protect marine waters. Because of China’s global economic and political influence and its status as the world’s top producer and consumer of seafood, the findings could serve to inform broader international dialogue around management of marine biodiversity.
In recent weeks in Tangshan, officials have urged residents to go green by ditching their coal stoves for electric heaters, according to local government announcements. Climate researchers say such measures will have limited impact on emissions, because households use a lot less coal than factories do.
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