What mooncakes in China can tell you about corruption and the environment

The Chinese tradition of giving away mooncakes in mid-autumn is surprisingly revealing.

Yesterday was China’s Mid-Autumn festival, a national holiday in the country that is marked with the giving away and eating of mooncakes. The mooncake tradition offers interesting insights into two trends affecting China’s economy at present: corruption and the environment.

The trial of Bo Xilai on charges of embezzlement, corruption and abuse of power has highlighted a broader malaise within China’s political establishment. His is the most high-profile corruption case, but one local government official nicknamed ‘Mr Watch’ was sentenced to 14 years in jail earlier this month after bloggers noticed the mismatch between his official salary and his impressive watch collection. Concerned at the rising public outrage, the government has attempted to clamp down on corruption and as the BBC notes, this is having an impact on mooncake sales.

Whereas in previous years deluxe boxes of mooncakes made with shark’s fin, bird’s nest, abalone or even gold or silver have been purchased by those keen to buy favours, this year mooncake sales are down, with shoppers opting for more modest mooncakes.

Another big challenge facing China is environmental damage and pollution. In January this year the air pollution in Beijing reached 40 times the limit the World Health Organisation deems safe. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing China 9% of its GDP, dragging down growth. Faced with public discontent, the Chinese government has decided to take action. This week it announced it would publish a list of the top 10 worst and best cities for air pollution each month.

A clampdown on political corruption could also have a surprisingly large impact on the environment. According to The Atlantic, the elaborate packaging on mooncakes accounts for one third of China’s waste a year, or 40 million tonnes. If this year’s anti-corruption drive really does result in a decrease in sales of elaborately wrapped mooncakes, this could have a considerable impact on the country’s overall waste production.

Should the Chinese government succeed in making long-term changes to China's mooncake eating habits, this would be a powerful indicator of its ongoing political might. No one likes making concessions when it comes to festive traditions.

A traditional Chinese 'mooncake' on sale at a busy outlet in Hong Kong. Photo: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.