Environmental news keeps pouring out of the Middle Kingdom faster than the black gunk that filled the Yellow Sea during the Dailan oil spill of 2010. Remember that? It was huge, spreading out over 430 square km (166 sq mi).

Then there was the 2011 spill in the Bohai Sea, a cooperative move by a US private oil company and the Chinese public sector. It created an oil slick of 840 square km (324 sq mi). People only found out about that one after a micro blog leaked information about the spill some 2.5 weeks after it occurred.

So it takes so-called netizens to get the word out and eventually (hopefully) affect environmental policy. Transparency is progressing, but largely because the government has no choice. People care more, they have cameras, phones, blogs and social networking sites – things that help drive the Chinese economy, but also public awareness. I touched on this last week regarding the influence of people power via social media on China’s clean air policy.

Coal mine in Inner Mongolia, pic: Herry Lawford (Flickr CC)

The problem is that people are simply not aware about what is happening in their own country. But they are starting to know – more and more. For example, check out this audio slide show from environmental photo-journalist Lu Guang in cooperation with Greenpeace. It shows the extent of some of these spills, plus other little-known ecological disasters. For example, open cast coal mining in Inner Mongolia is creating deserts. Mining operations drain the water from already-arid lands in order to get at the coal seams. What’s left is wasteland. What’s more is that coal dust blows all over the surrounding fields, poisoning plant and animal life, such as sheep. I don’t know if netizens can solve that problem, but I hope these photographs can help stop this ridiculously destructive practice.

Now for the good news. Yes, there is good news!

China is set to sign up to the Montreal Protocol, which would see them phase out the use of HCFCs. HCFCs have the double environmental destructive power of both depleting ozone and being potent greenhouse gases. By signing up China receives US$385m from the protocol’s Multilateral Fund.

From a press release by the Environmental Investigation Agency:

HCFCs are chemicals used mainly in air conditioning, refrigeration, foam blowing and solvents. They are also used as feedstock for other products such as Teflon. [F]eedstock use of HCFCs is not regulated by the Montreal Protocol as it is deemed that the HCFCs are entirely consumed in the process and not emitted to the atmosphere. However, the production of HCFC also results in the unwanted production of HFC-23, a super greenhouse gas 14,800 times more damaging to the climate than CO2. While destruction of HFC-23 is easily done and inexpensive, some Chinese plants allow HFC-23 by-product to be vented, resulting in growing atmospheric concentrations.

HCFCs as feedstock? You mean animals eat refrigerants. 

Anyway, according to NASA satellite data, atmospheric ozone levels in 2011 were close to the lowest in the “modern instrumental era”.

China’s HCFC phase out is scheduled to take effect over the next 17 years.

Arctic ozone cover, March 19, 2011, pic: NASA Earth Observatory