ENVIRONMENT OF CHINA: ECONOMICS, COAL-FIRED GROWTH AND GREEN CITIES

ENVIRONMENT OF CHINA

20080317-citizen09 dities mclc 1927.jpg
Green poster from the 1920s

Confucianism offers a green world view in which the basic principals of harmony and balance are not limited to human society but are thought to extend to the universe as a whole. Asian philosophies as a whole stress the notion of harmony between nature and mankind but these philosophies are not always reflected in the Chinese record on environmentalism and pollution and their attitude about littering and eating wild animals.

Economic growth has occurred at great cost to the environment, especially because China relies so much on energy-driven heavy industry to generate growth. China often seems that it is willing to put up with pollution to hold off joblessness. In the end it may be economic and political concerns that bring about the biggest changes. By some estimates pollution already slows economic growth by 3 percent a year.

Environmental awareness is on the rise. Environmental laws are being taken more seriously. China, wrote historian Francis Fukayama. “may be the first country where demand for accountable government is driven primarily by concern over a poisoned environment.” The amount of money spent on pollution clean-up increased fivefold between 1985 and 1996. In 1998, spending on environmental protection exceeded one percent of gross nation product for the first time. By 2006 Beijing was spending $30 billion on the environment and cleaning up pollution.

Bill McKibben wrote in National Geographic, “We once thought of China as the "yellow peril" and then the "red menace." Now the colors are black and green. An epic race is on, and if you knew how the race would come out---if you knew whether or how fast China could wean itself off coal and tap the sun and wind---then you'd have the single most important data point of our century. The outcome of that race will determine how bad global warming is going to get. And right now the answer is still up in the air.” [Source: Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011]

“Increasingly, though, Chinese anger is directed at the environmental degradation that has come with that growth. On one trip I drove through a village north of Beijing where signs strung across the road decried a new gold mine for destroying streams. A few miles later I came to the mine itself, where earlier that day peasants had torn up the parking lot, broken the windows, and scrawled graffiti across the walls. A Chinese government-sponsored report estimates that environmental abuse reduced the country's GDP growth by nearly a quarter in 2008. The official figures may say the economy is growing roughly 10 percent each year, but dealing with the bad air and water and lost farmland that come with that growth pares the figure to 7.5 percent. In 2005 Pan Yue, vice minister of environmental protection, said the country's economic "miracle will end soon, because the environment can no longer keep pace." But his efforts to incorporate a "green GDP" number into official statistics ran into opposition from Beijing.”

Many Chinese are offended by the grim, hopeless tone in which articles on Chinese pollution are written in the West, and insist the Chinese are doing their best and they are doing a lot to improve the situation.

Book: The River Runs Black by Elizabeth C. Economy (Cornell, 2004) is one of the best recently-written books on China’s environmental problems. In his book China on the Edge: the Crisis of Ecology and Development in China, the Chinese intellectual He Bochun argues that in many ways China's environmental problems have already reached catastrophic levels.

Websites and Resources

Book: The River Runs Black by Elizabeth C. Economy (Cornell, 2004) is one of the best recently-written books on China’s environmental problems. In his book China on the Edge: the Crisis of Ecology and Development in China, the Chinese intellectual He Bochun argues that in many ways China's environmental problems have already reached catastrophic levels.

Good Websites and Sources: China Environmental News Blog china-environmental-news.blogspot.com ; China.Org (Chinese Government Environmental News china.org.cn/english/environment ; New York Times Multimedia Series on Pollution in China nytimes.com ; China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) english.mep.gov.cn ; EIN News Service’s China Environment News einnews.com/china/newsfeed-china-environment Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) cepf.org.cn/cepf_english ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) geichina.org ; Beijing Energy Network (a Chinese grassroots environmental group) greenleapforward.com ; Greenpeace China greenpeace.org/china/en ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles chinadigitaltimes.net ; Brief History of Chinese Environment planetark.com ; Article on Wetlands Degradation library.utoronto.ca ; Useful But Dated Source List on te Environment and China newton.uor.edu ; China Environmental Forum at the Wilson Center wilsoncenter.org ; International Fund for China’s Environment ifce.org ; China Watch worldwatch.org ; China Environmental law Blog chinaenvironmentallaw.com ; World Resources Institute wri.org ; China Environmental Industry Network cein.net

Links in this Website: ENVIRONMENT IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; GLOBAL WARMING IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; AIR POLLUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER POLLUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER SHORTAGES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DEFORESTATION AND DESERTIFICATION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; GARBAGE AND RECYCLING IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;ENVIRONMENT, GOVERNMENT POLICY AND FIGHTING POLLUTION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; Factsanddetails.com/China ; ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS AND PROTESTS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; THE 2008 OLYMPICS IN BEIJING, POLLUTION WEATHER Factsanddetails.com/China ; LAND AND GEOGRAPHY OF CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; WEATHER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DAMS AND HYDRO POWER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; THREE GORGES AND THREE GORGES DAM Factsanddetails.com/China ; COAL IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; NUCLEAR POWER AND ALTERNATIVE ENERGIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; WATER IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China

China Green is new website sponsored by the Asia Society: http://www.asiasociety.org/chinagreen/ It is a multimedia enterprise that documents China’s environmental issues and aims to be a web forum where people with an interest in China and its environmental challenges can find interesting visual stories and share critical information about the most populous nation in the world whose participation in the solution to global environmental problems, such as climate change.

Chinese Government and the Environment

The State Environmental. Protection Administration (SEPA) is the government body that deals with environmental issues. It is small and has limited authority, with 200 employees compared to 18,000 at the EPA in the United States. It is very weak and powerless in going after polluters protected by local governments. In March 2008, the environmental government agency was given ministry status and power to punish polluters.

Chinese environmental policy is largely guided by the principal: “growth first, then the environment.” It often seems the faster China grows and the more prosperous it becomes the more polluted and degraded it gets. Impressive economic gains have been blighted by environmental problems that verge on catastrophic. Wei Weixian, an energy professor at Beijing’s University of International Business and Economics, told Reuter, “Safeguarding economic growth is the absolute No. 1 priority of the authorities...The government might have to turn a blind eye to the rebound of some polluting heavy industries.”

The government mainly tackles environmental problems by issuing command quotas and launching tree planting campaigns. It still lacks an effective system of incentives to persuade polluters to install emissions-control equipment and it fails to impose serious fines on violators. Even factories that have pollution-reducing technology often don’t use it in order to cut costs or they don’t use it correctly, limiting its life span of the equipment and sometimes risking accidents.

The State Environmental Protection Laboratory trains people to be professional noses capable of sniffing out pollutants. One official at the lab told the Time of London, “The work is quite unpleasant. We have to stay in the lab smelling those awful gases, repeatedly...Our equipment can analyze the density of particular gases accurately but with mixed gases they are not reliable...and it can not tell the effects on humans.”

The government sets targets for improving the environment. Most of the targets are not met. China vowed to reduce major pollutants by 10 percent between 2006 and 2010, for example, but failed to meet its annual goal in 2006. The main reasons why are a lack of compliance on the local level and the fear of political fall out for raising the prices of water, electricity, oil and bank loans

Some argue that China can tackle its environmental problem unless these is some kind of political change.

History of Chinese and the Environment

Mao Zedong believed that “man must conquer nature” rather than live in harmony with it. After the Communists came to power in 1949, large dams and irrigation projects were undertaken, lakes were drained, hillsides were converted into fields all with little concern for the environment. Protecting the environment was not a high priority. Increasing the output of heavy industry and building massive irrigation projects were regarded as more important than clean air and water. Most waste-water treatment plants worked poorly; outdated metal-working factories emitted thick toxic air pollution; and the old Soviet-made nuclear power plants were unsafe.

Since the Deng reforms in the late 1970s, Chinese have been oriented towards development and making money. Although environmental concerns are given a higher priority than they were they are still secondary to economic growth. Environmental laws were established in 1979 and have been largely ignored.

Chinese president Jiang Zemin put his support behind certain environmental causes. In a speech in March 2007 Chinese Premier Wen Jibao said that improving environmental protection a top priority.

In March 2008, the Chinese government created a special ministry, the new Environmental Protection Agency, to tackle China’s environmental problems. Environmental groups welcomes the move but said for the ministry to really make a difference it needed tougher powers to enforce its mandate.

Attitudes About Pollution in China

On attitudes about dangerous chemicals in a factory that made pleather (plastic leather), Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “the workers believed that the product involved dangerous chemicals, and they thought it was dangerous to the liver. They said that a woman who planned to have children should not work on the assembly line...These ideas were absolutely standard; even teenagers fresh of the bus from the farm seemed to pick them up the moment they arrive in the city.”

“There weren’t any warnings posted in factories, and I never saw a Lishui newspaper article about pleather; assembly line workers rarely read the newspaper anyway. They didn’t know anyone who became ill, and they couldn’t tell me whether there had been any scientific studies of the risks...Nevertheless their beliefs ran so deep that they shaped this particular industry. Virtually no young women worked on the assembly lines, and companies had to offer relatively high wages to attract anybody. At this plant you saw many older men---the kind of people who can’t get jobs at most Chinese factories.” When compared with the available data on plastic leather manufacturing many of suspicions raised in the rumors were backed by the data.

Economics and the Environment in China

Thousands of factories that haven’t meet pollution standards have been shut down, putting millions of people out of work. Industries that have been allowed to stayed open say their costs have increased and their competitiveness has decreased as they have made upgrades to meet environmental standards.

Guangdong Province, one of China’s richest and post productive economic areas, has enthusiastically embraced anti-pollution measures. It is also where job lay offs and factories closings have been occurring at a high rate. As part of its strategy to develop a “low-carbon economy” an effort is being made to move manufacturing to the countryside where jobs are still scarce and attract clean industries and services to the cities. Foreign company with clean energy technology are welcomed to use the area as a testing ground, with the government providing some of the services they need.

The Chinese government is appropriating more money towards job-creating infrastructure projects rather technology-based environmental improvements. One of the main goals of economists and planners in China is to move the Chinese economy away from its dependence in environmentally-unfriendly manufacturing industries such as paper, chemicals and textiles and shift to less environmentally-disruptive economic sectors such as computing, biotechnology and science.

China is at a disadvantage fighting pollution compared to developed countries in that those countries were already rich when they started fighting pollution, whereas China is still developing.

Consumerism and the Environment in China

Bill McKibben wrote in National Geographic, The richer China gets, the more it produces, because most of the things that go with wealth come with a gas tank or a plug. Any Chinese city is ringed with appliance stores; where once they offered electric fans, they now carry vibrating massage chairs.” [Source: Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011]

"People are moving into newly renovated apartments, so they want a pretty, new fridge," a clerk told National Geographic. "People had a two-door one, and now they want a three-door." The average Shanghainese household already has 1.9 air conditioners, not to mention 1.2 computers. Beijing registers 20,000 new cars a month. As Gong Huiming, a transportation program officer at the nonprofit Energy Foundation in Beijing, put it: "Everyone wants to get the freedom and the faster speed and the comfort of a car." [Ibid]

“That Chinese consumer revolution has barely begun,” wrote McKibben. “As of 2007, China had 22 cars for every 1,000 people, compared with 451 in the U.S. Once you leave the major cities, highways are often deserted and side roads are still filled with animals pulling carts.” "Mostly, China's concentrated on industrial development so far," said Deborah Seligsohn, who works in Beijing for the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute. Those steel mills and cement plants have produced great clouds of carbon, and the government is working to make them more efficient. As the country's industrial base matures, their growth will slow. Consumers, on the other hand, show every sign of speeding up, and certainly no Westerner is in a position to scold. [Ibid]

Bill Valentino, a sustainability executive with the pharmaceutical giant Bayer who has long been based in Beijing, recently taught a high school class at one of the international schools. He had his students calculate their average carbon footprint, and they found that if everyone on the planet lived as they did, it would take two to four Earths' worth of raw materials to meet their needs. So they were already living unsustainable lives. Valentino---an expat American who flies often---then did the same exercise and found that if the whole world adopted his lifestyle, we'd require more than five planet Earths. hina has made a low-carbon economy a priority, but no one is under any illusion about the country's chief aim. By most estimates, China's economy needs to grow at least 8 percent a year to ensure social stability and continued communist rule. If growth flags, Chinese may well turn rebellious; there are estimates of as many as 100,000 demonstrations and strikes already each year. Many of them are to protest land takeovers, bad working conditions, and low wages, so the government's main hope is to keep producing enough good jobs to absorb a population still pouring out of the poor provinces with high hopes for urban prosperity.” [Ibid]

Coal-Fueled Growth and the Environment in China

Bill McKibben wrote in National Geographic, That green effort, though, is being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the coal-fueled growth. So for the time being, China's carbon emissions will continue to soar. I talked with dozens of energy experts, and not one of them predicted emissions would peak before 2030. Is there anything that could move that 2030 date significantly forward? I asked one expert in charge of a clean-energy program. "Everyone's looking, and no one is seeing anything," he said. [Source: Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011]

“Even reaching a 2030 peak may depend in part on the rapid adoption of technology for taking carbon dioxide out of the exhaust from coal-fired power plants and parking it underground in played-out mines and wells. No one knows yet if this can be done on the scale required. When I asked one scientist charged with developing such technology to guess, he said that by 2030 China might be sequestering 2 percent of the carbon dioxide its power plants produce.” Which means, given what scientists now predict about the timing of climate change, the greening of China will probably come too late to prevent more dramatic warming, and with it the melting of Himalayan glaciers, the rise of the seas, and the other horrors Chinese climatologists have long feared. [Ibid]

“It's a dark picture. Altering it in any real way will require change beyond China---most important, some kind of international agreement that transforms the economics of carbon. At the moment China is taking green strides that make sense for its economy.” "Why would they want to waste energy?" Deborah Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute asked, adding that "if the U.S. changed the game in a fundamental way---if it really committed to dramatic reductions---then China would look beyond its domestic interests and perhaps go much further." Perhaps it would embrace more expensive and speedier change. In the meantime China's growth will blast onward, a roaring fire that throws off green sparks but burns with ominous heat.

"To change people's minds is a very big task," Huang Ming said as we sat in the Sun-Moon Mansion. "We need time, we need to be patient. But the situation will not give us time." A floor below, he's built a museum for busts and paintings of his favorite world figures: Voltaire, Brutus, Molière, Michelangelo, Gandhi, Pericles, Sartre. If he---or anyone else---can somehow help green beat black in this epic Chinese race, he'll deserve a hallowed place near the front of that pantheon. Environmental journalist Bill McKibben is a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College. Based in Shanghai, photographer Greg Girard has been documenting China since 1983.

Economic Hard Times and the Environment in China

Slow growth caused by the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 has had some positive environmental benefits: it reduced pollution and greenhouse emissions, primarily as a result of the drop in industrial production and construction, which in turn reduced the need for energy and materials that need electricity made by coal to produce.

An economic slowdown has actually been good for combating climate change.” Yang Fuqiang of the U.S.-based Energy Foundation told Reuters, “China is likely to achieve its emission-cutting target” in 2008 and 2009

Beijing saw some of its cleanest air in recent years during and after the Olympics when factories were idled and less vehicles were on the road. Around the same time Guangdong Province saw a significant drop in the number of badly polluted days, according to the Guangdong Provincial government, after 62,4000 businesses closed in 2008.

But as the Chinese economy began to sour as a result of the global economic crisis momentum that had been gained in the fight against pollution was lost as maintaining growth and providing jobs took a heightened importance. Peng Peng of the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences told the Washington Post, “With the poor economic situation officials are thinking twice about whether to close polluting factories, whether the benefits to the environment really outweigh the danger to social stability.”

Factories that were shut down or supposed to be shut down for environmental reasons were reopened or allowed to remain open. In February 2008 the Fuan textile factory, a multimillion dollar operation in Guangdong, was shut down for dumping waste from dyes into a river and turning the water red. It later quietly reopened in a new location. A large steel factory in the industrial city of Wuhan what was supposed to close in 2007 because of air pollution concerns remained opened and when last checked it was still belching out as much pollution as ever.

China Going Green?

The term “eco” is popular in China. Its kind of a fashion

Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, “I believe this Chinese decision to go green is the 21st-century equivalent of the Soviet Union’s 1957 sputnik...When China decides to go green out necessity, watch out. You will not just be buying your toys from China. You will buy your next electric car, solar panels, batteries and energy efficient software from China...Right now , China is focusing on low-cost manufacturing of solar, wind and batteries and building the world’s biggest market for these products.”

Shi Zhengring, founder of solar-panel-maker Suntech, which is located in Wuxi near polluted Lake Tai, told Friedman, after a pollution disaster at the lake “the party secretary of Wuxi city came to me and said, “I want to support you to grow ths solar business into a $15 billion industry. So then we can shut down as many polluting and energy consuming companies in the region as soon as possible.” He is one of the a group of young Chinese leaders, very innovative and very revolutionary, on this issue. Something has changed, China realized it has no capacity to absorb all this waste. We have to grow without pollution.”

Image Sources: 1) Ohio State University; 2) Gary Baasch; 3) Environmental News; 4) Johomaps; 5) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 6) Guardian, Environmental News; 7) Bucklin archives http://www.bucklinchinaarchive.com/ ; 8) Agroecology; 9) Kyodo, Environmental News ; 10)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2011

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