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

ENVIRONMENT OF CHINA

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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.”

CHINA’S GREEN CITIES

Bill McKibben wrote in National Geographic, “Rizhao, in Shandong Province, is one of the hundreds of Chinese cities gearing up to really grow. The road into town is eight lanes wide, even though at the moment there's not much traffic. But the port, where great loads of iron ore arrive, is bustling, and Beijing has designated the shipping terminal as the "Eastern bridgehead of the new Euro-Asia continental bridge." A big sign exhorts the residents to "build a civilized city and be a civilized citizen." [Source: Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011]

In other words, Rizhao is the kind of place that has scientists around the world deeply worried---China's rapid expansion and newfound wealth are pushing carbon emissions ever higher. It's the kind of growth that helped China surge past the United States in the past decade to become the world's largest source of global warming gases. And yet, after lunch at the Guangdian Hotel, the city's chief engineer, Yu Haibo, led me to the roof of the restaurant for another view. First we clambered over the hotel's solar-thermal system, an array of vacuum tubes that takes the sun's energy and turns it into all the hot water the kitchen and 102 rooms can possibly use. Then, from the edge of the roof, we took in a view of the spreading skyline. On top of every single building for blocks around a similar solar array sprouted. Solar is in at least 95 percent of all the buildings, Yu said proudly. "Some people say 99 percent, but I'm shy to say that."

Whatever the percentage, it's impressive---outside Honolulu, no city in the U.S. breaks single digits or even comes close. And Rizhao's solar water heaters are not an aberration. China now leads the planet in the installation of renewable energy technology---its turbines catch the most wind, and its factories produce the most solar cells.

“In the end, anecdote can take you only so far. Even data are often suspect in China, where local officials have a strong incentive to send rosy pictures off to Beijing. But here's what we know: China is growing at a rate no big country has ever grown at before, and that growth is opening real opportunities for environmental progress. Because it's putting up so many new buildings and power plants, the country can incorporate the latest technology more easily than countries with more mature economies. It's not just solar panels and wind turbines. For instance, some 25 cities are now putting in or expanding subway lines, and high-speed rail tracks are spreading in every direction. All that growth takes lots of steel and cement and hence pours carbon into the air---but in time it should drive down emissions.”

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Song era urban scene

New Tianjin Eco City in China

China and Singaporean have mapped out a huge eco city for 350,000 people in Tianjin that they hope will be model could be copied across developing countries. The buildings will be the latest word in energy efficiency: 60 percent of all waste will be recycled, and the settlement will be laid out in such a way as to encourage walking and discourage driving.[Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, June 4, 2009]

The plan to build this settlement, known as Tianjin Eco-City, near the western shore of the Bohai, one of the most polluted seas in the world. Groundbreaking for the the first phase ---Tianjin, an “eco-business park,” over 150 hectares (370 acres)---took place in 2009. [Ibid]

Every building is to be insulated, double glazed and made entirely of materials that abide by the government's green standards. To cut car journeys by 90 percent, a light railway will pass close by every home, and zoning will ensure all residents have shops, schools and clinics within walking distance. It will be more verdant than almost any other city in China, with an average of 12 square meters (nearly 130 square feet) of parks or lawns or wetlands for each person. Domestic water use should be kept below 120 liters (26 gallons) per person each day, with more than half supplied by rain capture and recycled grey water. [Ibid]

One of the first aims of Tianjin Eco-City is show it can avoid the failures that doomed another eco-city, Dongtan (See Below). Goh Chye Boon, chief of the joint venture running the business park at Tianjin Eco-City, said his project had learned from Dongtan that it was better not to reach immediately for the skies. “We aspire to one day be a dream city like Dongtan but we want to take one credible step at a time,” he tolf The Guardian. “Dongtan inspired me, but I think when you reach too high, you may forget that the ultimate beneficiary must be the resident.” [Ibid]

According to The Guardian the “new city being built in Tianjin is in danger of going too far the other way by not being ambitious enough. Although it will use wind and geothermal power, its target of 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020 is only a tiny improvement on the goal for the national average. The goal for carbon emissions is equally modest.” [Ibid]

Dongtan, the Failed Chinese Eco-City

In 2009, Dongtan---the planned eco-city on the salt flats of Chongming island in the Yangtze near Shanghai, which was supposed to be a model for the world by 2010---was pronounced dead. Designed by British eco-engineers and green-minded architects from the London-based consulting group, Arup, the Manhattan-size city was set up to run on renewable energy, be car-free, and recycle all of its water and have and have 25,000 people living in it when the Shanghai World Expo opened in 2010 and when it could be reached by a new tunnel and bridge.[Source: Fred Pearce, The Guardian, April 23, 2009]

British Prime Minister Tony Blair signed the deal to design and build Dongtan with Chinese president Hu Jin-tao. His deputy, John Prescott, went there twice. So did Britain's top urban planner, Peter Hall, and the London mayor Ken Livingstone, who wanted ideas for greening his urban landscape. Ma Cheng Liang, the man in charge of the project, said in early 2006: “We need to reduce our ecological footprint. Dongtan is very significant for Shanghai and the nation. We want to skip traditional industrialization in favor of ecological modernism. Dongtan is a chance to develop new ways of living.” [Ibid]

When Expo 2010 and the tunnel and bridge opened nothing was in the eco-city except half a dozen wind turbines and an organic farm. There were no houses, no water taxis, no sewage-recycling plant, no energy park. Mentioned of vanished from the Expo website. [Ibid]

Reasons Dongtan Failed

Peter Head, the main Arup designer of Dongtan, denied rumor that the project has been a casualty of the political fallout from the conviction of the city boss Chen Liangyu, jailed in 2008 for corruption. Rather said it was the result of the way China operated. “China does everything by the rules handed down from the top. There is a rule for everything. The width of roads, everything. That is how they have developed so fast, by being totally prescriptive. We wanted to change the rules in Dongtan, to do everything different. But when it comes to it, China cannot deliver that.” he said [Source: Fred Pearce, The Guardian, April 23, 2009]

Paul French, chief China analyst at Access Asia, said Dongtan had died because planners had failed to consult the local community and had aimed too high. “Dongtan was plonked down on everyone. They were going to do everything, but nothing has been realized. It's really important with environmental stuff that you only say what you can actually deliver or people will lose trust.” [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, June 4, 2009]

Ordos, China’s Modern Ghost Town

Ordos, Inner Mongolia is a beautiful modern city. It was built from the ground up in just five years. The streets are clean. And the neighborhoods are quiet. But something is missing. The city was built to accommodate nearly one million people. Yet, no one lives there.

The city of Ordos was a government project. It was likely conceived as an economic stimulus. Building is a sign of economic growth. So, local officials started building. But five years later no one has moved in. It’s a ghost town without any ghosts.

Ordos lies in the deserts of southern Inner Mongolia and near coal-mining area of Shaanxi province. It is home to the world's biggest coal company and the planet's most efficient mine. The extensive coal and gas deposits below Ordos has turned this arid, northern outpost into a boom town. The local economy grew eightfold between 2004 and 2009 while the population has swollen almost 20 per cent.

Ordos offers some insight into what happens when planned cities don’t work out as planned. Ordos had grown rich suppling coal and minerals to the rest of China. As of late 2010 the average per capita income was around $21,000, the highest in the nation and nearly triple the national average. Kangbashi (near Ordos in Inner Mongolia) is known in China as “the empty city.” Between the 2004 and 2010 it was transformed from two villages in the grassland to cluster of grandiose buildings, including an opera house shaped like two traditional Mongolian hats, a library that resembles three massive books and museum that looks like a giant copper boulder. Many of the units in the apartments blocks have been bought up by investors. The only thing that is missing is people. The city has a capacity of 300,000 people. As of 2010 it had about 30,000.

Bill McKibben wrote in National Geographic, “Ordos may be the fastest growing city in China; even by Chinese standards it has an endless number of construction cranes building an endless number of apartment blocks. The city's great central plaza looks as large as Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and towering statues of local-boy-made-good Genghis Khan rise from the concrete plain, dwarfing the few scattered tourists who have made the trek here. There's a huge new theater, a modernist museum, and a remarkable library built to look like leaning books. Coal built this Dubai-on-the-steppe. The area boasts one-sixth of the nation's total reserves, and as a result, the city's per capita income had risen to $20,000 by 2009. (The local government has set a goal of $25,000 by 2012.) It's the kind of place that needs some environmentalists. [Source: Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011]

Shenyang Turns Green

Christina Larson of Yale Environment 360 wrote in The Guardian: “Almost every day of his childhood, He Xin remembers the skies in his hometown of Shenyang being gray. "If I wore a white shirt to school, by the end of the day it would be brown," recalls He, who was born in 1974, "and there would be a ring of black soot under the collar." He grew up in Shenyang (population 8 million), the capital of northeastern China's Liaoning province, a city famous for its heavy industry and manufacturing---and soot and pollution. Growing up, the view he remembers most vividly was looking out over Shenyang's fabled Tiexi industrial district, home to several large iron and steel plants and the site of China's first model workers village: "When I was a teenager, if I climbed a tall building to look out over Tiexi, all I would see was a forest of large smokestacks, chimneys, and dark, billowing smoke." [Source: Christina Larson, Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network, October 17, 2011]

But today all that is gone. No longer standing are Tiexi's iconic smokestacks and its blocks of red brick workers' dormitories, with their rows of coal-fired chimneys atop. Now He is the vice president of the environmental consultancy BioHaven and splits his time between Shenyang, Beijing, and St. Louis. To him, Shenyang looks almost unrecognizable today. "It's not perfect, but the air is cleaner... almost like it's not in China," he said, adding: "The only thing the same is the statue of Chairman Mao." He was referring to the saluting bronze figure that still dominates downtown People's Park, one of the largest statues of Mao Zedong in China.

If the city long known as the "elder brother" of industry for its central role in Mao's drive to industrialize China in the 1950s and '60s has recently made strides to clean up its act, He isn't the only one to take notice. Last November, the Urban China Initiative (UCI) , a think tank co-founded by McKinsey & Co., Columbia University, and Beijing's Tsinghua University, released its first "Urban Sustainability Index " for China. The index assessed sustainability in 112 cities by looking at 18 environmental indicators---from air pollution to waste recycling to mass transit---for the years 2004-2008. Among Chinese cities, Shenyang emerged as a leader in environmental improvement.

Curious to see the changes for myself, I visited Shenyang last month. For four days, the skies were eggshell blue, with intermittent clouds and one rain shower. As anyone who has lived in a Chinese city knows, air pollution levels vary day to day, with weather and the direction of the wind. But even if Shenyang's skies were not always as bright as what I saw, it's clear the city's run of unending gray days is over. Residents told me the skies were much clearer than ten years ago.

Of course, I wouldn't yet label Shenyang as "green" on par with, say, Portland, Maine. Construction dust accompanying the city's current building boom adds a new kind of air pollution, and while Shenyang's wastewater treatment rate of 77 percent is better than most Chinese cities (the average rate is 70 percent), it remains well below developed-world standards.

How Shenyang Cleaned Itself Up

According to UCI's research, Christina Larson of Yale Environment 360 wrote in The Guardian, Shenyang had removed virtually all traces of heavy industry from its core by 2010. In new residential areas, coal heating had been replaced by natural gas. Urban green space had increased 30 percent from 2005 to 2007. Perhaps most significantly, the heavy industry that does operate in the city---now relocated to facilities in the outer suburbs---is significantly less polluting than heavy industry elsewhere in China: Shenyang's plants emit about one-fifth the level of sulfur oxides as the national average in China. The reason, quite simply, is that the city tore down most of its old factories and literally started again, with newer facilities and desulfurization equipment. "The evolution is significant," Jonathan Woetzel, a director in McKinsey's Shanghai office, told me. [Source: Christina Larson, Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network, October 17, 2011]

The Tiexi district today is worlds away from the forest of smokestacks that He remembers. It now has new four-lane roads, upscale apartment complexes, a Carrefour store, and Shenyang's first Ikea (the sign outside reads: "No dream too big, No home too small"). Many residential streets are lined with gingko trees. Shenyang's other central districts were also in various stages of a makeover.

For large infrastructure projects, Shenyang has also benefited from the ability of its savvy and well-connected leaders to make their case in Beijing. Each year, the central government announces a pot of money for new municipal infrastructure projects that cities can bid for. The details of how money is transferred are opaque to outsiders. But Shenyang, ever a stronghold of the political establishment, has fared well. For instance, the city recently received a slice of funding from Beijing for its subway system, now under construction; the first line opened in 2010, and the second line is scheduled to open next year.

Money and unified political will make things happen. "One of our study's key findings was that those cities that have made the most environmental progress," McKinsey's Woetzel explained, "were often those that had the best coordination across departments and levels of government."

Short History of Shenyang’s Fight Against Pollution

Christina Larson of Yale Environment 360 wrote in The Guardian: Why did a once-infamous Smogville begin to shed its gray? To a large extent, it was necessity. Shenyang, which is the capital of Liaoning province in northeastern China, played a central role in Mao's drive to industrialize China. "To be honest with you, it is very hard to shut down a factory that still makes a lot of money," an air-quality specialist in Shenyang's environmental protection bureau told me. "But many of Shenyang's factories had 50-year-old equipment, and they were economically dead already." With a nod to the fact that economic and environmental ministries in China often have clashing priorities, she added, "It is hard to make any real progress without the other ministries [in agreement]." [Source: Christina Larson, Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network, October 17, 2011]

It's common in China for environmental officials to find themselves crusading to shut down lucrative but dirty factories, often in vain. But Shenyang turned out to be the exception that proves the rule about economic growth trumping green priorities in China. The reason many of its storied old factories shut down was because they had to---they simply weren't making money.

The change didn't happen overnight, nor was it painless. In the 1990s, Beijing began to withdraw support from many large state-owned enterprises, forcing them to sink or swim in the market. If Shenyang's factories represented China's state-of-the-art in the 1950s, a half-century later that was no longer true; the equipment was rusted, and the management systems bloated and inefficient. Hundreds of Shenyang's factories were closed, from foundries to farm-equipment manufacturers, and thousands of workers laid off. (By some estimates, the unemployment rate was twice the national average.) In the early 2000s, the demolitions began; wrecking crews worked day and night tearing down, block by block, the shell of the past.

During this time, Shenyang was lucky to have an innovative and charismatic environmental protection bureau chief, Li Chao. His popular initiatives included starting the bureau's environmental blog and establishing a citizen complaint line for air and noise pollution. But more importantly, his goals often aligned with those of the city's far more powerful construction and development ministries, as well as the district-level governments that managed reconstruction.

When it came time for rebuilding, Tiexi district manager Li Songlin knew there was no looking back. His goal was not to recreate an industrial district, but instead to build a foundation to tap into China's red-hot residential real-estate market and attract light manufacturing. To that end, he coordinated with the city's environmental protection bureau and the Shenyang Academy of Environmental Sciences, a local research institute, to develop a program for soil decontamination at the sites of old factories, such as the former Shenyang Smelting Plant, demolished in 2000. For that site, the government paid the $19 million cleanup tab. But the value of land around the plant, now converted to real estate, has risen many multiples that investment, according to the Xinhua news agency. In short, the green makeover made economic sense.

While much of China's recent environmental news is bleak, from water shortages to rising energy demands, Shenyang's example provides at least one beacon of hope. It just might be that, as with Pittsburgh and London before it (in the 1950s, London smog was so thick it hid the sun at noon), this Chinese city's dirtiest days may finally be behind it.

Last updated March 2012

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 ; 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.

Last updated November 2011


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