Controlling the environmental impact of China's belated industrial revolution
is like the Red Queen's race in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass (the
sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) you need to run as fast as you can
just to stay where you are.
China's unprecedented economic growth in the past two decades has caused
substantial pollution and environmental damage. As the country marches on to new
economic heights, its insatiable appetite for energy and resources has provoked
widespread concern around the world. To meet the challenge of sustainable
development, "running" as fast as possible is not enough; drastic measures are
needed to combat rampant environmental problems.
Fortunately, China's central government has realized the dire consequences
that environmental damage could have in a wide range of areas such as air
quality, water supply, weather patterns, health, agriculture and biodiversity,
which eventually will take a heavy toll on the country's economy and social
stability. So much so that President Hu Jintao has made sustainable development
one of the central pillars of government policy.
Moreover, the Ministry of Science and Technology is conducting an assessment
of the effects of global climate change in China. The report, which will be
released in the first half of this year, aims to initiate debate on how China
can balance its ambitious goals for economic growth with strategies to cut down
These are welcome initiatives, of course. But China must
ensure that they will be effectively translated into practice politically and
financially to tackle pressing environmental issues. China already has more than
100 environmental policies, laws and regulations. In a country of such vast
scale and immense complexity, implementation of those rules or indeed of any
types of rules at the local level has never been easy.
Legislation alone has little effect unless governments are willing to enforce
the laws. Without clear incentives and penalties as an intricate part of the
environmental policies, they are unlikely to have any effect. Although
environmental protection has been a basic national principle since 1983,
economic development often takes priority, and is still the main criterion for
judging the performance of government officials.
This situation needs to be changed. Market tools should be introduced to
provide economic incentives for practices that are environmentally friendly.
Selection and promotion of government officials should take into consideration
their environmental as well as economic credentials.
To avoid conflicts of interest, agencies responsible for developing natural
resources should not be involved in regulating them.
And the State Environmental Protection Agency and green non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) should participate in decisions on new development projects
based on assessment of potential environmental impact.
They should also be given more power to enforce policy implementation and to
expose or even close down heavy polluters. In addition, the government should
establish a systematic approach to assess how effectively the environmental
policies are implemented nationwide.
Without such rigorous measures, good intentions would remain just that good
China should also increase its investment in enforcing environmental
policies, improving energy efficiency and developing new forms of energy
sources. China is among the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases responsible for
climate change. Because China lacks oil, more than three-quarters of its
electricity is generated by burning coal, the worst offender of greenhouse-gas
emissions. With power demands poised to double by 2020, an increase in coal
consumption is unavoidable.
Although alternative energy supplies hold great promise, they are unlikely to
solve emission problems in the short term. As the Chinese proverb wisely points
out, Yuanshui jiebuliao jinke (Far-flung waters cannot slake an urgent thirst.)
Like it or not, coal will remain China's predominant energy source in the
Among the key challenges, therefore, are how to make coal consumption cleaner
and more efficient. Technologies for meeting these challenges are already
available, but are expensive and have received little attention in China due to
lack of market or regulatory incentives. Although further research and
development are necessary before they can be widely adopted, the main
constraints are not technological but political.
But let's not blame China alone and expect that it should come up with a
solution on its own. Relative to its huge population, China is far less of an
environmental villain than the United States or Europe. Neither is it the only
country responsible for its profound environmental damage. Indeed, the world has
exacerbated the situation by means of trade and investment that fuel China's
rapid economic growth.
The China Water Pollution Map, recently unveiled online by China's Institute
of Public and Environmental Affairs, lists 2,700 foreign companies as heavy
polluters, including Pepsi in Jilin, Panasonic and Associated British Food and
Beverages in Shanghai, and the UK's Purolite resin plant in Zhejiang.
While China should prohibit the operation of companies domestic and foreign
that do not meet its environmental standards, foreign firms must set an example
by making environmental protection part of their code of corporate social
Export trade constitutes a large part of China's economy and is a major cause
of the country's increasing pollution because products go abroad whereas
pollutants stay behind. Therefore, importing countries have the obligation to
help China meet the challenge of sustainable development.
They could fund more initiatives that cut greenhouse-gas emissions in China,
such as those under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism. The
importing countries should also be more proactive in transferring to the country
environmentally benign technologies, such as those for cleaner manufacturing,
water conversation, waste treatment, and improving energy efficiency.
In addition, developed nations should help China's environmental planners and
managers as well as the country's thousands of green NGOs most of which are
small, isolated and poorly funded.
Financial support would certainly be welcome. But more importantly, they
should also help train Chinese officials and campaigners to be more adept at
increasing the public's environmental awareness, contributing to government
policies, and monitoring their implementation.
Industrialized countries will also contribute to the steady increase of coal
use projected by the International Energy Agency. This has made input in
research and development of clean-coal technologies all the more pertinent.
Market and regulatory incentives should be put in place at the global level to
encourage the use of such technologies around the world.
Development and sustainability are not mutually exclusive terms. But
reconciling them remains a great challenge for humanity. China has the moral
right to develop. However, the fact that it has no emission-reduction target
does not mean that the country as a moral agent and a rising world power has no
responsibility for protecting the environment and saving the planet.
After all, nature is not something to be conquered by humans. Instead, it is
a system that sustains us and we must learn to live within it. In the past two
decades, China has stunned the world by creating an economic miracle. It is time
for the country to demonstrate that it can also create an environmental miracle
and shape the world's path to sustainable development.
This would be a true indication of a powerful nation.
Jane Qiu is a writer and commentator in London and Beijing
(China Daily 01/04/2007 page11)