Laws are not enough for environmental miracle

By Jane Qiu (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-01-04 07:11

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 greenhouse-gas emissions.

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 intentions.

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 foreseeable future.

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 responsibility.

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)

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