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China's Developing Environmental Crisis By: Frederick W. Stakelbeck Jr.
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, March 08, 2007

During a briefing on climate change in Beijing last month, Jiang Yu, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said that wealthier countries must take the lead in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, since they had been polluting for much longer. “It must be pointed out that climate change has been caused by the long-term historic emissions of developed countries and their high per capita emissions,” she said.

Even as Ms. Jiang tried to blame wealthier countries – namely the West - for the world’s increasingly unpredictable climate, organizations such as the World Bank and International Energy Agency (IEA) were predicting that China would pass the U.S. as the leader in emissions of carbon dioxide as early as 2009. But instead seeking common ground with interested parties, Beijing has responded by resisting any mandatory emissions restrictions that would impact the country’s meteoric economic growth.


This dangerous policy has placed the country in the midst of an environmental crisis. Weather-related disasters claimed 2,704 lives and caused approximately $27 billion in economic losses in 2006. Last year, record warm temperatures, unusually harsh sandstorms, coastal floods, acid rain and the worst drought in the county’s history left 17 million people with drinking water shortages. “2006 has been the grimmest year for China’s environmental situation,” Chinese Vice-Minister Pan Yue said in December. Respected Chinese climatologists and meteorologists agree the weather has been some of the most “extreme” in the country’s history.


According to a 2006 World Bank report, the country’s environmental problems include, “Land degradation, deteriorating water quality and water scarcity, severe air pollution and declining forest cover.” In December, a government report warned that climate change posed a serious threat to agricultural output and the economy. One month later, the former chief of energy research for China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Zhou Dadi, warned that pollution and climate change had become a “major constraint” on national economic development, saying the country’s plans to develop its vast western frontier could be jeopardized.


Three-quarters of the country’s lakes are polluted and more than 100 of its cities suffer from severe water shortages, periodically shutting down industrial production. The deteriorating water situation was made worse in November 2005 when an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Jilin City resulted in contamination of the Songhua River. As a result, the entire water supply to Harbin City with a population of nearly 4 million was shut off for nearly a week.


New data show that the country increased its power generating capacity in 2006 by an amount equal to the entire capacity of the United Kingdom and Thailand combined. In addition, the country’s urban population is expected to expand, from 430 million residents in 2001 to 850 million residents by 2015, adding to the country’s already severely polluted cityscape. These are staggering facts which carry enormous environmental ramifications if not properly managed.


Environmental questions surrounding the monstrous Three Gorges Dam project, the world’s largest hydroelectric project now under construction, continue to surface, with numerous critics claiming the delicate ecosystem of the Yangtze River Basin has been irreversibly damaged. With the project expected to be completed in 2009, any opportunity to stop its eventual completion has long passed.


Recognizing the deteriorating environmental situation and a need for decisive action, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, speaking at the annual session of China’s National People’s Congress this week, said his country would make a concerted effort to reduce energy consumption and pollution, regardless of its impact on future economic production. “We should guide all sectors of the economy to save energy, reduce energy consumption and cut down on the discharge of pollutants and to avoid seeking only faster growth and competing for the fastest growth,” Wen said. The premier went so far as to predict that planned environmental measures could reduce China’s GDP growth from over 10 percent to approximately 8 percent.  


Premier Wen’s surprising statements come as Beijing prepares its first plan to fight climate change to be released later this year. The national program is expected to set broad goals for emissions from factories, power plants and cars, while also seeking to increase monitoring of the country’s changing weather patterns.


But despite much needed changes in government policy, the economic impact of any Chinese environmental plan will be the key factor moving forward. By some estimates, China is expected to overtake Germany as the world’s third-largest economy by 2008, behind only the U.S. and Japan. According to Alan Dupont, an expert on climate change and security at the University of Sydney, Chinese President Hu Jintao must balance increasing concern over the environment with government economic policies that deliver both sustained growth and jobs. “The whole stability of the regime and, as Hu would see it, the future of his country, depends on the continuation of economic growth of eight or nine percent,” Dupont said.


With so much at stake, what can Beijing do to stop this environmental calamity from getting worse?  


First, fines for domestic and foreign businesses should be strengthened, increasing the maximum penalty that has been mandated under the China Law of Protection of the Atmosphere. The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and the National Development and Reform Commission, a powerful economic policy-maker, are considering halting projects and carrying out ad hoc site inspections to stop pollution. This is a prudent move.


Second, a revision of existing tax laws on high-sulfur coals and the establishment of additional “coal-free” zones in highly populated cities should be pursued. Third, financial incentives and loans should be provided to companies that introduce energy efficient technologies, undertake research activities and develop environmentally-friendly products.


Fourth, the use of renewable resources such as bio-diesels and ethanol should be encouraged to reduce the country’s reliance on oil. Last month, China announced it will use 32.9 million acres of forestland, equivalent to the size of England, to grow trees specifically to make bio-fuels.


Fifth, improving vehicle efficiency and pollution controls for the millions of automobiles on Chinese roads will be a key goal in the future. Estimates suggest that the country’s overall energy consumption could grow 7 percent annually, even as the government attempts to expand its public transportation system with light-rail systems in urban centers. Carbon mitigation strategies which have focused on reducing emissions from industrial boilers and motors will need to focus more on automobiles.


Sixth, after a brief decline, coal consumption has again risen to pre-2000 levels. China is both the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. Making matters worse, the country has thousands of small, private coalmines where environmental controls are virtually nonexistent. To address this problem, foreign investment in the coal industry should be encouraged to modernize existing state-run mines, improve safety standards and increase productivity. In addition, Beijing should continue to actively pursue coal liquefaction and coal bed methane production to reduce harmful fossil fuel emissions. Of course, wind, solar, hydroelectric, thermal and nuclear power should be pursued as clean and efficient alternatives to reduce greenhouse emissions.


Finally, and most importantly, Beijing must listen to its citizens. The number of complaints to environmental authorities has increased every year over the past five years, reaching several hundred thousand, while the number of mass protests, many ending in bloodshed, has grown. In December 2005, 20 civilians were shot by police in the village of Donghzu in Guangdong province for protesting the seizure of land by the central government to build a power plant. Beijing needs to immediately revise this confrontational and divisive strategy.


If permitted to continue, environmental problems will undermine not only the prospects for long-term economic growth and prosperity, but also threaten the health and welfare of country’s population. Beijing has a moral responsibility to its citizens, neighboring countries and the world to address this serious situation, since its environmental problems have a global impact.

Like it or not, China has become a major contributor to the global warming problem, joining the ranks of other developed countries as a habitual polluter. Unrestricted economic growth has seriously damaged vital natural resources and generated increasingly unnecessary environmental risks. As a result, the country’s communist leadership will need to demonstrate greater compassion, technological ingenuity and vision to address the developing environmental crisis. Only then will the country truly be viewed as a responsible world citizen and gain the respect of its population.

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Fred Stakelbeck is a Senior Asia Fellow with Washington-based Center for Security Policy. He is an expert on the economic and national security implications for the U.S. of China's emerging regional and global strategic influence. Comments can be forwarded to Frederick.Stakelbeck@verizon.net.

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