The Great Leap Backward?

Elizabeth C. Economy – Foreign Affairs

Copyright Foreign Affairs
China’s environmental problems are mounting. Water pollution and water scarcity are burdening the economy, rising levels of air pollution are endangering the health of millions of Chinese, and much of the country’s land is rapidly turning into desert. China has become a world leader in air and water pollution and land degradation and a top contributor to some of the world’s most vexing global environmental problems, such as the illegal timber trade, marine pollution, and climate change. As China’s pollution woes increase, so, too, do the risks to its economy, public health, social stability, and international reputation. As Pan Yue, a vice minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), warned in 2005, “The [economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.”
With the 2008 Olympics around the corner, China’s leaders have ratcheted up their rhetoric, setting ambitious environmental targets, announcing greater levels of environmental investment, and exhorting business leaders and local officials to clean up their backyards. The rest of the world seems to accept that Beijing has charted a new course: as China declares itself open for environmentally friendly business, officials in the United States, the European Union, and Japan are asking not whether to invest but how much.
Unfortunately, much of this enthusiasm stems from the widespread but misguided belief that what Beijing says goes. The central government sets the country’s agenda, but it does not control all aspects of its implementation. In fact, local officials rarely heed Beijing’s environmental mandates, preferring to concentrate their energies and resources on further advancing economic growth. The truth is that turning the environmental situation in China around will require something far more difficult than setting targets and spending money; it will require revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reforms.
For one thing, China’s leaders need to make it easy for local officials and factory owners to do the right thing when it comes to the environment by giving them the right incentives. At the same time, they must loosen the political restrictions they have placed on the courts, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the media in order to enable these groups to become independent enforcers of environmental protection. The international community, for its part, must focus more on assisting reform and less on transferring cutting-edge technologies and developing demonstration projects. Doing so will mean diving into the trenches to work with local Chinese officials, factory owners, and environmental NGOs; enlisting international NGOs to help with education and enforcement policies; and persuading multinational corporations (MNCs) to use their economic leverage to ensure that their Chinese partners adopt the best environmental practices.
Without such a clear-eyed understanding not only of what China wants but also of what it needs, China will continue to have one of the world’s worst environmental records, and the Chinese people and the rest of the world will pay the price.
SINS OF EMISSION
China’s rapid development, often touted as an economic miracle, has become an environmental disaster. Record growth necessarily requires the gargantuan consumption of resources, but in China energy use has been especially unclean and inefficient, with dire consequences for the country’s air, land, and water.
The coal that has powered China’s economic growth, for example, is also choking its people. Coal provides about 70 percent of China’s energy needs: the country consumed some 2.4 billion tons in 2006 — more than the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined. In 2000, China anticipated doubling its coal consumption by 2020; it is now expected to have done so by the end of this year. Consumption in China is huge partly because it is inefficient: as one Chinese official told Der Spiegel in early 2006, “To produce goods worth $10,000 we need seven times the resources used by Japan, almost six times the resources used by the U.S. and — a particular source of embarrassment — almost three times the resources used by India.”
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