China and Its Polluted Environment: It's Not Easy Turning Green

Michael H. Glantz
19 April
2007

China and its polluted environment:
it's not easy turning green

I have been in China for 10 days now and have come to realize something I did not know. The Chinese government is aware of its multitude of environmental problems and their impacts on the economy and on public health. The picture we usually hear outside of the country is that China, although burdened with a polluted environment --- air, water, and soils ---, does not seem to care about the long-term impacts of its degraded and still degrading environment. I accepted this view as presented in the media partly because I felt that it was true. The reason I felt it was true is not that its environment is degraded but that it continues to be degraded when in fact solutions to its environmental problems are well-known.

Kermit the Frog (cartoon character)

My new belief, that the government is trying to deal with cleaning up its environment, is based on news articles that I see in, for example, the China Daily and in the Shanghai Daily. I assume similar articles appear in newspapers around the country. I have even seen TV shows focused on the degraded environment and suggestions as well as attempts on how to clean it up. A few examples might be of interest.

Recently, there was an article providing international news about the efforts of a Japanese company to make ecologically friendly vehicles in an attempt for that company to catch up with its competitors in manufacturing "green" technology. In another recent article, a newspaper reports about what it calls unusual business. Here I quote directly:

“to make refrigeration industry operators understand the importance of protecting the ozonosphere, the China Association for Scientific Expedition organized the trip for industry representatives to the Arctic in June. According to Science and Technology Daily, the initiative also includes an international forum to increase awareness about the ozonosphere. From July 1, home appliances that use chlorofluorocarbons as refrigerant will be forbidden in the Chinese market. China is the largest producer and consumer of chlorofluorocarbons. Over 90% of air conditioners in the country use chlorofluorocarbons, while air conditioners in Europe use refrigerants that did not affect the ozonosphere” (China Daily, April 17, 2007, p.15).

In a brief article on the desertification, China 's President Hu Jintao has called on local officials to make greater efforts to fight desertification and improve the living conditions of impoverished people in areas hit by drought in Northwest China. He called for their support in constructing a “green wall” in the country's western regions (China Daily, April 16, 2007, p.3).

AFP Photo / Liu Jin

The China Daily put on its front page a lead story entitled “pollution takes heavy toll on Yangtze.” The article summarized the report of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Yangtze River Water Resources Commission and the World Wildlife Fund. It noted that

"Billions of tonnes of waste dumped into China 's longest waterway are taking a massive toll on its aquatic life. ... the river, the world's third-longest, is hit by natural disasters, deterioration of water quality, and loss of biodiversity …. [In 2006] more than 26,000,000,000 pounds of waste water was pumped into the river,which runs through 11 provinces and municipalities."

To its credit, the report implicates human decision-making is part of the problem. For example, it makes the following comment: “although The Three Gorges Dam has reduced flood risks in the middle reaches, the risk of flooding remains high in the lower reaches.”.With a reference to climate change and the Yangtze, the reporter noted that “flood control remains on an arduous path along the Yangtze, given the rising temperature and frequent occurrences of extreme weather over the last 50 years.. The report also noted that deforestation in the mountains was a major factor in the devastating Yangtze floods of 1998.

“Thin ice, too little snow for Inuit hunters” was the title of an article on the impacts of global warming on the Canadian Arctic region and its native people, the Inuit. “Inuit hunters are falling through thinning ice and I hear there is not enough ice to build the igloos for shelter. During hunts, walrus and seal pups are found abandoned and stranded on floating ice, and travel is much more difficult as the ice cannot support the weight of people or their modes of transportation."

Another article implicitly relates to climate change reports about energy production of China 's largest oil company, PetroChina. It noted that the company will expand oil and gas production in the future and that the company had hit record-high production levels in 2006, up by 5% over the previous year. The article also noted the following: “relatively slow growth in production was partly caused by some natural disasters. Severe high winds and blizzards in northeastern China shut some fields in the first quarter.”

As a final example, China's news agency, Xinhua, in an article entitled “Small coal plants to shut, but jobs safe," reported that “Shanghai will close 29 coal-fired power plants by 2010” and will replace them by constructing plants that are more energy efficient, saving Shanghai from having to burn about 1.1 million tons of coal a year. The vice mayor noted that “these small coal-fired power plants [2.11 million kilowatts in installed capacity] are big energy guzzlers and serious polluters,” and the vice mayor also said that some workers will be hired for the new facilities, while others will be offered jobs elsewhere.

In these articles and even in editorial cartoons, one can see the dilemma that Chinese government officials face: on the one hand, oil production yields good profit for the company and for the government, while on the other hand the burning of that oil and gas contributes greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, worsening global warming. Economic growth and economic development are goals to be sought by a government for its citizens. However, in the process they are destroying the environmental base upon which future growth and development depends.

Unlike other developed countries whose process of growth and development took place over relatively long time periods, Chinese government officials have to deal with a plethora of social, economic and environment issues occurring simultaneously. In a country with limited space, lots of people and increasing affluence, one can only wonder how any government could manage development and growth while minimizing, if not avoiding, environmental degradation.

I no longer think that the Chinese government does not care about the environment in general or more specifically about global warming. It does. How successful they will be to manage it remains a concern. Can China have its proverbial cake…and eat it too?

--Michael H. Glantz

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