China 2008: Environmental Crisis

This next article in the CDT series on important issues facing China in 2008 focuses on the Environment. See also previous posts on Nationalism, the Developing World, and the Global Financial Crisis.

China’s environmental issues have increased in scale in 2008 as the country strives to maintain its economic growth and development. In particular, air pollution has worsened rapidly between 2007-2008 after a sharp rise in 2002. China’s total carbon emissions and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are estimated to have surpassed the United States, which has been the number one carbon emitter in the world. China’s increase in emissions is due to the burning of coal to generate the needed power for development. Air pollution is costing China alone $82 billion in economic losses this year. In addition to air pollution, China suffers from desertification, water pollution, soil erosion, indoor air pollution, and e-waste.

In particular, air pollution, water pollution, and e-waste have sickened many and even claimed the lives of Chinese citizens. Besides the urban centers in China, according to the Chinese Environmental Aspect Bulletin, the rural areas are facing a major environmental crisis as well.

How has the Chinese government responded to the gigantic environmental crisis that the country is facing? It has begun to invest in other energy sources in addition to coal. These energy sources include hydropower which requires building dams (such as the South Tibet dam), nuclear power, wind power, solar power, and even a more innovative solution such as burning straw. The government has also initiated large scale projects, such as forest rehabilitation, a ban on the use of plastic bags, reducing car traffic in Beijing and Shanghai, the construction of an eco-city in Dongtan, and rural environmental protection. Another recent innovative solution is the “smart grid” management of the electricity and information technology infrastructure.

The efficacy of China’s environmental effort is largely in question. While some US research institutions, such as MIT and Yale, have produced optimistic reports about China’s environmental effort, some remain skeptical about Beijing’s reporting on pollution numbers. The building of dams is met by local people’s resistance due to its damage to the ecosystem. Forest reclamation might be too late for the relentlessly encroaching desert. The Dongtan eco-city project is now stalled. Smog returned to Beijing soon after the Olympics was over, and Isabel Hilton wrote in China Dialogue that China needs to clean up after the Olympics. Greenpeace China also produced a report on Beijing’s environment before and after the Olympics. Enforcement of the ban on the use plastic bags is a struggle. Worse yet, when faced with the global economic melt-down, China is retreating its environmental effort in order to keep up its economic growth for the reason of stabilizing the society.

What is the attitude of Chinese citizens toward the country’s environmental crisis? The Ministry of Environmental Protection surveyed citizens’ satisfaction about the country’s environmental management. More Chinese value their environment over the economy according another report. Following the Xiamen PX protest last year, another protest against the building of a chemical plant was held.

While the environmental law needs to be tightened and codified, environmental litigation is being carried out by environmental litigators, such as Zhang Jingjing. However, grassroots environmental protection remains a relatively small force in comparison to industries’ cooperation with the government. For example, Beijing offers companies cash incentives to curb the capital’s pollution. Eco-enterprises are seizing opportunities for green investments. Big Chinese companies are joining global climate groups in reducing energy consumption.

Due to the global impact of China’s environmental crisis, Japan and the U.S. are pressing China as well as other developing countries, such as India, to have carbon emission caps. While some voices within China also propose that China needs to assume a primary role in tackling the country’s environmental problems, the official government response pointed to rich countries to do the cleanup, during recent global climate talks.