China’s Environmental Nightmare

As Beijing has been choking on smog this year, economists at Deutsche Bank point out that without swift reform, China may face a much worse environment by 2025. From Lily Kuo at Quartz:

China’s myriad plans to deal with pollution don’t look so promising. In a research note today, Deutsche Bank analysts gloomily conclude that, barring extreme reforms, Chinese coal consumption and increased car ownership will push pollution levels 70% higher by 2025.

Even if China’s economy slowed to 5% growth each year, its annual coal consumption would still rise to 6 billion tons (5.4 tonnes) by 2022, from the current 3.8 billion tons. Car ownership is expected to increase over the years to 400 million in 2030 from the current 90 million.

[…] For China to meet its goal of reducing particulate matter to 35 micrograms per cubic meter by 2030, China will need to implement aggressive measures, the bank says, like reducing pollutants from coal-fired plants, cutting the number of cars on the road, and massively building up public transportation. Even then, the air pollution level would still above the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization (25 micrograms per cubic meter).

Brad Plumer at The Washington Post looks to the United Kingdom in the 1950s as China’s precedent:

In particular, they argue that the United Kingdom went through an analogous structural shift in the 1950s after the “Great Smog” in London that killed 12,000 people. Britain had a similarly coal-dependent economy back then, but it managed to diversify its energy supply and clean up pollution without hurting growth:

So there’s precedent, albeit on a smaller scale. The big hurdles for China aren’t economic or technological, the authors say. They’re political. Until now, China’s policies to rein in pollution have largely been “piecemeal and uncoordinated.” That will have to change.

Not everyone’s completely convinced it will be so easy. Over at FT Alphaville, Kate Mackenzie is wary of the comparison with the United Kingdom. “I’d very much like this to be correct,” she notes, “but I fear that Deutsche’s projections are a little too reliant on China emerging from its present dependence on capital intensive growth and manufacturing, becoming a more advanced, services-based economy.”

At the same time, people are disappointed with the incompetence of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). From Liu Jianqiang at ChinaDialogue:

In the first five years, there was no MEP, merely its predecessor the State Environmental Protection Agency. Despite its lowly status, SEPA had the courage to act, which was encouraging. But after promotion to ministerial status brought greater powers and boosted career prospects for its employees, there was little action of note.

Among SEPA’s actions were its “environmental storms” – its strikes against law-breaking companies, including the huge electricity giants. It also ordered regional planning restrictions, preventing law-breaking local governments from approving new projects until changes were made. It called a halt to an illegal project at the Old Summer Palace lake and held public hearings on the case, making it a case study for public participation and democratic decision-making. And it researched regulations on regional environmental impact assessments and a green GDP measure designed to solve over-reliance on financial GDP measures.

[…] But in the following five years there was virtually no sign of similar proactive measures. Instead, we saw half a decade of widespread disputes and protests over environmental interests. In 2011, the number ofenvironmental protests increased 120%. Last year brought demonstrations in Ningbo, Shifang and Qidong.

Large projects that ignore environmental and social impacts, as well as the public’s right to participate, are the root of social unrest. But the MEP seems to consider this none of its business. The public’s right to know and participate are key to resolving conflict. If the MEP had, over the last five years, enforced its rules on disclosure of information and public participation, some of these conflicts would have been avoided.
See more on pollution via CDT.