China’s Economy Must Clean Up, Slow Down

At Foreign Affairs, Thomas N. Thompson challenges the view that severe pollution is a necessary price of China’s economic development:

The dangers of China’s environmental degradation go well beyond the country’s borders, as pollution threatens global health more than ever. Chinese leaders have argued that their country has the right to pollute, claiming that, as a developing nation, it cannot sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment. In reality, however, China is holding the rest of the world hostage — and undermining its own prosperity.

[…] The economic costs of pollution have been the focus of various government-backed studies in China. A recent study by the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning found that environmental damage to forests, wetlands, and grasslands shaved 3.5 percent off China’s 2012 GDP. The World Bank puts the total cost of China’s environmental degradation in the late 1990s at between 3.5 and 8 percent of GDP. China’s pollution problem is holding back its economy — and poisoning its own people and the rest of the world in the process. The international community should push China to realize that if it continues to ravage the environment, it will be unable to secure its future health and prosperity — or avoid a global disaster.

Xi Jinping signaled a shift in the balance of priorities earlier this week. From Andrew Browne and Carlos Tejada at The Wall Street Journal:

Speaking before business leaders at the Boao Forum for Asia in southern China on Monday, Mr. Xi said “it’s not impossible to grow faster,” but added, “we don’t want to grow too fast.”

“I don’t think China can sustain super-high or ultra-high-speed growth,” he said, citing the need to balance economic growth with other issues. He said China’s slowdown last year to 7.8% economic growth is “partially due to our efforts to control the speed of growth.”

[…] Speaking at a roundtable discussion with Asian and global business leaders at the Boao forum, Mr. Xi said China will sustain “relatively high” growth but will also look at fostering green development. “Realizing those goals will bring vitality and strength to China’s economy,” he said.

But at Economic Observer, Chen Yongjie of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges argued that based on projections of future energy consumption and carbon emissions, China’s economy must slow further still:

There is a chance that China’s new leaders may start to take environmental problems seriously, having even set the construction of an ecological civilization as one of its five national priorities. However in the face of the severe haze we see every day, China has to dig even deeper.

[…] China has to effectively reduce the pace of its development, aiming to keep its overall economic growth below 7 percent between now and 2014; and during its “13th Five-Year Plan” (2015-2020), growth should be kept under 6 percent.

It’s only by reducing the speed of China’s economic growth that we can reduce excessive resource extraction and curb high pollution emissions. Only by reducing the over-consumption of resources and the amount of pollution can China protect and save itself, and the world as well.

The problem is compounded by China’s heavy reliance on coal, often labeled the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. “Even if China’s economy slowed to 5% growth each year,” wrote Lily Kuo at Quartz last month, describing a Deutsche Bank report on the relationship between environment and economy, “its annual coal consumption would still rise to 6 billion tons (5.4 tonnes) by 2022, from the current 3.8 billion tons.” At chinadialogue, Greenpeace’s Li Shuo and Lauri Myllyvirta illustrated the scale of China’s coal dependence:

A quick flick through China’s energy statistics book tells us just how coal-addicted Beijing’s neighbours are. In 2011, Shandong and Hebei collectively consumed nearly 700 million tonnes of coal, making them the first and fourth biggest consumers among China’s provinces. Each burned through more coal than Germany, Europe’s largest economy, and together they exceeded India’s total coal consumption. Putting it another way, more coal is consumed within 600 kilometres of China’s capital than in the entire United States.

[…] Two pathways are unfolding in front of China’s policymakers. The path of unbridled, unsustainable GDP growth at all costs that ignores the health of its citizens, or a greener, cleaner kind of growth powered by smart investments in new energy, and guided by effective environmental policies and practices. As the nation’s renowned respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan bluntly put it on the sidelines of the parliamentary meetings last month: “When people’s health is at risk, how can we still put GDP first?”