Who Will Save China’s Environment?

Following a number of recent protests against industrial pollution, an article in Nature magazine by environmentalist Qiang Wang looks at the role civil society will play in cleaning up China’s environment:

Solutions must come from ordinary citizens, who can take responsibility for their environment and express it daily in choices such as riding bicycles or taking public transportation instead of driving. The voice of society is growing, and the government is starting to respond, albeit reluctantly, to the air-pollution crisis. The US Embassy in Beijing posts its air-quality readings on Twitter, and activists have been re-posting the readings on Sina Weibo (China’s answer to Twitter, which is blocked in the country). The hashtag “I don’t want to be a human vacuum cleaner” attracted more than 1.7 million comments. And when the real-estate titan Pan Shiyi asked his millions of Weibo followers: “Do you agree that PM2.5 should be monitored in 2011? Do you agree that the clean-air act should be stricter?”, the replies in favour far outnumbered those against.

[…] In recent years, local protests have successfully blocked the construction of individual polluting projects, including plants in Xiamen and Dalian, which would have produced the industrial chemical paraxylene; a trash incinerator in Panyu; and a wastewater treatment plant in Qidong. China is witnessing the beginnings of a civil society in which the Chinese people spontaneously defend their right to a healthy environment, independent of organizers, political goals and commercial interests.

Chinese citizens who want to drink clean water can buy a water purifier; those worried about poisoned milk can buy imported milk. But when the air is polluted, there is no option but to fight. The various stakeholders of China’s environment — government, non-government organizations and industry — should seize the opportunity provided by the growing popular involvement, and promote a civil society that stands up for the environment. The air of the people should be protected — by the people, for the people. [Source]

Meanwhile, a report from National Public Radio looks at the government’s role in combatting air pollution, and the ways in which the leadership has already taken action while also dealing with a variety of vested interests, including powerful oil companies:

Wagner says China’s state-owned oil companies serve two masters: the government and shareholders.

“They should feel the responsibility, as the entire Chinese government does, to improve people’s livelihoods and reduce air pollution,” Wagner says. “But they also serve the market, and these are publicly traded companies, and so their responsibility is to produce fuel at the cheapest cost possible.”

But January’s dreadful air pollution led to a breakthrough of sorts.

Sinopec Chairman Fu Chengyu surprised people and took some responsibility for the problem, and the government set a dramatically lower national fuel standard that matched those in Europe. Wagner says the new standard essentially removes all sulfur from the fuel and could reduce emissions 90 percent to as much as 99 percent.

That’s the good news. The bad news: The deadline for implementing that new standard is more than 4 1/2 years away, and it isn’t clear who will pay for all that clean technology. [Source]

Read more about environmental protests in China, via CDT.