China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Blue sky thinking in choking China

By Jill McGivering BBC News, Wuhan

Liu Wen-shan, director of Wuhan's Environmental Monitoring Centre
Officials insist the air quality is improving
Liu Wen-shan, the director of Wuhan's Environmental Monitoring Centre, is very proud of his state-of-the-art system.

Inside concrete bunkers on the building's roof, a computer screen flashes numbers and colours in a constantly shifting display as the system tested the quality of air sucked noisily into the back.

"It's one of the most modern systems in the whole of China," he said.

Together we peered at the figures.

"How was the air quality today?" I asked. "Quite good," he said. "In line with international standards?" I asked. "Yes," he answered.

The official line in Wuhan is that air and water quality have both improved since an all-time low in 2002. Then, the central and local government invested millions of dollars in a new clean-up campaign, with the visionary title Blue Sky and Clear Water.

Clogged roads in Wuhan
Wuhan's roads are now clogged with traffic

The campaign is presented as evidence that the Chinese authorities are well aware of the environmental problems sparked by the country's rampant economic growth and are serious about tackling them.

There may indeed have been improvement but, on a purely anecdotal basis, I found it hard to accept the air quality was adequate.

In my 10 days in Wuhan, nothing even closely resembled a blue sky. A thick smog hung over the city. At the roadside, the fumes were choking. Wuhan has seen an explosion of growth in the last few years. Bicycles are in the minority now, largely replaced by private cars, taxis and buses.

The authorities in Wuhan are fighting back. They have increased leafy areas in the middle of the city; they have improved the quality of the roads. And they have decreased the burning of fossil fuels by factories and have plans to push older, more polluting vehicles off the roads.

The city is also making a slow but steady economic transition from traditional state-owned industries, like its steel plants, to more modern and foreign-funded joint ventures in such areas as car manufacturing.

It is also investing in new, greener technologies. In a business park on the outskirts of Wuhan, I met representatives from the Dong Feng Electric Vehicles Company, a government-owned venture. Their long-term aim is to produce all-electric cars and buses. So far, though, their only all-electric vehicles in use are golf buggies.

But they are producing a hybrid bus - part diesel, part electric - and a third, less polluting than normal diesel ones. Five of these buses are being used in Wuhan. More will be added next year.

The company's officials admitted that marketing the hybrids was proving difficult, partly because they cost half as much again as conventional buses. But it is a step, albeit it a modest one, in the right direction.

US 'hypocrisy'

There is little doubt that China's extraordinary growth is a threat to its own environment and the world's. But many in Wuhan insist that curbing pollution is a top political priority now and solutions are in hand.

Criticisms from Washington are not well-received here. One of President Bush's objections to the Kyoto accord on global warming, which he refused to sign, was that China should not be given special exemption.

But when I asked Qin Tian-bao, a professor in environmental law at Wuhan University, about the accusing finger pointed at Beijing by Washington, his anger was clear.

"The United States always have double standards on economic development, environmental protection and human rights," he said. "In China, people have the right to survival, the right to development. If you go to poor areas, economic development is first. They have no other choice.

Yang Shou-wu, administration director at Dong Feng Electric Vehicles Company in Wuhan and hybrid bus
The hybrid buses are costly but effective

"The US is the biggest power in the world," he added. "Almost everyone has a car. Don't we have that right?"

In terms of development, Wuhan, like many big cities in central China, is about a decade behind the booming east coast and the country's bigger, more international cities like Shanghai.

Rapid change only hit the city in the last five years or so. A newly-prosperous middle class is suddenly emerging. But many others are still excluded from the boom. To close that wealth gap, the city needs to continue on its path of breakneck development. But it is uncertain what that will cost in environmental terms.

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