China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Toxic China?

Western critics cite China's environmental record as an excuse for attacking economic growth.

by Kirk Leech

Environmentalists are seeking to exploit China's hosting of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 as an opportunity to put pressure on the country, to improve dramatically an environmental record now seen as a threat to the planet. But are demands for China to rein in its industrial advance and slow down its growth the best solution for China, or the world?

China has long been criticised by environmentalists for a litany of environmental crimes. Chastised for building the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, because of its supposed environmental destruction and displacement of villagers, it is also criticised for its water cleanliness. It is claimed that five of China's greatest rivers are too polluted to touch, never mind drink. Several of the country's largest waterways, including the Yellow River, run dry before reaching the sea. The leak of toxic benzene into the Songhua River in November 2005, and the disconnection of water supplies to the city of Harbin and its millions of inhabitants, has increased concerns.

It was recently reported that China is now the world's second-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, soon to over take from the USA (1). (Ironically China has also been taken to task for expanding its nuclear power generation). Plans to build 600 coal-fired power stations by 2030, with the expected rise in greenhouse emissions, in a country where roughly a third of the population is already said to be exposed to 'acid rain', have been roundly condemned (2).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently reported that two-thirds of China's cities have air quality below standard. Nine of its cities are in the top ten most polluted in the world, some having the highest rates of airborne carbon monoxide in the world (3). It has been widely reported, by the Chinese themselves, that 400,000 people die prematurely every year from diseases linked to air pollution, partly down to increased car use. The numbers of cars in Beijing has doubled in the past five years to 2.5m; it is expected to rise to over 3m by the time the Olympic flame reaches the capital city in 2008.

The British Guardian newspaper recently awarded Beijing the accolade of 'air pollution capital of the world' (4) and joined in with criticisms of China's slowness in adopting Kyoto Protocols on greenhouse gas emissions - perhaps forgetting that as a developing world country, China is not bound by the Protocols.

Environmental campaigners claim that de-forestation projects will soon leave few trees in the north of the country, and that desertification, the creation of deserts, is happening faster than anywhere else in the world, with deserts encroaching on Beijing. The list of rare and endangered species of animals and plants at risk stretches from mammals to plants. National Geographic magazine recently commented that China was committing 'ecological suicide'. It is also claimed that China's growing human population, currently 1.3billion, spells environmental and economic disaster for the planet.

Whilst China has long been on the radar of environmentalists, what's given this targeting of the country a real impulse is China's rapid industrialisation, and natural resource use, kindling fears that this spells doom for China and for the whole planet. How should we consider these claims?

Chinese destruction and growth

Data released by the Chinese government at the start of the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2006, indicated that China has just leapfrogged over several European powers to become the world's fourth largest economy by GDP at market prices. When one looks at purchasing power parity (taking China's lower prices into account) it is already number two (5).

This rapid industrial growth, and heavy use of fossil fuels, helps explain why China has become the new 'bete noire' of environmental campaigners, replacing the USA as the most 'toxic country' in the world. As the environmental website Grist put it, 'We've said it before and we'll say it again: One of the biggest and most underreported environmental stories today is the rapid, massive industrial development taking place in China' (6). For environmentalists this rapid industrialisation is damaging the country, and the world's eco-system. China's exploitation of the planet's natural resources leaves the world heading for catastrophe.

Leading environmentalist Lester Brown, in his recently published Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilisation in Trouble, reveals his alarm at China's growing demand for the world's natural resources. He states that China leads the USA in the consumption of four of the basic commodities, consuming twice as much meat as the USA, twice as much steel, and leading the USA in grain and coal consumption. The USA still leads in oil consumption, partly due to owning 10 times as many cars, but as Chinese car ownership grows, it is narrowing. The image he presents is of China sucking up the world's resources like some mighty vacuum cleaner, in a vain attempt to feed itself, and industrialise.

Equally, environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, in his new book Capitalism As If The World Matters, suggests that 'China must feed 20 per cent of the world's population on just 7 per cent of the world's arable land' (7). Both books suggest that China is helping to push the world towards environmental and social disaster.

Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, and who advocates 'bringing one, and no more than one, child into this world will hurt neither your family nor our nation' (8) (for the USA, not China!) echoes these fears. Writing in the Washington Post (9), he has argued that at the pace China is converting farmland into factory sites, there will not be enough land left to feed its people. Mass starvation looms.

This sentiment that the Chinese economy is growing at a pace that cannot be sustained has become an obsession for many environmental web sites, green newspapers, eco-blogs, and books. Their beef is that economic growth, beyond providing the necessities of life - a roof over ones head, water and food - is a waste of the world's limited natural resources. As Grist puts it when looking at China, 'currently, the country's 1.3 billion residents are using the equivalent of one 100-watt light bulb per person, per year. Now imagine, instead of one light bulb, 20 bulbs, two TVs, two cars, a washing machine, and a dishwasher. Add to that the growing demand for power presented by China's steel, aluminium, and plastics industries. Where will all the power come from?' (10)

China's industrial development is roundly criticised, but more significantly China has now become a symbol for all that is seemingly destructive about economic progress and development in the modern world. China has become the dark vision through which many global environmental concerns are expressed. It is demonised as a country, for the pace of its industrialisation, and used as an example for the rest of the world of what may be coming very quickly around the corner for all of us.

But it is not just China today that's the worry; but China in the future, when Chinese consumption levels have reached Western, particularly USA levels.

For Brown and Porritt, China's high speed growth is of great concern, but current statistics only reflect existing consumption in the country. When they 'calculate' Chinese consumption levels per person, reaching USA consumption levels per person around 2031 (11), they are gripped with fear and foreboding for the future of the planet. However, their analysis is little more than morbid speculation, with 'if' as the operative word. As Brown suggests,

'If China reaches US consumption per person…. If China's economy continues to expand at eight per cent GDP growth per year, its income per person will reach the current U.S. level in 2031…. If at that point China's per capita resource consumption were the same as in the United States today, then its projected 1.45billion people would consume the equivalent of two-thirds of the current world grain harvest…. If China one day has three cars for every four people, US style, it will have 1.1billion cars. The whole world today has 800million cars ….If it does not work for China it won't work for India' (12).

It is worth noting that Brown has a 30-year history of making such predictions, and getting them totally wrong. Porritt, who quotes Brown at length in his book, believes that 'what's happening in China provides a window on the kind of resource constraints and natural capital dilemmas that we too, will soon be facing.'(13) Porritt's uncritical acceptance of Brown's failed predictions suggests a mindset immune to serious research. Let's look at China's recent economic development, and what exactly is concerning environmentalists.

China's development

China's industrialisation is rapid and impressive. Its sheer size, scale and vitality stands in comparison to most regions of the world. Hence it has become the target of those who see industrialisation and growth as destructive, and coming up against the natural resource limits of the planet. These critics cannot see how such swift industrialisation and resource depletion can be sustained.

For Brown, 'The Western economic model - the fossil fuel-based, auto-centred, throwaway economy - is not going to work for China' (14). Professor James Lovelock, most famous for his Gaia hypothesis - a quasi-mystical idea that the planet Earth is one living, and self-regulating organism, and that humans are simply one part of it - claims in his new book The Revenge of Gaia, 'I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back…the worst will happen' (15). His predictions were recently given front-page coverage in the British Independent newspaper (16).

But is China's growth so exceptional? Or does it stand out because the developed world's economies seem set on simply holding things together and avoiding major risks? (17) How much of this discussion is about China, and how much is a reflection of a certain disenchantment within the West with economic growth and progress in general?

China's demand for raw materials, to help build its cities and industrialise, throws up the kind of statistics indicative of an ambition often missing in the Western world, where caution and restraint are by-words. According to official Chinese government statistics, China in 2003 absorbed roughly half the world's cement production, one-third of its steel production, one-fifth of its aluminium and nearly one quarter of its copper.

In the past two decades China has witnessed the greatest movement of humanity the world has ever witnessed. Over 200million people have migrated from rural to urban areas, mainly to cities along the southern coast, in search of employment and a better standard of living. Official predictions see another 300million joining them in the next 20 years. China will have to build new housing for 400million people in the next twelve years; such will be the scale of urbanisation (18).

It's not just cities that the Chinese are building. Under construction is the world's longest bridge, linking the eastern cities of Ningbo and Hangzaou; the world's highest railway line, built partly on glaciers, up into the mountains of Tibet (19); already constructed is the Jinmao Tower, with the highest hotel in the world; soon to be constructed is the world's largest airport terminal, Terminal 3 Beijing airport, ready for the 2008 Olympics, handling up to 60million passengers and 500,000 planes a year. British architect Norman Foster, who designed it, described the scale as 'truly awesome' (20).

At a time when many shipyards in the West are closing, China is building dozens of new ones, including the world's largest in Shanghai. China's Shenzhou spacecraft makes it the third country to send a human into space. And there is the notorious Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, due to be completed in 2009.

But China's most amazing project is the construction of 800-mile-long canals, to carry water from the south of the country to the north. It's an almost unimaginable engineering feat, akin to draining Lake Superior, one of the Great Lakes of North America, pouring the water into aqueducts, and sending it to Philadelphia (21).

The term China Syndrome, once used in the West to predict the consequences of a nuclear power station meltdown, is now used to explain why one-fifth of the bulk freighters in the world are effectively out of use at any one time. They are to be found in long queues stranded, either unloading raw materials at Chinese ports, or leaving China, to load up with commodities in other countries for a return to China.

China's fast industrialisation dwarfs much of the developing and developed worlds. But are environmentalists correct that these plans spell ecological disaster for China and the world, and should China follow their conservationist and preservationist suggestions?

China crisis

Clearly, such rapid industrial development, rural migration to the cities, booming demand for cars and petrol, road congestion, old industrial plant, and reliance on coal-fired power generation, comes at some price. There are problems that need to be addressed. As someone who has spent time in some of India and Brazil's burgeoning industrial cities, such as Ahmedabad and Porto Alegre, I can testify to the burning feeling in one's throat and eyes from car exhausts, coal-fired power stations, and smoke stack industries.

Recent Chinese government reports found that 70 per cent of the country's rivers and lakes were seriously polluted (22), and that 90 per cent of its cities suffer serious water pollution and drought problems (23). China should find ways to improve the living conditions and environment of its workers, reduce pollution, and clean its rivers.

But this is not really what's behind many of the criticisms levelled at China. What lies beneath is often a more profound loss of faith in the benefits of economic development, centred on a negative view of humanity's relationship with nature. Porritt exemplifies this well: 'the kind of materialism driven on by our contemporary consumer capitalism is leaving people unfulfilled and is killing the human spirit even as it degrades and despoils the natural world' (24). For Porritt, the richer we become the less happy we are. Porritt, Brown and Lovelock are telling the Chinese that their economic aspiration is misplaced, that it cannot last, and that even if it did, the Chinese people won't be happy.

But the Chinese may well see things differently. What about those whose average life expectancy in 1950 was 35 years, while today it's close to 70? Or those whose income per capita has increased sevenfold over the same period? Or the 400million people lifted out of severe poverty, 'in the most dramatic burst of wealth creation in human history'? (25)

Today, China's poverty rate is estimated to be lower than the average for the world as whole. In 1980 the incidence of poverty in China was one of the highest in the world (26). In the 20 years between 1981 and 2001, the proportion of the population living in poverty fell from 53 per cent to eight per cent (27). One does not have to be a cheerleader for the political regime in China, or a capitalist red in tooth and claw, to see this as progress.

China does have quality of life issues it needs to address. But China will be in a much stronger position to deal with some of the negatives of its growth if it rejects a mindset that views scientific and technological progress, and economic growth, as the problems, and sees them both as part of any solution. China's GDP has grown on average nine per cent every year from 1979 until 2003 (28). This growth, coupled with the fact that its population hasn't grown as fast as many forecasted, has had an enormous benefit on living standards in China. This dynamism leaves China in a very strong position to improve the living standards, and environment, of its population. Reducing people's living standards by arguing for less development, as some environmentalists do, is neither desirable, nor is it going to happen.

If tackling some of China's environmental problems, such as pollution and dirty rivers is a priority, then it's going to come through greater application of technology, and through increased economic development. It will not come through the conservation of China's natural resources, and preservation of a so-called harmonious relationship with nature.

Missed from environmental prognosis is the recognition that richer societies, those who have advanced through economic, scientific and technological development, create more positive environments for us to live and work in. Poorer societies are in no position to even begin to think about such questions. The argument that China needs to lower its consumption, or as Porritt puts it 'consume wisely' (29), through adopting sustainable development polices that limit our activity and avoid using up resources, will only help hamstring societies from dealing with problems.

To explore whether China is heading for environmental disaster or whether development and science can provide answers, let's look in detail at two of the key areas of environmental concern: China's growing demand for energy and its increased utilisation of natural resources.

China's energy present

China's industrialisation is creating a huge demand for energy. In 2005, China added 65billion watts of generating capacity to its national electric grid, the year before it had added 50billion watts. This is akin to adding half of India or Brazil to its electric system annually. No electricity system in the world has ever grown so fast.

Coal is the country's default source of energy: coal-fired power stations produce about 80 percent of the country's needs, and a great deal of carbon dioxide emissions. It is the basis of much of the environmental criticism over China. Only a man blinded by the smog would not see this as a problem. China has taken on board some environmental measures aimed to reduce its reliance on coal and other fossil fuels. While commonsense on a technical level, it's not yet clear if these measures will be taken much further and act as brake on its growth.

China has introduced a tax on high-sulphur coals, and in Beijing established 40 'coal-free zones'. A law taking effect this year will require China to produce 10 per cent of its energy from renewable resources by 2020. China is working with a number of European Union countries to produce coal-fired power stations with drastically reduced carbon dioxide emissions (30). China is moving ahead with plans for greater use of natural gas in the capital, with massive pipelines planned to pump natural gas across the country. Beijing already has the largest fleet of natural gas buses in the world, nearly 1,700.

Some of these measures are clearly modelled on policies and laws introduced in the West over the past 15 years. China has also introduced other measures that would be unacceptable in the West. Some 30 big projects were suspended at a mandate from the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) in December 2004. Their construction was put to a halt as the projects, most of them hydro or thermal power plants, failed to have an environmental impact assessment according to Chinese law (31). Most were subsequently allowed to proceed after passing the assessment.

In another dramatic move China has moved to slow down the growing demand for cars and petrol. Total vehicle sales grew by 15 per cent in 2005, making China the second largest vehicle market in the world. Already Chinese fuel efficiency standards for new cars are much stricter than those in the USA, and are soon to become even tougher. But to deal with this rapid growth in car ownership, the Chinese Government have introduced measures unimaginable in the West.

In an effort to reduce the numbers of cars on the road, licence plates are rationed. In Shanghai if you want to purchase a new car, first you buy it, then you bid for a license plate. The number of plates up for auction is limited to around 6000 per month. In the June 2005, auction plates went for around £2,400.

Whether one sees such measures as authoritarian or a progressive solution, they're rarely discussed, or referred to by Western environmentalists. Nor was the speech made by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo at a conference on science and technology in Beijing in January 2006. His speech outlined China's future science and technology plans. First on his list was that 'technology development on energy conservation, water resources and environmental protection should be given priority' (32).

Maybe this is hype; maybe these are the wrong priorities for China. But the plain facts are that they don't fit in to the environmentalist worldview of China as some über-devourer of the world's natural resources, and don't fit the moral lesson we are supposed to learn from our environmental preachers about China's runaway economy.

China's energy future

None of the measures listed above will satisfy China's long-term energy demands. The International Energy Agency calculates that by 2020 China will be responsible for 40 per cent of all coal burnt, 10 per cent of all oil, and 13 per cent of all electricity used in the world. Such will be China's productive needs. Consequently China is moving ahead with alternatives.

China's search for non-fossil fuel power generation, for example hydroelectric power projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, and the increased use of nuclear power - China is planning to build two nuclear power stations every year until 2020 (33) - has been the subject of intense criticism. But some of the research and experimentation that is currently being carried out in China holds up the possibilities of dramatic advances in energy creation.

Engineers and physicists at Tsinghua University in Beijing are working on an advanced form of nuclear power generation, a Pebble-Bed Reactor (PBR) (34). It's small enough to be assembled from mass-produced parts, cheap enough to be available in vast numbers, capable of producing clean electricity, with no spent fuel rods, and its melt-down proof. The Chinese are claiming this is the biggest advance in nuclear power generation for 25 years.

Of course it may well be that this is a blind alley, and it fails to live up to predictions. But it is also under serious study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA, and in November 2005 South Africa announced that it would build its first PBR. But this use of technology and science to produce new forms of energy, helping, not hindering, human advance, is missed from the environmentalist mindset.

China stands out from other developing countries, such as India and Brazil, in that its energy consumption per dollar of GDP is falling. Its average GDP over the past decade is around eight per cent, with energy consumption lower. This is due in the main to installation of more modern industrial plant and equipment, and energy conservation projects. The net result is that China has been reducing its energy intensity. Yet China continues to be criticised for its energy demands. It can't really win, and that's because the criticism is not about the form of its energy consumption, but the fact that its consumption is growing.

Natural resources, natural limits?

Lester Brown's prediction, given high profile coverage in the British media, that China's rapid industrialisation will help hasten the collapse of human civilisation unless it develops a new economic model by reducing demand for natural resources, is not new. It's an argument he has been making since 1973, the year before he set up the Worldwatch Institute (35).

In an article for Foreign Policy in 1973 (36), Brown wrote: 'soaring demand for food, spurred by continued population growth and rising affluence, has begun to outrun the productive capacity of the world's fishermen and farmers'. His argument the planet cannot cope has barely changed for over 30 years.

Ronald Bailey, science editor of Reason magazine, explained in his testimony to a US Congress subcommittee in 2004 why apocalyptic environmental predictions, from the likes of Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich, and those accepting the 'Limits to Growth' argument, have all proven so incorrect. He revealed that Brown made similar predictions in 1981, 1994, and 1996. More recently in 1997 Brown argued that 'rising food prices will be the first major economic indicator to show that the world economy is on an environmentally unsustainable path' (37). He is consistent, but is he right?

The World Bank price index for food shows that food prices, as one would expect with the introduction of new technologies, and the concentration and centralisation of production, made a rapid decline globally from their peak in 1975. Brown's response in 1999 was to argue of the dangers of cheapening food prices!

Brown has argued, since the publication of his 1995 book Who Will Feed China: A wake- up call for a small planet (38), that China would face insurmountable food shortage problems unless it slowed down its economic development. Less than 10 years later the World Food Programme called on China to improve the amount of food it was donating to the world. China was now no longer in need of food aid, and it was in a position to be a donor to the programme, not a recipient (39).

That Brown's unfounded prejudice that the world cannot feed its growing population is still dragged out by environmentalists with no embarrassment suggests that some have already made up their minds, immune to facts and reality. In essence Brown's argument is a re-run of the old Malthusian argument, that population growth would always outpace the availability of land, minerals and other natural resources, leading to famine and economic slow-down. Though this has never occurred, mainly due to human creativity and technological and social development, we are still threatened with the same spectacle of the world's natural resources devoured, this time by the Chinese Dragon. Let's look at how long the world's natural resources may last.

Current predictions for the depletion of natural resources run something like this: copper, 33 years; zinc, 25 years; silver, 14 years; tin, 23 years; gold 16 years and lead 23 years (40). China's rapid industrialisation may well speed this up. This may sound alarm bells, but the bare facts are that these estimates have stayed virtually the same for over 30 years. Mining companies busy extracting resources don't begin the search for new deposits, with the subsequent costs, until there is a pressing need to - when the resource they are extracting begins to run out.

There are vast amounts of raw materials on the planet that at present are either too technologically difficult, or too expensive, to extract - for example those under the oceans or under the Arctic and Antarctic. These will not always be financially and strategically prohibitive to extract. But clearly mathematically, there are finite supplies of basic raw materials, and fossil fuels on the planet. At some point in the future copper, tin, oil and coal will run out. Mankind is going to have to develop substitutes for these minerals, and new forms of energy that as yet perhaps don't even exist in our imagination. History shows that mankind is more than capable of these feats.

But in the empty imagination of environmentalists, who fast-forward their disenchantment with modern consumption patterns into some future Chinese 'Blade Runner' world of hell, such advances are absent.

Jonathon Porritt suggests that if the Chinese adopt American cultural habits, for example the mass reading of newspapers, then there will not be enough trees on the planet to turn into newsprint. Porritt seems unaware or uninterested in the dynamics and possibilities of new technology. Newspapers are read on the net even today, and could be printed if needed on alternative paper.

Rather than see modern technology helping to solve potential resource problems, Porritt simply projects the current level of human know-how and skill into the future and imagines the worst. This negative view of humanity, of what we have achieved and could achieve, leads not just to downplaying human creativity and ingenuity, but in celebrating backward trends and ideas.

Stop the world, I want to get off

This view is accurately caught in the vast number of environmentalists who lauded the words of Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. He wrote with great amusement on an article by Zou Hanru, a columnist for the China Daily, who suggested that as the Chinese use 45billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year, or 1.66million cubic meters of timber, or 25million full-grown trees, they should consider eating with their hands, abandoning chopsticks (41).

Maybe Zou was serious; Friedman was clearly not. But that this throwaway proposal has been excitingly supported by environmentalists is evidence that environmentalists are dumping their prejudices with consumption and growth onto China.

Such prejudice and leads environmentalists to interpret events to fit their worldview. Many have jumped on the rural riots in Zhejiang Province in July 2005, when a pharmaceutical plant was closed through local pressure, and those in Guangdong Province in December 2005, captured on TV, in which at least 30 people died, as environmental protests against pollution and for environmental justice. Environmentalists see these protests and riots as basically similar to Western-style ecological protests against consumption and development (42).

This is a woeful misinterpretation of events. There are major fault lines running through Chinese society. There are real winners and losers in China's rapid capitalist advance. The rural poor, for example, are likely to be some of those who miss out. But to interpret rural unrest and riots as similar to anti-roads protests in the UK, or demands for a slowdown in economic development (43) as similar to anti-capitalist protests in the West, suggests at best wishful thinking and at worst, downright dishonesty.

China's rapid industrial advance has clearly spooked western environmentalists. Hence their demands for China to adopt restraint, to consume less, or 'more wisely', to lower their vision, and ambition, and to adopt policies of sustainable development.

It's a real sign of our times: China exports material goods to the West; the West exports a culture of restraint, fear, and conservation to China.

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