In China, Pollution Crashes the Party
April 23, 2006
China's rapid economic growth has come at a cost: environmental degradation that stokes civil unrest, affects economic growth and ultimately surpasses its own borders.
The problem has become so bad that the government now says further progress is impossible without first establishing targets to reduce the damage.
But previous pollution-reduction plans have failed to meet such targets, and some solutions bring problems all their own.
Industry and unrest
After 20 years of industrialization, two-thirds of the world's most polluted cities are in China, threatening urban residents with illness and disease.
Acid rain, polluted rivers and inadequate sewage treatment have left half the rural population without access to clean drinking water, says the World Health Organization (PDF).
As peasant farmers take the brunt of this, unrest often follows.
On April 8, villagers armed with iron bars vented their frustrations toward polluters in the rural Fujian province by attacking factories they say were fouling water supplies, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.
Similar protests are frequent. The Guardian reported that riots over land, water and environmental issues averaged 230 a day last year.
China's communist government recognizes the problem, and its latest Five Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development calls for "building a resource-efficient and environmentally friendly society" by reducing pollution and energy and water use.
The state-controlled Xinhua news agency said that the government recently ordered the cleanup of 20 polluting chemical plants, and suspended approval for 44 others because of potential safety threats.
But China failed to meet many previous environmental protection goals in the late 1990s due to rapid industrial growth and massive energy consumption.
Despite goals to reduce sulphur dioxide, emissions increased in 2005.
According to the China Daily Online, a government-run news outlet, efforts to reduce carbon dioxide output have also failed.
This unchecked industrialization takes its toll on China's neighbors.
In Korea, giant clouds of "yellow dust" -- a putrid mixture of industrial pollution and dust from the Gobi desert -- regularly cross the border, causing breathing and skin ailments.
The problem is fueled by deforestation and greenbelt degradation, according to the Korea Times.
Speaking to Reuters, Greenpeace campaigner Yang Ailun said that reform is obstructed by China's growing energy needs, as well as provincial governments that favor economics over environment.
With its dependence on coal-fired power plants, China is among the world's most wasteful energy users, spending 2.4 times more energy per unit of gross domestic product than the rest of the world, according to the United Nations Development Program.
The International Energy Agency, a treaty organization supported by 26 signatory nations, reported that China's power consumption will double over the next 20 years.
The agency also found that carbon dioxide released by fossil-fuel use in developing countries, including China and India, will exceed that of developed countries in the 2020s.
CNN reports that this huge increase is spurring widespread fear of global warming, habitat degradation and "volatile weather."
Although China currently consumes only four percent of the world's oil, its vehicle population is growing fast, and in 2005 was second only to the United States in new vehicle sales.
To discourage petroleum use, legislators have introduced a luxury car tax based on engine size.
But Dongquan He, of the non-governmental Energy Transportation Program in Beijing, said most are too small to be affected by the proposed tax.
A better solution, he told the Associated Press, would be to tax vehicles based on their fuel efficiency.
Alternative energy sources -- such as hydroelectric, wind, nuclear and "clean coal" technologies -- have their own problems.
Greenpeace China claims that "clean coal," such as coal gasification, is a myth, because the technology merely moves pollutants "from one waste stream to another."
China's hopes for increasing hydroelectric power have also raised red flags.
Conservation International fears that a government plan to build eight dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River, in the southern Yunnan Province, will affect millions of lives by upsetting ecosystems as far downriver as Laos and Cambodia.
China also intends to expand nuclear production sixfold by 2020, and struck a uranium mining deal with Australia this month.
News of the deal got mixed reactions Down Under.
"Australians are rightly concerned about nuclear power and uranium mining due to intractable problems of economic cost, waste disposal and nuclear proliferation," said Anthony Albanese, Australia's Shadow Minister for Environment and Heritage, on the Australian Labor Party's website.
Environmental health costs, wasted resources, reduced work efficiency due to illnesses and disaster cleanup have had an economic impact that China and the world are increasingly unable to ignore.
Greenpeace says that China Light & Power, a coal-fired power agency based in Hong Kong and serving much of Asia, released nearly 17 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air in 2004.
The activist group says the "negative cost" impact on the global economy amounts to US$1.6 billion.
Back on the mainland, another $1.2 billion is earmarked for cleanup of a recent chemical spill in the Songhua River near the city of Harbin.
Former government economist Bai Hejin told state-controlled media that environmental damage is responsible for a two percent decrease of GDP growth, or a loss of up to 12 percent of annual GDP.
"There is no need to damage the environment for a high growth," Bai said.
Some environmentalists are impressed with China's efforts to acknowledge their global impact, such as its announcement in 2004 that it will become a global wind power within the next decade.
"This is a golden opportunity -- if China is able to fully utilize its immense renewable energy resources, it can leapfrog over the polluting fossil fuel age straight into a clean renewable energy future," said Greenpeace's Lo Sze Ping on the group's website.
However, the Chinese Academy of Science remains cautious, reports Agence France-Presse.
"China has not fundamentally broken away from its economic growth model that relies on the intensive use of natural resources," the academy said, adding that eco-friendly economic growth was currently "not feasible."