China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Monday, July 30, 2007

Social cost of China's boom

The Australian

Rowan Callick, China correspondent | July 30, 2007

YOU can't escape the pollution in China. Everyone knows by now about the stench in the cities, how 16 of the World Bank's 20 world cities with the worst air are in China.

But perhaps even more depressing is the sense that no matter where you go, you can't escape it.

Xi'an is the new name for the ancient capital of Chang'an, a wonderful place to visit, the terminus of the Silk Road in its golden era during Europe's Dark Ages. It's at the centre of China's agricultural heartland. Not verdant rice paddies, but fruit led by apples, fields of corn and a big variety of horticultural produce and livestock.

Over the past year, I have had to travel out of Xi'an on three occasions, deep into the farmland of Shaanxi province. Once was to talk with farmers about their response to the negotiation of a free trade agreement with Australia. On each occasion, the countryside remained enveloped in a grey fog of pollution, visibility restricted to a couple of hundred metres or so.

I have seen the same shroud in Guangdong province, too. This is the greatest engine of China's manufacturing miracle. It is a large area, about 77 per cent the size of Victoria. By no means is it covered in factories, yet I have travelled through the province's countryside with its rice paddies and banana plantations, by train, bus and taxi, and, as in Shaanxi, never escaped the pollution. It is bad enough to live in cities like that. But how must it feel to be a farmer and still not see the sun or even the sky?

The price, though, is more than just aesthetic and psychological. Pollution also has a direct impact on economic capacity, of course. At an apocalyptic level, the more lurid forecasters claim that Beijing will have to be abandoned by the end of the century because of a lack of water, and Shanghai because of rising water levels in part caused by the Three Gorges project.

You develop in an unbridled way, and for every extra dollar you earn, the country pays an extra "X" cents for the cost of increased health problems, for the natural resources used up without being fully priced, for the loss of alternative revenue earners such as tourism or horticulture or fisheries, for the cleaning up of physical waste.

Since Deng Xiaoping announced China's opening and reform 30 years ago, the country has become as fascinated by gross domestic product figures as Australia is by football or cricket scores.

Officials throughout the country receive a substantial proportion of their wages in bonuses measured according to the official figures for economic growth in their areas.

The Chinese public has also become fixated on the growth figure too, because it tends to reflect people's prospects for more or better jobs, schools and colleges, roads, subways and recreation facilities.

Over the past decade, economists everywhere have started to respond to the needs of policy planners to be able to measure the trade-offs between development and the environment. This has inevitably been happening in China, which today as a great globaliser is naturally also itself open to global influences -- as long as they appear, like the notion of "green GDP", technical rather than political.

Wang Jin-nan of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, the technical head of the project to develop a green GDP for China, revealed last week that after just one year of putting a figure on those extra X cents, fierce opposition by officials appeared to have prevented further such reports. For that one year, 2004, the project participants calculated that the 9.5 per cent growth should be discounted for pollution by three percentage points, to 6.5 per cent. Such figures would undercut many bonuses and deter the construction of projects whose polluting impact might hurt overall growth.

The environment has been given a higher priority over the past couple of years in Chinese government rhetoric and in policies, in part responding to public concerns. But although the 2005 green GDP report was prepared, the State Council -- China's cabinet -- appears now to have sided with the powerful political lobby preventing its release and halting the whole project.

Leaks indicate the 2005 figure was worse than 2004's. The World Bank estimates that the health effects of air and water pollution cost 5.8 per cent of GDP in 2003, for which comprehensive statistics are available.

The National Bureau of Statistics has played its political cards carefully, justifying the withdrawal from green GDP reports on the grounds that there is no internationally accepted standard for them. But of course, on countless other issues China goes its own unique way regardless of international standards or the lack of them.

The Communist Party-controlled media have for some time given clues about the fragility of support for the green GDP.

People's Daily has editorialised that "it is a limited concept, which can't meet the needs of all sides, especially when it is proposed as a criterion for officials' promotion". And Xinhua news agency reported six months ago that several provinces and cities wanted to withdraw from the "green GDP experiment".

But China's most prominent pro-green official, State Environmental Protection Administration vice-minister Pan Yue, said six months ago: "Even if there is only one province left in the project, we will continue." He has lost this round though.

That this debate has become public indicates the growing preparedness of the central Government to tolerate some debate on such issues within the establishment, in which the public has some room to participate online -- until it becomes raucous, when control of the web enables officials to simply turn it off instantly.

One of the official lines about pollution most often repeated, is that the West went through its industrialisation at considerable environmental cost, and that it is almost racist to expect China to slow, or maybe forgo aspects of its own modernisation. Worse, the West has exported much of its industry to China so that it can benefit from importing the fruit of low-cost production without suffering any side-effects itself. It's even importing the by-products of pollution in the West, including millions of tonnes of waste plastic every year.

However, everyone now knows better than Britain did, say, when it suffered the social and physical impacts chronicled by Charles Dickens on its own environment 150 years ago. There are means to mitigate such impacts without halting development.

These means touch on four areas: policy formation, implementation, technological change, and structural reform. The blame tends to be swept down from the higher levels of the central Government to the local officials responsible for implementation.

Last Friday, Xinhua said the Politburo had become fired up about the economy overheating after inspection teams dispatched to the provinces had found that "some local governments are ignoring the decision to save energy and cut greenhouse gas emissions and are still investing heavily in high resource-consuming sectors".

Others are going in the opposite direction. Shanxi province, polluted awfully by its coal mines, power stations and brickworks, decided two months ago to award city leaders $160,000 if they could drag the capital, Taiyuan, from the list of China's five most polluted cities, among a batch of other bonuses for greening the province measurably. Despite the apparent discarding of green GDP, the debate on greening China is full-steam ahead.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

China's Green Evolution

Popular Science Magzine McKenzie Funk For images of the proposed eco-city Dongtan, launch the gallery.

Zhao QingHao, the first resident of China's first eco-village, is a 58-year-old polio victim whose left leg is twisted at a 60-degree angle below the knee. He walks with a cane fashioned out of PVC tubing and smokes a pipe and the occasional enormous, self-rolled cigarette. His wife, Yi Shiqin, who is 50, is mentally disabled and has a speech impediment. Their family is one of the poorest in a poor community, and their new eco-home has not helped. They have no heat and no water. They have a gas meter but no gas. They have no neighbors on their deserted street, no room to grow corn in their tiny garden, no place in their yard for the cashmere goats that once provided a third of their income. As temperatures dropped last winter, the bio-gasification plant intended to power the village still wasn't working. When snow piled up waist-deep outside their door, they locked themselves in their bedroom because the rest of the house was too cold. Zhao took a pickax and hacked a hole into the wall to create a makeshift fireplace, where they burned wood from the local forest.

China's eco-revolution wasn't meant to go this way, and Zhao and Yi hadn't meant to be eco-pioneers. But their old house, a stone structure Zhao had lived in since the 1960s, was gutted by an electrical fire in May 2006. The local government gave their $2,600 in restitution money to the developer of the eco-village. The couple had little choice. Along with their former neighbors, whose house had also burned, they became the sole residents of Huangbaiyu New Village—model inhabitants of a model community that was supposed to prove that China could grow up green. Five days after Zhao and Yi moved in, a convoy of black sedans pulled into Huangbaiyu: a delegation of officials and journalists from Beijing, here to witness the village's progress.

The plans for Huangbaiyu—one of the half-dozen eco-cities, megalopolises and capitals of pollution I visited this spring to gauge whether China can engineer itself out of environmental catastrophe—were drawn by none other than William McDonough, the celebrated former "Green Dean" of the University of Virginia's architecture school and godfather of America's sustainable-design movement. In 1996 McDonough was the first, and so far only, individual to win the White House award for green design; the title of his 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle, which refers to an environmentally harmless cycle of manufacture and reuse, has become a sustainability buzz term. Huangbaiyu, in far northeastern China, was the first development project by the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, a nonprofit McDonough started with Deng Nan, the daughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. McDonough's drawings depicted a beautiful teardrop of a village filling a forested valley. Its homes were to feature solar panels, eco-bricks made of hay and clay, and southern exposure to maximize sunlight. The project would pay for itself as families from old Huangbaiyu, a village of 1,370, decided to trade in their former homes. The old dwellings would revert to fields, and Huangbaiyu's farmable area would grow (how this would ever make sense economically was never made clear). Like Dongtan, the much larger eco-city now taking form on the margins of Shanghai and another stop on my tour, Huangbaiyu was the subject of glowing press coverage. The local entrepreneur selected to build the new homes, Dai Xiaolong, who is also the village chief, took out nearly $1 million in loans to pay for construction. Convinced that Huangbaiyu would be famous around the world, the first of a wave of green cities across China, he also took out thousands of trademarks—Huangbaiyu Windows, Huangbaiyu Motors, Huangbaiyu Refrigerators—and waited to cash in.

I set out for Huangbaiyu on a sunny spring day along with my friend and translator Flora. We took a taxi from the regional capital, Shenyang, and followed a newly built expressway to a newly paved road. The new village's 42 homes, with yellow walls and red roofs, were laid out in a grid, like a piece of half-built American suburbia here in the Chinese countryside. Very little of Dai's interpretation of McDonough's plans was obviously "eco." Shannon May, an anthropologist from the University of California at Berkeley who spent 18 months living in Huangbaiyu, told me that Dai—who had little experience as a builder, let alone a green builder—had neither the expertise nor the support to fulfill McDonough's vision. "It was like the Chia Pet model of development," she said. "Just add water." Because Dai was short on funds, only one house had a solar panel. A dozen workers mixed cement near what was to be the revamped bio-gasification plant, which had a hopeful coat of green paint. Two more workers, here to water a few meager strips of grass, were sitting on metal buckets, drunk at 11 in the morning. One sprang up and kissed me on the cheek. "Americans, you hug them, you kiss them, they don't care!" he exclaimed. It would have been nicer had he shaved.

We toured old Huangbaiyu, a beautiful collection of stone homes where ducks waddled down the main street and villagers plowed fields with pairs of horses, and after lunch we headed the few hundred yards back to the new village, where Zhao and Yi soon arrived home from the faraway plot where they had been planting corn. Their hands were stained red from pesticides. "Come into my home," Zhao said. "Come, come." He showed us the fireplace he'd cut into the wall, and his freshly tilled vegetable patch, where he was planting beans and cucumbers in a space a fifth the size of his old garden. "This project is a waste of money," he said. "These houses are suitable for factory workers, not country people." He handed us a couple cans of Snow beer and cracked one open for himself. "Chinese people think this beer is only half as good, because in our minds, foreign beer tastes best," Zhao said. "But I think this is pretty good beer."

The first thing to understand is that China's problem is our own. For every Chinese peasant who moves to the city—400 million are expected to do so in the next two decades, the greatest urban migration in history—the world loses someone who lives off the land and gains someone who lives on the grid. This year, for the first time ever, the planet has more urbanites than rural residents, a shift attributable in large part to China and its dozens of million-person cities you've never heard of. City dwellers in the developing world use at least three times as much energy as those in the country. The richer they get—the richer China gets—the more they use. China's economic boom, a 10 percent increase in GDP every year, is twice that of America's at the height of the dot-com era and shows no signs of relenting. Half of the world's new buildings go up in China. The country has constructed the equivalent of the U.S. highway system in a decade. It adds the electricity use of Norway, 102 gigawatts, to its power grid every year and builds the equivalent of three coal-fired electricity plants every week (not one, as is usually reported). Last year, it produced 2.3 billion metric tons of coal, 40 percent of the world's total and more than the U.S., Russia and India combined.

There is no dirtier form of energy than coal, and there is no dirtier coal than China's. Few of the country's plants have sulfur scrubbers, making China the world's largest emitter of sulfur dioxide, which causes the acid rain that falls on a third of Chinese territory. Last year, the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) recalculated the country's GDP to account for environmental costs—and reported a 3 percent reduction (others estimate 8 to 15 percent). That same year, 4,700 people were killed in coal-mining accidents.

In February, South Korea suffered two weeks of toxic dust storms that meteorologists blamed on China. In April 2006, a similar cloud of pollution was spotted floating over the Pacific toward North America [see "Endangered Orbits"]. U.S. soil is filled with Chinese particulates; roughly 50 percent of our mercury comes from foreign, mostly Chinese, coal plants. But while China's smog becomes our problem and its petroleum companies buy up Africa's oil fields and its livestock eat up the soy that deforests the Amazon, what the world really fears is China's coal-powered greenhouse emissions.

Andrew Rowat/WPN
This year, an economically booming China will surpass the U.S. to become the world's number-one emitter of greenhouse gases. Huangbaiyu is just one of dozens of eco-cities starting to sprout up throughout China.
China was responsible for 8 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions in 1980. By 2004, it was responsible for 18 percent. In April the International Energy Agency's chief economist declared that China would surpass the U.S. as the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases—not in 2009 or 2010, as previously thought, but this year. It may already have happened.

Also in April, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA would have to do more to regulate auto emissions, President Bush used China to excuse his inaction: "Unless there is an accord with China, China will produce greenhouse gases that will offset anything we do," he argued. Meanwhile, China's official response to a report released in February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has since recommended that urgent action be taken to prevent catastrophic climate change, was that developed countries' responsibility for global warming "cannot be shirked." As a developing country, China should not be expected to wholly sacrifice its growth, said spokeswoman Jiang Yu. "It must be pointed out that climate change has been caused by the long-term historic emissions of developed countries and their high per-capita emissions."

The simple fact is that if the world's emissions are not reduced, global warming will flood Florida as surely as it melts China's Himalayas. Our fates are intertwined, and ever more so as China becomes the world's factory. Every minute of every day in 2005, American consumers bought $463,200 worth of Chinese goods—a number that has undoubtedly risen as the trade deficit has jumped from a monthly average of $16.8 billion in 2005 to more than $19 billion today. Chinese firms are blamed for deforesting tropical Southeast Asia, but 70 percent of the wood imported goes into furniture bound for Europe and North America. Energy-intensive heavy industry such as steel production is migrating from the developed world to China's eastern coast. A 2005 study by Bin Shui and Robert Harris of Colorado's National Center for Atmospheric Research determined that from 1997 to 2003, China-U.S. trade increased global CO2 emissions by 720 million metric tons. Some 7 to 14 percent of China's emissions resulted from exports to American customers; had the goods been produced here, our national CO2 emissions would be up to 6 percent higher, and the U.S. would still be the top greenhouse emitter in the world. Simply put, this is our pollution too—we've just outsourced it to China.

It seems only right, then, that the world's great planners and architects and environmentalists are landing in droves in Beijing and Shanghai, hoping to help China engineer itself out of a crisis, to prevent it from repeating the West's mistakes. The more the world realizes that its environmental future is tied to China's, the more experts will come. The question, ultimately, is whether all their grand efforts will make any difference at all.

Andrew Rowat/WPN
Peter Head of the British design firm Arup. Head leads the 100-person team behind the green city of Dongtan, set to be completed by 2050.
On a Friday a week before my trip to Huangbaiyu, 200 of the planet's top green architects, engineers and urban planners were packed into a hall at Shanghai's Tongji University, listening, rapt, to a talk by Peter Head of the global design firm Arup. The subject was the eco-city of Dongtan, an Arup-led project 25 miles away on the Yangtze River's Chongming Island, the Shanghai municipality's last patch of undeveloped land. "Dongtan is a specific project for a specific place. . . . But the world is reacting to it," he said. "It's a vision for how we can transform cities into something better."

A soft-spoken man in his early 60s with a gray mustache and a penchant for occasional Britishisms such as "jiggery-pokery," Head was something of a star in this crowd. The leader of Arup's 100-person Dongtan team, he is an engineer and bridge-builder who has spent eight years on London's Sustainable Development Commission. He had a hand in imposing on London drivers the £8 ($16) congestion fee that has made the city notably quieter and freer of traffic (New York is considering a similar system), and now he is creating what many hope will be the world's first true eco-city. One PowerPoint slide showed him in the company of British prime minister Tony Blair and Chinese president Hu Jintao, signing the 2005 agreement to build Dongtan, a project that, unlike little Huangbaiyu, is being pushed by the highest levels of the Chinese government.

Head described Dongtan as not just a city but an ecosystem. Planning was an exercise in integrated thinking—"integrated urbanism," as Arup's literature calls it. Transportation was considered at the same time as health care, because in the big picture, one affects the other: The more walking and the less air pollution, the healthier the people, and the lower the health-care costs. Similarly, if internal-combustion engines are banned, Dongtan's office buildings will save on air-conditioning: Workers won't mind opening windows to cool down their offices if traffic noise is absent and the air is clean. Head's planning team includes economists, water engineers, graphic designers, property consultants, "cultural specialists" and a philosopher—an approach far more multidisciplinary than the one that birthed Huangbaiyu. He showed a slide of his Chinese team's "barrel principle" of city development: an image of a wooden barrel that holds only as much water as its shortest rib allows.

The first 2.5 square miles of the 33-square-mile Dongtan site to be developed—which will house the first 80,000 of its eventual 500,000 inhabitants—will sit at the edge of a bird refuge for the endangered black-faced spoonbill. This starter section of the city, made up of three separate villages, will be bisected by waterways and walking and biking paths, bounded by public-transport loops and green space. Water taxis will ply its canals, and the only vehicles allowed inside city limits will run on electricity or hydrogen—zero noise and zero emissions. No residence will be farther than three minutes by foot from a park, seven minutes from public transportation, and eight minutes from a village center. Street lamps will be solar-powered, wastewater will be treated and recycled, and buildings will use two thirds less energy than conventional structures. Dongtan will run on 100 percent renewable energy, much of which will come from a plant powered by rice husks, an unwanted by-product that could arrive by barge from up the Yangtze. With notable exceptions—including hyper-efficient, LED-lit "plant factories" where organic crops will be stacked on five layers of trays—Dongtan's innovation is its holistic perspective, not its individual technological breakthroughs. Its ecological footprint, the amount of land it takes to sustain one of its citizens, is just 6.4 acres per person. (In London and Shanghai, by comparison, it takes around 14.5 acres. In Houston it's nearly 30 acres.) By 2010, when a 15-mile bridge-and-tunnel complex over and under the Yangtze—the longest in the world—is completed and the World Expo is held in Shanghai (which in these parts gets mentioned far more often than Beijing's 2008 Olympics), Dongtan will be ready for its first residents. How? "Building happens five times as fast here," Head explained. "Everything goes at a factor of five in China."

Below, an animated flyover of the city:

The next morning, on a smoggy, dreary day, I joined 100 or so of the green architects and engineers—participants in the biennial Holcim Forum on Sustainable Construction—on a tour of Dongtan and Chongming, all of which, the government says, will be responsibly developed as an "eco-island." We took buses to a Yangtze ferry to more buses, shuttling past a few incongruous, smoke-spitting factories to reach the Chongming exhibition center. Inside were local dignitaries and a scale model of the island and its master plan. For 10 minutes, a robotic voice droned on in perfect English about the green future of Chongming. Outside the Dongtan site, which takes up just the island's southern tip, there would be forest parks and lakes and a new "oriental Geneva" conference center. Everything seemed master-planned down to the placement of the sailboats, and as the Chinese officials dodged every specific question asked, I found myself increasingly skeptical that the island's development would be anywhere near as green as promised. The crowd seemed to feel the same way. "Is it realistic?" asked a German architect standing near me of his Brazilian friend. "It's total crap— propaganda," the other replied.

Andrew Rowat/WPN
A reservoir near Huangbaiyu is filled with sludge from an upstream mining project.

The buses next took us to a patch of supposedly sustainable McMansions, and the multinational crowd of architects scoffed at the American-size, single-family homes. Clearly built for the elite, they had giant living rooms, garages, balconies, and sculpted yards with rock gardens and bamboo-shaded walkways. "This one will be perfect for 30 or 40 migrant workers," whispered a Swiss planner. "There are no stores in the bottom floors, no places to eat," griped a Spaniard. "They'll have to drive everywhere."

We caravanned to an organic farm with no organic farmers and then to the Dongtan wetland, where not a single bird was in sight. With the bridge soon to connect mostly undeveloped Chongming to downtown Shanghai (travel time will be shortened to 40 minutes from the current three hours on boat and bus), construction was everywhere—villas, apartment blocks, bridges, roads—and very little of it seemed particularly green. The perspective was sobering. The first phase of Dongtan, which will be completed over the next decade, will take up one eighth of a 33-square-mile site that is itself only1/14of the 470-square-mile island, which is itself only one fifth the area of the Shanghai municipality, which is itself only a tiny piece of massive China: 18.7 million people and 2,448 square miles in a country of 1.3 billion people and 3.7 million square miles. As sustainable and hopeful and unassailably brilliant as Dongtan may aspire to be, a showcase eco-city can do little on its own to save China from itself.

Will Dongtan be completed on time? Bet on its future at PPX

I made a second Dongtan visit the next day with a translator named Sissi, a friend of a friend of a friend who wore high-heeled, knee-high leather boots as we tromped through the mud. Sissi is 21 and owns three cellphones (she can never remember to recharge them in time, so she just swaps them out). She works as a party and music promoter when not studying, and she loves hip-hop and Beijing punk rock. Recently, she told me, some exchange students at her university taught her how to do the "booty shake." She wore a jacket with a blue faux-fur collar, and her gray sweater read "Abercrombie" (but not "Fitch"). Her mother had been "reeducated" here on Chongming Island along with other Shanghai intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, forced to work the fields for four years. Her father's office, the customs building on the historic Bund waterfront, was taken over by families who hung their laundry in its stately halls. But Sissi's family had emerged in a good position in the new, money-driven Shanghai. To walk with her through Dongtan's fields was to see the Chongming gold rush—properties already selling for an inflated $45 a square foot will climb to $70 or more when the bridge is complete—through the eyes of the elite, Westernizing Shanghainese.

Sissi and I talked first with three women planting watermelon seeds in a muddy field. They were in their 50s and 60s and were bending over in the sun, using a foot-long stick to measure out the distance between seeds. Last year their own land, allotted to them by the government, was taken away to be developed, part of the green master plan for Chongming. They now receive 440 yuan (about $57) a month in restitution—not enough, they said. To supplement it, they work here for a local boss on 40 acres of land that itself may soon be reclaimed by the government, making just over 50 cents an hour in 8- to 10-hour days.

In the nearby town of Niupeng, Sissi and I saw where many of the displaced Chongming farmers are being housed: row after row of identical gray, four-story, 12- to 24-unit apartment blocks. One complex had at least 40 of these buildings, and alongside it was a neighborhood of razed homes, traditional dwellings similar to Old Huangbaiyu's that were being cleared to make way for more high-density housing. Red banners with yellow characters—"Cooperate with the Government's Work"—hung one after another over Niupeng's main street, on either side of which were piles of rubble. One lot was a graveyard of wooden doors collected from the destroyed houses. About 20 of the neighborhood's homes were holdouts, still standing as their owners waited for a better payout from the authorities.

Before we returned to the skyscrapers of downtown Shanghai, we stopped where the new bridge and its six-lane highway will make landfall. Already all 216 of the structure's deepwater piers were in place, stretching out of sight across the Yangtze, an endless line of enormous cement stumps. Workers in yellow helmets and orange life jackets, mostly migrants from the south, swarmed the site. They told us that they worked in one of three eight-hour shifts per day; construction went on nonstop, seven days a week. Those who worked and slept on the middle section of the bridge, out in the center of the brown river, took turns each night toting the crew's cellphones to and from land, where they could get text messages from wives and families. The scale of the project—the size of the human tide that will swallow Chongming whole—was hard to miss, and Sissi didn't. "I have to bring my mother back here so we can invest in some properties," she said.

Andrew Rowat/WPN
Chongming Island, on the outskirts of Shanghai, is the location of the new eco-city of Dongtan. The largest green community ever built will accommodate up to 500,000 new residents.
The world's most polluted city is a funny place to find hope for China's ecological future, but that's where I found it. Linfen, an ancient Chinese capital in the middle of what is now the country's richest coal province, Shanxi, was number one on China's list of most polluted cities in 2004, 2005 and 2006. It topped the global roster put out in 2006 by the Blacksmith Institute, an environmental NGO, beating out such toxic notables as Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Dzerzhinsk, Russia (site of a Cold War–era chemical-weapons plant). Linfen became infamous overnight, a mandatory stop for newspaper correspondents. "It's an apocalyptic vision of clanking factories, spewing smokestacks, burning flames, suffocating fumes, slag heaps, constant haze and relentless dust," wrote Geoffrey York in Canada's Globe and Mail in February. By reputation, Linfen is the only place in China where you can walk down the hall of your hotel and actually see the air. Flora and I arrived carrying special Japanese face masks and wardrobes in which the only pieces of white clothing were my tube socks.
Natalie Behring/Bloomberg News/Landov
A truck driver shovels coal at a power plant in Linfen.

What we hadn't prepared for was the possibility that Linfen would be sunny and pleasant, freshened by a spring breeze rushing through a basin that often traps in air pollution. Shanxi Province has 270 billion tons of proven coal reserves, and coal is everywhere—piled in back alleys, sold in burnable cubes from the back of mopeds, used to pop the popcorn sold by street-side vendors. Coal-fired power plants and aluminum and steel smelters surround the city. Part of the improvement was the season; the worst pollution is in winter, when homes burn coal for warmth and the air is dead calm. But every resident we talked to said it wasn't just the weather, that Linfen was actually becoming cleaner. We visited the local SEPA office to find out why. The windowsills were covered with dust, the walls stained gray from soot, but in the building's entryway was an LCD screen displaying the air-pollution index—today was a passable two on a scale of five. Yang Zhaofeng, the bureau's deputy director, was summoned, and we sat with him and a crowd of underlings in a room ringed with leather chairs. Yang's explanation of Linfen's rebirth was simple: "After we found out we were number one in pollution, we did all we could to take off the dunce cap."

Will China's pollution woes lead it to sign a binding greenhouse-gas treaty? Bet on its future at PPX

Linfen's descent into coal-fired hell happened at a staggering pace. It began with the economic boom of the late 1990s and sped up after 2002, when domestic energy demand spiked, coal prices jumped, and the reins on private mine owners were loosened. At its low point, in 2004, Linfen had only 15 days out of 365 with an acceptable level of air pollution (two or above on the index). But now, Yang said, the cleanup was equally dramatic. The first step was to block coal trucks at the city's boundaries; suddenly there was much less coal dust. Next came heating: In 2006 alone, Linfen added enough gas-fired central heating to reach more than half of the city's 4.1 million people, and it knocked down 197 large coal-fired boilers and more than 600 smaller, family-size boilers. Now 85 percent of the city uses natural gas rather than coal for their heating. Perhaps most significant is the crackdown on dirty factories at the fringes of Linfen. SEPA forced 100 of the smaller, less efficient, often illegal ones to close last year, and this year it has given notice to nearly 150 more. The city's larger factories face new environmental standards, and the government is helping them to install sulfur scrubbers. With those that don't follow its directives, SEPA plays hardball—freezing their bank accounts, cutting off their electricity, and blocking all transportation to and from the facility. Flora and I heard rumors that, if needed, SEPA sometimes takes a final step: It sends in an explosives team and simply blows up the offending businesses. The result? In 2006, Linfen had 202 days above level two on the pollution index. By May of this year, it already had 87—22 days ahead of last year's pace. Recently the city of Urumqi, in far western China, overtook Linfen to become first on the country's list of most polluted cities. "When you come back next year, Linfen will be even cleaner," Yang promised. On our final morning in Linfen, a government handler who had attached himself to us after the SEPA meeting—a man I knew by his English moniker, Sunshine—picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the city's top attraction, the Yao Temple. Linfen, known as Pingyang in ancient times, is considered one of China's first capitals, and its first ruler more than 4,000 years ago was Emperor Yao. We were in a black sedan with leather seats, the symbol of power in new China. "I am from the municipal government," the driver barked at the guards when we reached the temple, and we drove up and walked right through the door once reserved for the emperor. We saw some gongs and a well that apparently still had potable water, and then a monk fleeced me for $25 by blessing the largest stick of incense he could find, handing it to me, and asking me to pay for it as Sunshine nodded encouragingly. The day was sunny and the sky blue, and when the monk lit the eight-foot-long stick of incense for me, its smoke was the worst air pollution I'd experienced in Linfen.

Newly blessed, we walked next door to Yao Miao Square, a gaudy tourist trap and monument to the coal money that had built it. Completed in 2005, just in time to host the 2005 Miss Universal Bikini contest, the square's centerpiece was a 170-foot-tall gate (we were repeatedly told it was slightly taller than the Arc de Triomphe) that was filled with replicas representing the entirety of Chinese history: busts of Confucius, bronze miniatures of the Great Wall, statues of the heroes who invented gunpowder, paper and the compass. We rode an elevator to the roof and looked out over Linfen's forest of smokestacks, very few of which were spewing any smoke.

Flora and I descended, said good-bye to Sunshine, and hailed a taxi that would take us on an unsupervised tour of the industrial suburb of He Xi. There the buildings were stained brown-gray and the road was covered in layers of coal dust, but, as SEPA had claimed, the majority of the factories were shuttered. On the side of the road we met two workers who had just lost their jobs at a steel factory. They had earned $25 a week breaking down chunks of coal residue into smaller chunks, but a month ago the government shut the factory—and them—down. It was not an uplifting encounter, but in the context of China's massive pollution problem, the brute efficiency with which the city's economy had been turned upside down offered grounds for a sort of hope. Linfen, once the shortest plank in the Chinese barrel, was far better proof than Dongtan or Huangbaiyu that China's top-down, authoritarian development model— an unyielding machine greatly more efficient than that of a messy democracy—could apply to ecological as well as economic progress. In the center of the former most polluted city in the world, it was evident that if China wills it, it has the power to impose environmentalism by fiat, to green the entire country at five times the speed the West ever could. All the rest of the world has to do is wait.

Natalie Behring/Bloomberg News/Landov
As China grows, so too has the pollution in its largest cities—the nation is now home to seven of the world's 10 dirtiest metropolises. Plans for clean eco-communities like Dongtan are intended to allow China's cities to become cleaner at the same time that they absorb millions of new people. In the meantime, in Linfen, locals cope with the polluted air.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Green shoots

Jul 19th 2007 | SHANGHAI

From The Economist print edition

A new venture hopes to promote clean-technology investment in China

CHINA is not feted for its stewardship of the environment. One recent World Bank report found that 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities were in China; and a draft version of another puts the total economic cost of outdoor air and water pollution at around $100 billion a year, or 5.8% of China's GDP. By some estimates, China has now overtaken America to become the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases. Environmental protests, such as one that took place in Xiamen last month in response to a plan to build a chemical plant in the city, are on the rise.

The pollution that has resulted from China's growth is a huge problem, but to investors it presents an enormous opportunity. Venture-capital investment in clean tech in China is picking up, increasing by 147% from $170m in 2005 to $420m last year, according to the Cleantech Group, an industry research body. Most of this investment was in solar energy, a booming field in which several Chinese firms have gone public in the past year. But though China has now become the world's third-largest manufacturer of solar panels, most of them are exported, thanks to the subsidies offered in the developed world.

Several initiatives aim to promote the development and deployment of clean technologies within China itself. The most prominent is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto protocol, the United Nations' treaty on climate change. Under the CDM, projects that reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in poor countries earn credits, which can be purchased by rich countries in lieu of reducing their own emissions as required by the treaty. The Chinese government has already approved 524 such projects; China accounted for 61% of the CDM market last year, which was worth nearly $5 billion.

The Chinese government is also introducing environmental targets of its own in areas such as building regulations, appliance efficiency and the energy consumption of big companies. Meeting them will require vast sums to be spent on new technologies, and several schemes involving local and foreign institutions aim to encourage that investment. The latest, announced in Beijing this week, is a non-profit, public-private organisation called the Joint US-China Co-operation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE). It grew out of an energy conference that took place in Shanghai in April and is headed by Peggy Liu, a former Silicon Valley executive who is now a venture capitalist in China.

Ms Liu says its aim is to compress 30 years of clean-tech development into just ten, in part by bringing together innovators and investors. It will promote investment in both reducing energy demand and greening supply. It is particularly enthusiastic about the prospects for trimming energy consumption in buildings, which can be two or three times more energy-hungry in China than elsewhere. Rob Watson, a JUCCCE member and the man behind LEED, a popular standard used to certify green buildings around the world, says he has been commuting to China regularly in recent years to advise local builders and contractors. He likens the energy-distribution system to a “leaky bucket” and says plugging the obvious holes could have a big impact relatively quickly.

Last year the government set a goal of reducing the energy consumption of new buildings by 50%, and in some cases by 65%. Yet success depends not only on the strength of regulations, but also on the zeal with which local authorities enforce them. As in the rest of the world, relatively few green technologies are competitive without subsidies or incentives of some sort. A shining exception is solar-powered water heaters, of which China has more than any other country. Chinese firms sold $2.6 billion of them last year alone.

The combination of environmental degradation, economic growth and manufacturing prowess means that China “has the opportunity to be at the forefront in finding solutions to the energy problem that the world faces”, says Richard Branson, a British businessman who is investing in a range of clean-tech initiatives. In the 1960s, after all, Japan was also a fast-growing, polluted country; yet today Japanese firms are the leading manufacturers of hybrid cars and solar panels.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Green Leap Forward

Environmentalism is China’s fastest-growing citizen movement. Beijing isn’t cracking down on these new activists—it’s empowering them. By Christina Larson

China is on its way to becoming not only the world’s largest economy, but also its largest polluter. Of the world’s twenty most polluted cities, sixteen are in China. Ninety percent of the country’s cities have contaminated groundwater. The World Bank predicts that in the next fifteen years, China’s shortage of clean water will create 30 million “environmental refugees.”

China’s pollution problems, moreover, are no longer solely its own. Winds that whip up over the Gobi Desert sweep dark clouds of mercury, soot, and carbon monoxide to South Korea and Japan; as much as 40 percent of the air pollution in these countries can be traced to China. The toxic plumes travel further afield, now detected by scientists in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. On bad days, a quarter of Los Angeles’s smog originates in China. Later this year, China is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases; within twenty-five years, its annual contribution to global warming could triple.

One of the most polluted cities in China is Lanzhou, the capital of western Gansu Province, situated at the point where the Silk Road crosses the Yellow River. Historically a remote trading outpost, Lanzhou was transformed in the 1950s and ’60s in keeping with Mao Zedong’s vision for China’s future prosperity: “The machines are rumbling, and smoke is rising from factories.” Adopting the adage of the time—“Pollute now, clean up later”—Lanzhou became northwest China’s primary hub for oil refineries and petrochemical plants. Today, the city stretches long and narrow between the Gaolan and White Pagoda mountains, but on many days thick smog masks their peaks. Just by breathing the city air, Lanzhou’s 3 million residents inhale the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day. Ten percent of the Yellow River near Lanzhou is now sewage, and last year three industrial spills turned its waters an ominous red.

One snowy morning in March, I drove along the river in a rented white van with Zhao Zhong, a twenty-five-year-old nuclear engineer by day and grassroots environmentalist by night. He wore a blaring red imitation North Face jacket, and his cheeks, resembling polished apples, pushed up the lower rims of his glasses when he smiled. As we drove, he pointed out factories that defile the river. Since last fall, Zhao has been mapping the coordinates of these factories with a GPS device borrowed from a local university, and unearthing public but hard-to-find pollution data. He slowed the van near one imposing gate, and we peered through the bars at the Lanzhou Petrochemical Company plant, a state-owned facility that Zhao has been watching closely. Construction on the plant started in 1956 under Mao’s first Five Year Plan, a massive facility churning out lubricating greases, petroleum resin, and antifreeze. Today, it’s the largest petrochemical campus in northwest China, with tens of thousands of employees and a calamitous record of fires, explosions, and chemical spills. Several years ago, its drainage system leaked forty-five tons of heavy oil into the Yellow River, followed last winter by a discharge of engine oil.

I had met Zhao the previous night in his office, a two-room apartment on the rundown western side of town. This modest flat is the headquarters of Green Camel Bell, Lanzhou’s first environmental group, which Zhao founded three years ago. On the wall, there was a tidy whiteboard with assigned tasks and a giant map of the city, hand-drawn in Magic Marker, which showed the course of the Yellow River and the locations of factories near the water. A group of mostly twentysomethings, along with an unassuming fifty-something-year-old woman, sat around a table, discussing an environmental curriculum for local schools. I later discovered that the older woman was Zhao’s mother, and one of Green Camel Bell’s most dedicated full-time volunteers.

Green Camel Bell’s mission is the “protection of the Mother River,” a motto that evokes the history of the Yellow River basin as the cradle of Chinese civilization. Among other activities, the organization’s two paid staffers (Zhao draws no salary) and several dozen volunteers assemble the environmental records of factories across Lanzhou: culling newspaper articles, academic studies, and reports prepared by local environmental officials, many of whom Zhao knows. They send the information to a partner group in Beijing, which feeds it into the China Water Pollution Map (, a free online database that allows users to access information about water quality in their region. The site also publishes a list of factories that violate national environ- mental standards—including many state-owned enterprises.

In most other spheres, Beijing’s government remains intolerant of this sort of scrutiny and criticism. It silences journalists deemed overly energetic in their investigations of official malfeasance; it jails human rights activists and religious leaders whom it sees as subversive. Nervous that I might get Zhao in trouble, I asked him if it was okay to use his name in print. He nodded. Then he grinned and put his arm around two staffers, posing in front of the map on the wall. “Please,” he said, “if you would like to take pictures.”

It turns out Zhao has little to fear from Beijing. Not only is China’s emerging environmental movement tolerated by the central government; for the most part, it’s encouraged. More than 3,000 groups like Green Camel Bell currently operate in China, constituting the largest and most developed segment of the country’s budding civil society. Some NGO leaders are even consulted by government officials and praised by the state-controlled media.

The kid-glove treatment China’s environmental activists receive is not a sign that Beijing is willing to relinquish political control. The Communist Party’s agile leaders are well aware of the role that civil society groups have played in the fall of other authoritarian systems. Rather, the government is taking a calculated risk. It is opening space for political participation in the hope of preventing what it sees as an even greater threat: that the country’s rapidly deteriorating environment will imperil China’s vibrant economy—and perhaps, one day, the party’s own hold on power.

Like other cities in China, Beijing has a daily weather report and a daily pollution report. On the increasingly crowded freeways, drivers can see only so far ahead; each car leaves a wake in the smog. The dank air creeps inside buildings, into cars, into hotel rooms, leaving you nowhere to escape the distinct smell and the feeling of a weight always on your chest. The sun looks like a flashlight wrapped in cotton gauze, and the sky remains beige no matter the time of day. Most days, the city has no discernible skyline. Most nights, no moonlight or starlight pierces the darkness.

To understand why Chinese officials are genuinely concerned about the country’s growing environmental problems, you must first remember that they live here. Pollution is one by-product of China’s thriving economy that can’t be evaded with influence or cash. One former U.S. Energy Department official told me that his Chinese counterparts rave about the air on visits to Washington, bemoaning Beijing’s bleak skies.

More important, environmental problems now threaten the sustainability of China’s economic expansion. Already the costs of environmental cleanup, property damage, and lost productivity are staggering. China’s State Council, the nation’s highest administrative body, reported that pollution cost the country more than $200 billion in 2005, almost 10 percent of the country’s GDP. Industry releases 2,000 tons of airborne mercury each year, which settles into the soil, contaminating 12 million tons of grain each year and threatening food safety, including China’s $31 billion agricultural export market. (Time reported that only 6 percent of Chinese agricultural products imported to the United States are free from pollution.) The future portends to be more alarming still. Water scarcities could shut down paper mills and petrochemical plants. Air pollution in Hong Kong could force a mass exodus of talent (already hedge fund managers are fleeing the smog for Singapore). The country’s deputy environmental director, Pan Yue, has warned, “China’s economic miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.”

Even more troubling, the effects of pollution—poisoned water and contaminated fields—are provoking riots in the countryside. Or, as China’s environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, has observed, the environment has become an issue that “triggers social contradictions.” In 2005, the government reported 51,000 pollution “disputes,” many of them violent. More villages each year form local militias to guard water rights. This makes Communist Party leaders deeply uneasy. After all, for millennia China’s history has been defined by dynasties rising and falling, the ruling powers frequently toppled by angry peasants whose welfare was neglected. As Minxin Pei, the director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained, “The government is willing to tolerate anything but social instability.”

Beijing, therefore, has recently become determined to clean up its act—if not for the environment’s sake, then to avert economic woes and social unrest. Indeed, it has issued environmental targets that, at least in some areas, are among the most progressive in the world. Last year, the government set goals of reducing air pollution 10 percent and increasing energy efficiency 20 percent by 2010. And it has put more money into meeting those targets, increasing its environmental protection budget by 60 percent. As Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of an environmental history of China, The River Runs Black, observes, “It’s clear there’s been an uptick in both rhetoric and real concern.”

The dilemma is enforcement. The central government’s decision to open up the country’s economy has simultaneously undermined its ability to impose its will on far-flung provinces. Since 1980, China’s economic strategy has been one of decentralization. State-owned enterprises have been partially privatized; provincial governments have been given more authority; entire sectors of the economy have been deregulated.

In economic terms, this strategy has been wildly successful. But it has also diminished the central government’s reach. Gone are the days when Beijing could easily disseminate party dicta—or orders such as not dumping trash into the river—to every citizen through clearly delineated work units. Perhaps more significant, the central government has a dwindling ability to make regional and local government officials follow its lead. Although laws are promulgated in the capital, provincial authorities are responsible for implementing them. But provincial governments depend on tax revenue from local industries, so shutting down polluters often runs counter to their interests. Local officials are no longer beholden to the party patronage machine as they once were. They can make good money by selling land to developers, or taking bribes to protect a private factory. A promotion from Beijing is no longer the only route to upward mobility.

The central government no longer maintains a permanent presence in the provincial capitals, so there is no energetic national oversight of what happens in a place like Lanzhou. Local environmental bureaus are supervised and financed not by Beijing but by provincial authorities whose officials would be unable to afford their chauffeur-driven cars without payoffs from potential polluters. As a result, China has numerous national laws that sound wonderful on paper but can’t be enforced. David Lampton, head of the China studies department at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, has popularized the term “implementation bias” to describe this phenomenon. He defines it as “the situation in which every central initiative will be distorted in favor of the organization or locality responsible for implementation.”

This breakdown in governance is so pronounced that, in defiance of Beijing’s ambitious targets, the country’s environment is getting worse, not better. Official reports likely understate the problem, but those numbers are troubling enough. Beijing vowed in 2002 to reduce sulfur emissions by 10 percent in three years, yet they climbed by nearly 30 percent. More than 4,000 rogue mines leach mercury into the soil. An estimated one in five power plants operate illegally—enough to fully power the United Kingdom. Last year, Mao Rupai, chair of the congressional environmental committee, estimated that in some far-flung provinces as few as 30 percent of environmental regulations are upheld.

To deal with this predicament, Beijing has invited help from an unexpected corner: civil society. Citizen groups can help spread information, provide oversight, and put some pressure on local authorities. The government granted legal status to NGOs in 1994, and green groups were the first to flood into this new space. Initially, they focused on innocuous campaigns like environmental education and trash pickup. In 2003 and 2004, however, environmental activists gained a major wedge in the door of the public policy process with the passage of a series of laws and accompanying regulations. One law, for instance, required environmental-impact assessments to be conducted before construction projects could be approved, articulating for the first time the principle that the public has a right to participate in the process. Another gave members of the public the right to request a hearing when an administrative ruling—for instance, one that granted a license for a construction project—would impact them substantially and directly. Given the Communist Party’s long-standing preference for secrecy, these measures represented a fairly dramatic departure from the past.

Already environmentalists are exploiting them. Last year, the Global Environmental Institute, a Chinese nonprofit, was instrumental in getting Beijing’s city government to adopt energy-efficient rapid-transit bus lanes. After NGOs objected to a series of planned dams on the Nu River, Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the project, pending an environmental-impact assessment.

If anyone is seizing the opportunity created by Beijing, it is Ma Jun, arguably China’s most prominent environmentalist. Ma, who was selected as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2006, is the brains behind the China Water Pollution Map, the Web site to which Zhao Zhong contributes.

I met Ma at the Beijing headquarters of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, the nonprofit he founded two years ago. Slight and energetic at thirty-nine, with a boyish face and a quick smile, Ma was dressed in smart business-casual style (dark suit, no tie), and had a Bluetooth headset affixed to one ear. A floor-to-ceiling office window looks out over the murky city skyline, but his bookshelves are lined with photographs he has taken of China’s western provinces: steep gorges and winding rivers, the landscape of numerous epic movies. His bookcase holds Henry David Thoreau’s Walden alongside an ecological history of China, Retreat of the Elephants, and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

Sitting at his desktop computer, Ma called up his Web site. The site enables readers to search for both detailed information about instances of pollution and the regulations by which they can be evaluated. We went to a map of Lanzhou, where I had met Zhao. “See,” Ma said, “this allows people to see how close the factories are to the rivers, and how close they are to the communities, so local people can keep an eye on them and put pressure on them to change their behavior.” We zoomed in to street level to eye a few factories. “You can see that this is right in the middle of the city, and this is right along the river. You can see all of these polluters, and then people can click and see which government document and for which reason it’s listed as a polluter, and which conclusions are made by the documents and which river they discharge into.”

The key to Ma’s endeavor is information. Although the recent laws have made more environmental data available to the public than ever before, it’s not always easy for an average citizen to find it. So Ma relies on a legion of volunteers like Zhao Zhong, who hunt down regulations and pollution statistics from various official sources. These are then sent to Ma’s team of four staffers and ten volunteers, who feed the information into the online database.

By gathering and publishing this material in one place for the first time, Ma hopes to generate new forms of pressure on polluters. One way is to mobilize citizens. Local people can use the data to monitor factories and lobby them to change their behavior—lending clout to environmental officials trying to enforce the law. Environmentalists have already found that arming ordinary Chinese with access to information can produce dramatic results. In May, the government of the city of Xiamen in the southeastern province of Fujian suspended plans for a lucrative plant that would manufacture a potentially carcinogenic petrochemical. Xiamen residents mounted an effective campaign against the plant, arguing that there was no evidence that city officials had approved the required environmental-impact assessment. Angry residents called the factory an “atom bomb,” and circulated nearly a million text messages in protest.

Ma also hopes that international environmental activists will use the Web site in their ongoing effort to prod multinational companies who care about their brand names but use suppliers who are less fastidious. In this, Ma has a special expertise: earlier this decade he worked as a consultant to international companies on greening their supply-chain management, and served on Coca-Cola’s global Environmental Advisory Board. So far, Ma has reached out to numerous domestic and international corporate executives. Some American companies, such as Pepsi, DuPont, and General Motors, have been unresponsive, but he reported a “very good meeting” with Wal-Mart. Ma has persuaded six international companies whose factories are listed as major polluters to commit to third-party auditing, and a battery factory, operated by Panasonic, to begin construction on a new wastewater facility.

Ma didn’t start out as an environmentalist. In the 1990s, he worked as a journalist for Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, which placed him on an environmental beat. This allowed Ma to travel across China and see “rivers turning to sewers,” he told me. In 1999, he published China’s Water Crisis. The book is often compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for the jolt it delivered to public opinion. It also established Ma as an environmental authority. Today, he is one of thehandful of NGO leaders whose advice is occasionally sought by government officials. In fact, just a few days before we met, Ma had given a workshop in one of the provinces which was attended by a high-ranking official from the State Environmental Protection Administration (China’s version of the EPA), who spoke about the draft of a new regulation on information disclosure. “It’s very interesting, because in that room it was twenty NGOs from across the country sitting there. And he basically invited everyone to make comments. You know, ‘What is your comment on the draft version? Will this help you, or do you feel like this is not enough? You can make suggestions.’ ” I asked Ma for the official’s name, but he demurred. Such consultation is relatively new, and still somewhat fragile.

As with all Chinese environmentalists I met, Ma exhibited an urgency devoid of discernible ideology. His goal, for the moment, is to clean up China, and he’s pragmatic and patient about how to accomplish that. For instance, instead of pushing the government to legislate higher environmental standards, he’s trying to make sure that existing standards are being met. “Right now the site shows all the businesses reported by the government as polluters. So let’s keep an eye on them first.” He’s as eager to work with major companies like Wal-Mart as he is with local volunteers like Zhao Zhong and his mother. “You have to keep in mind that the full kind of Western-style participation will not happen overnight,” he said.

For both environmentalists and the government, this is a delicate dance. Hard-liners within the Communist Party worry about ceding too much leeway to groups such as green NGOs. They are quick to remind their colleagues of the role that civil society—human rights groups, labor unions, churches, and, indeed, environmentalists—played in the downfall of the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe.

But today’s China is worlds away from the Soviet Union circa 1986. The Communist Party in Beijing has maintained its rule precisely because it has permitted some measure of openness. By relaxing its grip on the economy, it engineered a boom that has lifted living standards significantly. The government has also made modest concessions to political participation, with experiments such as closely controlled village elections. China’s citizens, especially those in its middle class, perceive a country in which opportunity is expanding, not shrinking. Because of this, Beijing believes—probably rightly—that it stands on firmer ground than its Soviet counterparts did two decades ago.

Still, no one knows how this peculiar experiment will play out. All that can be said for certain is that much is riding on Beijing’s gamble. Not only will it influence whatever political path China may take in the future, but it could determine whether China can find a way to avert environmental ruin. Today, considerable international attention is focused on the question of whether Beijing will commit to specificenvironmental steps, such as putting numerical “caps” on its greenhouse gas emissions. What most outside observers don’t seem to understand is that this question is, for now, largely beside the point. It won’t make much difference if Beijing adopts carbon caps unless the government finds a way to convert its edicts into reality. To a great extent, then, hope for a cleaner earth lies with the ability of China’s unlikely bedfellows, its mandarins and its environmentalists, to make this experiment work.

OECD paints bleak picture of pollution in China

John Vidal, environment editor Tuesday July 17, 2007 Guardian Unlimited Rubbish collects along a boom on a polluted Beijing canal. Photograph: AP Rubbish collects along a boom on a polluted Beijing canal. Photograph: AP
Hundreds of millions of people fall ill every year or die prematurely from air and water pollution caused by China's breakneck economic growth, one of the world's leading economic thinktanks has concluded following an 18-month investigation.

The study, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) at China's request, draws on work by the government, the Chinese academy of sciences and the World Bank to spell out the scale and severity of the ecological crisis now engulfing the country, poisoning its people and holding it back economically.

It says that as many as 300 million people are drinking contaminated water every day, and 190 million are suffering from water-related illnesses each year. If air pollution is not controlled, it says, there will be 600,000 premature deaths in urban areas and 20 million cases of respiratory illness a year within 15 years.

China's water quality causes the researchers great concern. One third of the length of all China's rivers are now "highly polluted" as are 75% of its major lakes and 25% of all its coastal waters. Nearly 30,000 children die from diarrhoea due to polluted water each year.

"A majority of the water flowing through China's urban areas is unsuitable for drinking or fishing," the report says.

Although China is the world's fourth largest economy, growing 10% a year and closing rapidly on the US, Japan and Germany, its environmental standards are often closer to those in some of the poorest countries in the world, says the report. More than 17,000 towns have no sewage works at all and the human waste from nearly a billion people is barely collected or treated. Nearly 70% of the rural population have no access to safe sanitation.

China has tried to improve its air quality, but it has not invested enough to keep up with the flood of people to its cities, many of which have some of the worst pollution in the world. The burning of more than 1.97bn tonnes of the dirtiest coal each year is costing the economy the equivalent of between 3% and 7% of GDP, or £8-15bn, a year, according to research cited in the report. While no specific figure is given for the overall cost of China's pollution, in 2004 it was thought to be in the region of £32bn.

"A healthy economy needs a healthy environment," said Mario Amano, the deputy secretary-general of the OECD said in Beijing today. The OECD is a grouping of the world's 30 richest countries.

"The development of China has been accompanied by industrial and mining accidents, and severe ecological damage such as deforestation, desertification and soil erosion," the report says. It estimates that 2.64m sq km, or 27.5% of the country's landmass is now becoming desertified. "Some 400 million people are affected by extensive soil salination and blowing sand. This is leading to villages becoming buried, the reduced life of irrigation works and widescale respiratory diseases."

Projections of water demand suggest that China may not be able to continue at its present speed of growth for much longer. Much of the country already suffers from water shortages, but the Chinese academy of sciences expects water demand to increase by nearly 50% in the next 40 years. Industry's share of this is expected to grow from 16% to 41%.

Low environmental standards are now making people wary of buying Chinese goods, Lorents Lorentsen, OECD's environmental director said. "If you have a reputation for being a polluted country, then you have a bad trademark abroad. It's very hard to sell pharmaceuticals, to sell food and feed from a country that has a reputation for being polluted."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

China 'suppressed report on pollution deaths'

The Independent By Clifford Coonan in Beijing Published: 04 July 2007

China's poisoned air rose higher on the political agenda yesterday after reports that it forced the World Bank to censor a study for fear that one of its findings - that 750,000 people die of pollution-related illness each year - might stoke social unrest.

The Chinese capital has also been forced to promise to remove one million cars from the streets next month in an attempt to improve the environment in time for next year's Olympic Games.

Earlier figures conceded that 400,000 people died of pollution-related illness in China each year. However, the Financial Times quoted a World Bank report, produced in co-operation with Chinese government ministries over several years, which found that the number was more like three quarters of a million. These deaths are mainly caused by air pollution in large cities.

The World Bank said the study: Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damages, had yet to be finalised and what had been released was a conference version.

China's environment watchdog Sepa (the State Environment Protection Agency) and the Health Ministry reportedly asked the World Bank to cut the calculations of premature deaths from the report when a draft was finished last year.

Even the unfinished version paints a grim picture, putting the cost of deaths from diarrhoea and cancer caused by polluted water at 66bn yuan (£4.34 bn), corresponding to 66,000 premature deaths a year.

"This is a joint research project with the government and the findings on the economic costs of pollution are still under review. The final report, due out soon, will be a series of papers arising from all the research on the issue," the bank said in a statement.

Anecdotal evidence bore out the expected full version of the World Bank report, which uses research methodology from the World Health Organisation. As eye-stinging smog shrouded the Chinese capital for another day yesterday despite rain showers in the afternoon, Beijing organisers were trying to make sure the skies are clear for the Olympics. The Games are scheduled to start at 8pm on 8 August 2008. But the city had poor air quality for 15 days last month, the highest June total since 2000, according to the Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection. City plans to clean up the skies include measures to replace about 50,000 old cars and 10,000 poorly maintained buses by the end of the year as well as to renovate 16,000 coal-burning factories.

The measures were announced by the International Olympic Committee, which has expressed fears about pollution affecting athletes' health. And the efforts seem to be having some effect. "Concerns [over pollution] within the IOC executive board were eased. They have a plan from 7-20 August this year: one million cars will be off the road," the IOC director of communications, Giselle Davies, was reported as saying this week after receiving a progress report.

The World Bank previously reported that 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities were in China. There were 148 million cars on the road by the end of March. The number is rising by 1,000 a day.