Answers from Yu Jie
Today we have answers to reader questions from Yu Jie, following the ninth article in the series on the the transfer of heavy industry to China from the West. Yu Jie is China Program Advisor for the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Beijing.
Pollution is indeed a serious problem confronting Chinese. They have to think out a way to avoid continuing to pay the price for unhealthy economic growth. However, this problem should not be overestimated. I believe for most Chinese, the first and foremost important thing is how to make the purse heavy. Don’t forget that only after one becomes rich is he able to afford to clean the environment. Corrupt officials and unwise development strategies should be condemned, but the point should be how to help the Chinese to address this problem. For one thing, thanks to globalization, China’s problem is also ours. — Luke Norton
Mr. Norton, I appreciate your comment. You highlight the role of development strategies and pernicious corruption, which I believe are two fundamental factors of the larger problem. China needs to reverse environmental degradation both by employing clean technology and more importantly, by enhancing good governance. By this, I mean allowing and expanding public participation on both new project approval and the monitoring of existing projects. For example, this year there was a case which may one day be written into Chinese environmental protection movement history. Citizens in Xiamen strove to reject a large chemical plant (a 1 billion euro investment) to be built near their homes. Citizens, along with like-minded residents, changed the political game. On one hand, this case shows that people are standing up to fight for their rights when having a clean environment is jeopardized. On the other hand, some elites within the government took public opinion into account. Recent days show that the plant will still be built, but moved elsewhere.
[For more on the protests in Xiamen, here is some video posted on a blog.]
Actually, China’s great economic achievement is basically made on the sacrifice of the environment. Take my hometown, for example. It used to be a beautiful small town with green hills and clean and clear rivers crossing over the farmlands, but recently — with more and more factories moved from the Pearl River Delta, an industrialized area in the south of China — more and more chimneys stand firmly on ground that used to be covered with grasses; polluted air is discharged from the chimneys; polluted water flows into the rivers that used to be the fish and clothes-washing water resource. The ordinary people got nothing from the factories and the polluted environment but bad material which do nothing for their health. Wealth is shared only by the government and businessmen, but the poor villagers need to be responsible for the worse environment. There are too many things that the local people can’t help but accept! Who should take responsibility? — Lin Qiaosheng
These are good points, and I thank you for them. The poor are the ones who live closest to the environment and their livelihood depends directly on its condition. Moreover, the indigent usually see little direct benefit from industries that want to establish manufacturing there. The residents of these areas — many of whom have lived there for generations — thus find themselves even more bereft. Environmental degradation makes their lives all the more difficult. The failure to address this problem of development overwhelming daily life is, in itself, a form of wealth distribution. Production increases, and the poor suffer.
Could the Three Gorges Dam provide enough electrical power to offset and supliment the fossil fuel use? — S. Donato
It can not. China’s energy demand is far beyond the capacity added by Three Gorges Dam. The dam itself may be adding to environmental problems, according to some officials and scholars.
Fossil fuel will continue to be a major energy resource in the future for China. There are also more hydro projects being planned for the future. Almost every conventional energy resource has an environmental or social cost. Therefore, when we are seeking solutions to meet China’s energy demands, there needs to be even more attention paid to conserving energy.
China’s emission trend is not going to be reversed in the short term. Many experts understand this, and there are ongoing discussions in Europe about carbon capture-and-storage technology. There will be two demonstration projects started, though not until 2014.
This informative series has pointed out something I haven’t heard much of elsewhere — for all of our posturing, the West (and the U.S. in particular) has not truly reduced pollution, simply outsourced it to China. We call for lower pollution levels, but are not willing to pay more for affording technologies. Until we reduce unsustainable consumerism and demand, the overall global level of pollution will not dramatically decrease. Fair assessment? — Scott R
I agree with you, Scott. Globalization has changed both manufacturing and consumption patterns. As you know, goods are more affordable for Western consumers while more raw materials are being exploited at another end of the world. For example, manufacturing cheaper furniture, primarily for markets in developed countries, is perhaps praiseworthy but it also adds to deforestation because processing the timber in China is much cheaper. More attention is being paid to the downside of global markets. The recent round of U.N. climate negotiations addressed the issue and spoke of providing incentives to nations to reduce deforestation. Consumption patterns must change.
Is it true that cancer has become the largest cause of death in China? Can this cancer be attributed to water/air/ground pollution? What seems to be the fate of China’s environment given that they are the manufacturing center of the world and ruled by economically liberal dictators? In other words, in the absence of democracy, is there a realistic chance that Chinese people can ask their dictator government to take serious steps to reverse the pollution trend? — Abhijit
You are correct, Abhijit. Since last year, cancer has become the No.1 cause of death here in China. Water and air pollution, as well as food safety are major reasons for this development. Poor implementation of environment laws add to the problem.
It is also true that China is facing a significant challenge because it is the world’s factory. Yet democracy alone — in whatever form — is not a panacea. Good governance is crucial. The case of Xiamen mentioned above bears this out.
Chinese officials have spoken of “harmonious society”. This concept is evolving, and while there is little prospect for a society without conflict, there is at least hope that better, more responsive institutions might be built.
A good deal of China’s pollution is caused by the energy they need to produce all the manufactured goods that they supply to the U.S. and Europe. We have in effect transferred a lot of our manufacturing industry to China with no real concern about the extra pollution this causes.
In the U.K. we import enormous amounts of Chinese produced consumer goods and export greenhouse gas emissions and waste for recycling in return. I think the West therefore has a moral duty to help China improve its energy efficiency & reduce their emissions. — Jonathan (London, U.K.)
Guilt and morality may play a role — and perhaps they should. It also makes economic sense to think in terms of mutual responsibility.
I have never understood why pollution and greenhouse gas statistics are cited by country and not per capita. If China had broken up into smaller countries centuries ago as Europe did, I bet that the U.S. and most European countries would look much worse in comparison. Also, this article could suggest that the country using the end product of the industry, should be charged with the greenhouse gas production and pollution. — Martha F.
Per capita is a better criteria of evaluation than national measures, I agree. Still, there are flaws, especially when considering that developing nations, such as China, see the need to build massive infrastructures to provide benefit for the population here.
The national has to give way to the global. The Bali negotiation is a start — a further step on the road to conceiving of climate change and its effects as more common and more complicated. The world needs to address climate change together, alongside committed governments empowered by their citizens.
Identifying the problems as common must produce collective measures by all countries. Agreeing on the nature of the challenge is only one part of saving nature.
Without a promising pension system (or, say, social security system) in China, most Chinese, no matter individuals and businesses, focus on quick profit and want to earn money as much as possible and as quickly as possible to secure the future. While the whole society is losing the responsibliity for our environment and social welfare.
Chinese have the right to live the good life. With current trends, China will soon reach the same level of energy consumption per capita as Western nations of the highest energy efficiency (Japan or Switzerland). The total energy consumption of China will then be very huge even if China can improve its efficiency to Japan’s.
My question is: Is it sustainable for China to achieve Western high energy consumption levels for the good life? (Assume China’s energy efficiency will be as high as Japan’s.) — Xiaodi Yang
You are right to note that, because of its big population, China has to place tremendous effort into energy efficiency. China is building up the institutions to improve energy efficiency standards, to reach its target of reducing energy consumption per GDP production from 2005-2010. Much of the progress depends upon technology, but that does not stand alone.
One problem, though, is that measures of emissions (per capita) vary depending upon the level of development. In much of the developed world, current emissions tend to be from residential sources and from transportation. But in China, for example, industrial emissions dominate.
Having a good life means, for a start, understanding that there are different models of development. Some are sustainable, some are not. Developing countries need to think of ways in which building infrastructure does not trap them into a future of high-emissions. Alternatives do exist.
We hear a lot of the rapid on-lining of new coal-fired power plants in China. This new construction begs the question of whether energy efficiency can ever solve the problem of a country currently getting more and more of its power from this cheap, easy but polluting power source. Given the condensed time frame we have to restrain global warming, it seems that nuclear power could go a long way, in the short term, towards reducing greenhouse gases. China has nuclear technology, but is there no impetus to generate power from nuclear rather than coal technology? — Gabriel London
You are correct in saying that this new capacity has grown enormously in the last few years. But energy efficiency in these new coal power plants has also grown — some are close to current OECD standards. If China can continue to replace low-efficiency coal power plants (many of which are small and local), then the new capacity is not necessary a bad thing.
Insofar as nuclear power is concerned, China recently purchased what is known as “third-generation nuclear technology” from France. Whether or not this decision is a smart one is debatable. But the confidence about nuclear power in China also depends on transparency and publicity regarding not only the placement of these new plants but also waste processing.
An ongoing case in Rushan, Shandong province illustrates that no matter what potential benefit nuclear power might have in mitigating China’s energy demands (currently assumed but undemonstrated), the nuclear alternative makes no sense without public support. Construction has been held up due to citizen resistance.
With a huge trade deficit with the West, wouldn’t it be a win-win for China to buy modern Western environmental technology with funds they have already earned by selling us cheap toys, clothing and electronics. The Western countries would get huge sales of technology and China would get more sustainable development. — Brother Bill
Technology transfer is complicated. There are intellectual copyright and trademark issues. Sellers prefer to offer goods, not the ideas that produced them. Also, the goods that China manufactures simply do not cover external costs. China also lags behind in research and development of its own intellectual property that might be used to exchange and share technologies.
Government can play a crucial role in this respect, by bringing buyers and sellers together, as well as acting as a guarantor, protecting the reasonable rights of companies. We need to see the problems associated with environmental technologies — their development and their transfer — as a global challenge demanding creative solutions. Climate change is a prime example of where the common good should inspire the public sector and private companies.