China environment update


Image source: www.spiegel.de

My travels in southern China this week did nothing to convince me that the authorities are making any progress in dealing with their environmental problems. The air quality in Guangzhou and Shenzhen was diabolical, and as Jennifer Turner of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars noted recently when she was interviewed by Phillip Adams (listen here), it is not just the Chinese who are affected by this. Mercury is being transported to Korea in dust storms, and it is also believed that 1/5 of the mercury entering rivers in Oregon in the US originates from China.

The challenge is therefore geopolitical but, ultimately, it is economic. One of the great virtues of an authoritarian state is that once it makes up its mind to do something, execution of the plan is straightforward (in contrast to democracies where the gestation period for environmental policy can be painstakingly long). However, despite the ‘environmental authoritarianism’ being exercised (increasingly) by the Chinese central government, it is not being policed by local governments. Thus, coal scrubbers might be installed and waste water treatement plants may be in place, but these facilities are not being turned on because they are deemed ‘too costly’. ‘Cost’, however, does not include the cancers, low IQs and miscarriages being attributed to the high level of pollutants in the air and in China’s waterways, 50% of which are running black (i.e. they are completely dead and cannot be used for anything, even for industrial purposes), and the 700 million people who now lack access to safe water (the people living in the Huai River basin being amongst the worst affected).

While there have been some signs of improvement, environmental policy is not keeping up with the pace of environmental degradation, and unless there is some technology transfer to overcome the economic obstacles to sustainable production, I do not foresee any change in the immediate future. National laws will continue to be flouted at the local level, and firms will continue to destroy the natural environment. It is not a case of trying to stop China, it a question of how China can helped. Weaning this country off its heavy reliance on coal is a start. CO2 emissions are set to surpass those of the US in 2009, and they will get a whole lot worse after that.


Image source: www.spiegel.de