Monday, November 06, 2006

China and Water Pollution: A growth stream, or a way to get filthy rich?

When we talk about globalization and the environment almost inevitably we end up talking about China. You can have as many UK government policies to stop UK production of Greenhouse gases you want but they will frankly make very little difference given the high emission levels from China (and others including the US).

This article from the Guardian (6th November) is called "A growth stream, or a way to get filthy rich?"
There is a new map of China, which is designed not only to describe the country but to transform it. Unveiled earlier this month, the China Water Pollution Map shows for the first time how the country's breakneck economic development is wreaking havoc on its rivers, lakes and underground drinking supplies.

For a nation long given to hiding environmental problems, the online map, which was issued by the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, contains several radical features. It ranks towns and regions according to their levels of pollution and transparency; it names and shames the companies - including British, American and European multinationals - responsible for the worst discharges; and it invites members of the public to report environmental problems.

Such an airing of China's dirty laundry - using government data - would have been unthinkable even five years ago. That it is now possible reflects just how concerned the government has become about the unsustainability of the country's current model of development.

The information provided could be of use to empirical economists and PhD students. The article goes on to emphasise some other well known problems with the Chinese economy.

But it is only a start. Damning maps could just as easily be drawn up to illustrate a host of other dire environmental problems.
An air quality chart could show satellite data from the European Space Agency, which reveals that Beijing and neighbouring areas of northern China have the worst levels of sulphur dioxide pollution on the planet, after a 50% increase in emissions in the past 10 years. It could add the results of a survey by the World Bank, which found that China is home to 16 of the world's 20 cities with the worst air pollution. Or research by the Chinese Academy on Environmental Planning, which revealed 100 million people live in cities where the pollution reaches "very dangerous" levels.

Another map could show how fields and forests are being replaced by concrete and sand. In the past 10 years, China has lost 6m hectares of arable land to cities, roads and factories. An even bigger threat are the deserts, which are encroaching on dozens of major Chinese cities as a result of over-exploitation of water resources, over-grazing and rapid urbanisation.

Despite a 10-year campaign to plant 12bn trees, the government estimates that the livelihoods of 400 million people, or 30% of the population, are threatened by the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts, which have swallowed many communities along the old Silk Road.

Countless other charts could paint a similarly alarming picture of the decline of rare species, the expansion of rubbish pits, the rise of cardiovascular disease and the environmental problems that China is exporting around the globe, including the ravaging of the Amazon to make way for soya fields, the shrinkage of Indonesian rainforests to provide timber for Chinese furniture and flooring, or the sand and pollution clouds that blow from northern China across Korea, Japan and all the way to the United States.

But international environmental agencies say the outside world must also take responsibility for China's environmental crisis. Many of the polluting factories sell their cheap goods to richer nations. Part of the desertification problem is caused by global warming. Wasteful consumption is largely a consequence of rushing to follow a western lifestyle. And relative to its huge population, China is far less of an environmental villain than the United States or Europe.

The rest of the article also contains some interesting facts - for example:
If China developed the same appetite as America, it would consume 80% of the world's meat production and two-thirds of the global grain harvest.

Whilst it is important for developed countries to keep their own houses in order, it should be remembered that certain environmental problems are global and may require a global solution. Whilst it may be 100 million Chinese drinking sub-standard water, CO2 emissions do not stick to national boundries.

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