Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Elizabeth C. Economy on "The great leap backward?"

We have talked at length in this blog about the environmental impact of China both within China and globally and specially the impact of environmental degradation on future growth and political stability. This long post covers this ground and more.

It is interesting to quote from China Briefing who write:
As Pan Yue, the vice minister for China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) warned in 2005 when talking about China’s booming growth, “The miracle will end soon because the environment cannot keep pace."

They go on to highlight the following article in Foreign Affairs by E. Economy. We have posted on some of her work previously. This is a long article that basically goes over ground that will be familiar to readers of this blog but this is at least a little more academic that the TIME article from last week.

This is an excellent and accessible article. The information contained within this one article could supply another 20 blog posts (and may well do so).

The Great Leap Backward?

Summary: China's environmental woes are mounting, and the country is fast becoming one of the leading polluters in the world. The situation continues to deteriorate because even when Beijing sets ambitious targets to protect the environment, local officials generally ignore them, preferring to concentrate on further advancing economic growth. Really improving the environment in China will require revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reforms.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China's Future.

There are a few choice quotes/statistics that are worth pulling out.

The coal that has powered China's economic growth, for example, is also choking its people. Coal provides about 70 percent of China's energy needs: the country consumed some 2.4 billion tons in 2006 -- more than the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.

This is a quite remarkable statistic but does show how much room there is for improvement. To think of Chinese industry becoming more efficient with a similar wage level shows that competition from China can only intensify.
Consumption in China is huge partly because it is inefficient: as one Chinese official told Der Spiegel in early 2006, "To produce goods worth $10,000 we need seven times the resources used by Japan, almost six times the resources used by the U.S. and -- a particular source of embarrassment -- almost three times the resources used by India."

So where are the limits to growth?
As much as 90 percent of China's sulfur dioxide emissions and 50 percent of its particulate emissions are the result of coal use. Particulates are responsible for respiratory problems among the population, and acid rain, which is caused by sulfur dioxide emissions, falls on one-quarter of China's territory and on one-third of its agricultural land, diminishing agricultural output and eroding buildings.

But solving one problem does not help with the thirst for transport:
Chinese developers are laying more than 52,700 miles of new highways throughout the country. Some 14,000 new cars hit China's roads each day. By 2020, China is expected to have 130 million cars

For those who do not live in China it is hard to really gauge how bad the pollution really is. Many of us have been to New York however:
Levels of airborne particulates are now six times higher in Beijing than in New York City.

What about the efficiency of agriculture? There are problems ahead.
The Gobi Desert, which now engulfs much of western and northern China, is spreading by about 1,900 square miles annually; some reports say that despite Beijing's aggressive reforestation efforts, one-quarter of the entire country is now desert. China's State Forestry Administration estimates that desertification has hurt some 400 million Chinese, turning tens of millions of them into environmental refugees, in search of new homes and jobs.

China's agricultural sector is also inefficient:
The agricultural sector lays claim to 66 percent of the water China consumes, mostly for irrigation, and manages to waste more than half of that

Water in general is a growing problem that we have previously highlighted in this blog:
Pollution is also endangering China's water supplies. China's ground water, which provides 70 percent of the country's total drinking water, is under threat from a variety of sources, such as polluted surface water, hazardous waste sites, and pesticides and fertilizers. According to one report by the government-run Xinhua News Agency, the aquifers in 90 percent of Chinese cities are polluted. More than 75 percent of the river water flowing through China's urban areas is considered unsuitable for drinking or fishing, and the Chinese government deems about 30 percent of the river water throughout the country to be unfit for use in agriculture or industry. As a result, nearly 700 million people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste.

So can the rest of the world afford to sit and watch as China destroys itself? Not with the forces of globalisation at work:
Japan and South Korea have long suffered from the acid rain produced by China's coal-fired power plants and from the eastbound dust storms that sweep across the Gobi Desert in the spring and dump toxic yellow dust on their land. Researchers in the United States are tracking dust, sulfur, soot, and trace metals as these travel across the Pacific from China. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that on some days, 25 percent of the particulates in the atmosphere in Los Angeles originated in China.

So what about international trade? China is contributing to environmental problems elsewhere by its insatiable demand for raw materials.
China is already the largest importer of illegally logged timber in the world: an estimated 50 percent of its timber imports are reportedly illegal.

This article covers it all - here is Economy on the political ramifications.
In the view of China's leaders, however, damage to the environment itself is a secondary problem. Of greater concern to them are its indirect effects: the threat it poses to the continuation of the Chinese economic miracle and to public health, social stability, and the country's international reputation. Taken together, these challenges could undermine the authority of the Communist Party.

Here are some statistics on the costs of environmental destruction:
The Chinese media frequently publish the results of studies on the impact of pollution on agriculture, industrial output, or public health: water pollution costs of $35.8 billion one year, air pollution costs of $27.5 billion another, and on and on with weather disasters ($26.5 billion), acid rain ($13.3 billion), desertification ($6 billion), or crop damage from soil pollution ($2.5 billion).

Also, with the effect of pollution on health it will be not be long before the protests become more vociferous.
Today, fully 190 million Chinese are sick from drinking contaminated water. All along China's major rivers, villages report skyrocketing rates of diarrheal diseases, cancer, tumors, leukemia, and stunted growth.

Social unrest over these issues is rising. In the spring of 2006, China's top environmental official, Zhou Shengxian, announced that there had been 51,000 pollution-related protests in 2005, which amounts to almost 1,000 protests each week.

For all the talk of direct action in the West it is apparent that the Chinese are already being forced to take action into their own hands:
After trying for two years to get redress by petitioning local, provincial, and even central government officials for spoiled crops and poisoned air, in the spring of 2005, 30,000-40,000 villagers from Zhejiang Province swarmed 13 chemical plants, broke windows and overturned buses, attacked government officials, and torched police cars.

Given these issues you would expect the Chinese environmental agency to be all hands to the pump. Not exactly. SEPA is China's premier environmental agency.
But SEPA operates with barely 300 full-time professional staff in the capital and only a few hundred employees spread throughout the country. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a staff of almost 9,000 in Washington, D.C., alone.)

After discussing the local official corruption problem Economy concludes by saying:
China's leaders have shown themselves capable of bold reform in the past. Two and half decades ago, Deng Xiaoping and his supporters launched a set of ambitious reforms despite stiff political resistance and set the current economic miracle in motion. In order to continue on its extraordinary trajectory, China needs leaders with the vision to introduce a new set of economic and political initiatives that will transform the way the country does business. Without such measures, China will not return to global preeminence in the twenty-first century. Instead, it will suffer stagnation or regression -- and all because leaders who recognized the challenge before them were unwilling to do what was necessary to surmount it.

This excellent article should be read at length to fully appreciate the picture that I have only tried to shed a little light on in this post.


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