As China rides on industrial growth, pollution reaches deadly extremes

As China rides on industrial growth, pollution reaches deadly extremes
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First Published: Mon, Aug 27 2007. 09 48 AM IST
Updated: Tue, Aug 28 2007. 03 11 PM IST
Beijing: No country in history has emerged as a major industrial power without creating a legacy of environmental damage that can take decades and big dollops of public wealth to undo.
But just as the speed and scale of China’s rise as an economic power have no clear parallel in history, so too has its pollution problem shattered all precedents.
Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public, but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party. And it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.
Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the health ministry says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.
Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic grey shroud. Only 1% of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Beijing is frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics.
Environmental woes that might be considered catastrophic in some countries can seem commonplace in China: industrial cities where people rarely see the sun; children killed or sickened by lead poisoning or other types of local pollution; a coastline so swamped by algal red tides that large sections of the ocean no longer sustain marine life.
China is choking on its own success. The economy is on a historic run, posting a succession of double-digit growth rates. But the growth derives, now more than at any time in the recent past, from a staggering expansion of heavy industry and urbanization that requires colossal inputs of energy, almost all from coal, the most readily available, and dirtiest, source.
“It is a very awkward situation for the country because our greatest achievement is also our biggest burden,” says Wang Jinnan, one of China’s leading environmental researchers. “There is pressure for change, but many people refuse to accept that we need a new approach so soon.”
China’s problem has become the world’s problem. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides spewed by China’s coal-fired power plants fall as acid rain on Seoul?and Tokyo. Much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China, according to the Journal of Geophysical Research.
More pressing still, China has entered the most robust stage of its industrial revolution, even as much of the outside world has become preoccupied with global warming.
Experts once thought China might overtake the US as the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases by 2010, possibly later. Now, the International Energy Agency has said China could become the emissions leader by the end of this year, and the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency said China had already passed the milestone.
For the Communist Party, the political calculus is daunting. Reining in economic growth to alleviate pollution may seem logical, but the country’s authoritarian system is addicted to fast growth. Delivering prosperity placates the public, provides spoils for well-connected officials and forestalls demands for political change. A major slowdown could incite social unrest, alienate business interests and threaten the party’s rule.
But pollution poses its own threat. Officials blame fetid air and water for thousands of episodes of social unrest. Health care costs have climbed sharply. Severe water shortages could turn more farmland into desert. And the unconstrained expansion of energy-intensive industries creates greater dependence on imported oil and dirty coal, meaning that environmental problems get harder and more expensive to address the longer they are unresolved.
China’s leaders recognize that it must change course. They are vowing to overhaul the growth-first philosophy of the Deng Xiaoping era and embrace a new model that allows for steady growth, while protecting the environment. In his equivalent of a State of the Union address this year, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made 48 references to “environment”, “pollution” or “environmental protection”.
The government has numerical targets for reducing emissions and conserving energy. Export subsidies for polluting industries have been phased out. Campaigns have been started to close illegal coal mines and shutter some heavily polluting factories. Major initiatives are under way to develop clean energy sources such as solar and wind power. And environment regulation in Beijing, Shanghai and other leading cities has been tightened for the 2008 Olympics. Yet, most of the targets for energy efficiency, as well as improving air and water quality, have gone unmet. And there are signs that the leadership is either unwilling or unable to make fundamental changes.
Land, water, electricity, oil and bank loans remain relatively inexpensive, even for heavy polluters. Beijing has declined to use the kind of tax policies and market-oriented incentives for conservation that have worked well in Japan and many European countries.
Provincial officials, who enjoy substantial autonomy, often ignore environmental edicts, helping to reopen mines or factories closed by Central authorities. Over all, enforcement is often tinged with corruption. This spring, officials in Yunnan province in southern China beautified Laoshou Mountain, which had been used as a quarry, by spraying green paint over acres of rock. President Hu Jintao’s most ambitious attempt to change the culture of fast-growth collapsed this year. The project, known as “Green GDP”, was an effort to create an environmental yardstick for evaluating the performance of every official in China. It recalculated gross domestic product (GDP) to reflect the cost of pollution.
But the early results were so sobering—in some provinces the pollution-adjusted growth rates was reduced almost to zero—that the project was banished to China’s ivory tower this spring and stripped of official influence.
Chinese leaders argue that the outside world is a partner in degrading the country’s environment. Chinese manufacturers that dump waste into rivers or pump smoke into the sky make the cheap products that fill stores in the US and Europe. Often, these manufacturers subcontract for foreign firms—or are owned by them. In fact, foreign investment continues to rise as multinational corporations build more factories in China. Beijing also insists it will accept no mandatory limits on its carbon dioxide emissions, which would almost certainly reduce its industrial growth. It argues that rich countries caused global warming and should find a way to solve it without impinging on China’s development.
Indeed, Britain, the US and Japan polluted their way to prosperity and worried about environmental damage only after their economies matured and their urban middle classes demanded blue skies and safe drinking water.
But China is more like a teenage smoker with emphysema. The costs of pollution have mounted well before it is ready to curtail economic development. But the price of business as usual—including the predicted effects of global warming on China itself—strikes many of its own experts and some senior officials as intolerably high. “Typically, industrial countries deal with green problems when they are rich,” said Ren Yong, a climate expert at the Centre for Environment and Economy in Beijing. “We have to deal with them while we are still poor. There is no model for us to follow.”
In the face of past challenges, the Communist Party has usually responded with sweeping edicts from Beijing. Some environmentalists say they hope the top leadership has now made pollution control such a high priority that lower level officials will have no choice but to go along, just as Deng once forced China’s sluggish bureaucracy to fixate on growth.
But the environment may end up posing a different political challenge. A command-and-control political culture accustomed to issuing thundering directives is now under pressure, even from people in the ruling party, to submit to oversight from the public, for which pollution has become a daily—and increasingly deadly—reality.
During the three decades since Deng set China on a course toward market-style growth, rapid industrialization and urbanization have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty and made the country the world’s largest producer of consumer goods. But there is little question that growth came at the expense of China’s air, land and water, much of it already degraded by decades of Stalinist economic planning that emphasized the development of heavy industries in urban areas.
For air quality, a major culprit is coal, on which China relies for about two-thirds of its surging energy needs. It burns more of it than the US, Europe and Japan combined. But even many of its newest coal-fired power plants and industrial furnaces operate inefficiently and use pollution controls considered inadequate in the West. Expanding car ownership, heavy traffic and low-grade petrol have made autos the leading source of air pollution in major Chinese cities. Only 1% of China’s urban population of 560 million now breathes air considered safe by the European Union, according to a World Bank study of Chinese pollution published this year. One major pollutant contributing to China’s bad air is particulate matter, which includes concentrations of fine dust, soot and aerosol particles less than 10 microns in diameter (known as PM 10).
PM 10 is measured in micrograms per cu. m of air. The European Union stipulates that any reading above 40 micrograms is unsafe. The US allows 50. In 2006, Beijing’s average PM 10 level was 141, as per China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Only Cairo, among world capitals, had worse air quality as measured by particulates, says the World Bank.
Emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal and fuel oil, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as acid rain, are increasing even faster than China’s economic growth. In 2005, China became the leading source of sulfur dioxide?pollution?globally,?the St-ate Environmental?Protection Administration said last year.
Other major air pollutants, including ozone, an important component of smog, and smaller particulate matter, called PM 2.5, emitted when petrol is burned, are not widely monitored in China. Perhaps an even more acute challenge is water. China has only one-fifth as much water per capita as the US. But while southern China is relatively wet, the north, home to about half of China’s population, is an immense, parched region that now threatens to become the world’s biggest desert.
Farmers in the north once used shovels to dig their wells. Now, many aquifers have been so depleted that some wells in Beijing and Hebei must extend more than half a mile before they reach fresh water. Industry and agriculture use nearly all of the flow of the Yellow River. In response, leaders have undertaken one of the most ambitious engineering projects in world history, a $60 billion (Rs2.5 trillion) network of canals, rivers and lakes to transport water from the flood-prone Yangtze River to the silt-choked Yellow River. But that effort will still leave the north chronically thirsty.
This scarcity has not yet created a culture of conservation. Water remains inexpensive by global standards, and Chinese industry uses four to 10 times more water per unit of production than the average in industrialized nations, according to the World Bank.
In many parts of China, factories and farms dump waste into surface water with few repercussions. China’s environmental monitors say that one-third of all river water, and vast sections of China’s great lakes, the Tai, Chao and Dianchi, have water rated Grade V, the most degraded level, rendering it unfit for industrial or agricultural use.
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This is Part I of a two-part special series on pollution in China. Part II will focus on the toll that China’s success has taken on human health.
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First Published: Mon, Aug 27 2007. 09 48 AM IST