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China’s industrial success is now choking its environment

China’s industrial success is now choking its environment
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First Published: Wed, Aug 29 2007. 12 26 AM IST
Updated: Wed, Aug 29 2007. 12 26 AM IST
Beijing: The toll pollution has taken on human health remains a delicate topic in China. The leadership has banned publication of data on the subject for fear of inciting social unrest, according to scholars involved in the research. But the results of some research projects provide alarming evidence that the environment has become one of the biggest causes of death.
An internal, unpublicized report by the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning in 2003 estimated that 300,000 people die every year from ambient air pollution, mostly of heart disease and lung cancer. An additional 110,000 deaths could be attributed to indoor air pollution caused by poorly ventilated coal and wood stoves or toxic fumes from shoddy construction materials, said a person involved in the study.
Another report, prepared in 2005 by Chinese environmental experts, estimated that annual premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution were likely to reach 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020.
This spring, a World Bank study done with the State Environmental Protection Administration (Sepa) concluded that outdoor air pollution was already causing 350,000-400,000 premature deaths a year. Indoor pollution contributed to the deaths of an additional 300,000 people, while 60,000 died from diarrhoea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases caused by water-borne pollution.
Sepa insisted that the health statistics be removed from the published version of the report, citing the possible impact on “social stability”, World Bank officials said. But other international organizations with access to Chinese data have published similar results. For example, the World Health Organization found that China suffered more deaths from water-related pollutants and fewer from bad air, but agreed with the World Bank that the total death toll had reached 750,000 a year. In comparison, 4,700 people died last year in China’s unsafe mines, and 89,000 people were killed in road accidents, the highest number of automobile-related deaths in the world. The health ministry estimates that cigarette smoking takes another million lives every year.
Studies of Chinese environmental health mostly use statistical models developed in the US and Europe and apply them to China, which has done little long-term research on the matter domestically. The results are more like plausible suppositions than conclusive findings. But Chinese experts say that, if anything, the Western models probably understate the problems.
“China’s pollution is worse, the density of its population is greater and people do not protect themselves as well,” said Jin Yinlong, director general of the Institute for Environmental Health and Related Product Safety in Beijing. “So the studies are not definitive.”
As gloomy as China’s pollution picture looks today, it is set to get significantly worse, because?China??now??relies??mai-nly on energy-intensive heavy industry and urbanization to fuel economic growth. In 2000, a team of economists and energy specialists at the Development Research Centre, part of China’s State Council, set out to gauge how much energy China would need in the next 20 years to achieve the leadership’s goal of quadrupling the size of the economy.
They based their projections on China’s experience during the first 20 years of economic reform, from 1980 to 2000. In that period, China relied mainly on light industry and small-scale private enterprise to spur growth. It made big improvements in energy efficiency even as the economy expanded rapidly. Gross domestic product (GDP) quadrupled, while energy use only doubled.
The team?projected?that such efficiency gains would probably continue. But the experts also offered what they called a worst-case situation in which the most energy-hungry parts of the economy grew faster and efficiency gains fell short.
That worst-case situation now looks wildly optimistic. Last year, China burned the energy equivalent of 2.7 billion tonnes of coal, three-quarters of what the experts had said would be the maximum required in 2020. To put it another way, China now seems likely to need as much energy in 2010 as it thought it would need in 2020 under the most pessimistic assumptions.
“No one really knew what was driving the economy, which is why the predictions were so wrong,” said Yang Fuqiang, a former Chinese energy planner who is now the chief China representative of the Energy Foundation, an American group that supports energy-related research. “What I fear is that the trend is now basically irreversible.” The ravenous appetite for fossil fuels traces partly to an economic stimulus programme in 1997. The leadership, worried that China’s economy would fall into a steep recession as its East Asian neighbours had, provided generous state financing and tax incentives to support industrialization on a grand scale.
It worked well, possibly too well. In 1996, China and the US each accounted for 13% of global steel production. By 2005, the US share had dropped to 8%, while China’s share had risen to 35%, as per a study by Daniel H. Rosen and Trevor Houser of China Strategic Advisory, a group that analyses the Chinese economy. China now makes half of the world’s cement and flat glass, and?one-third?of?its aluminium.
Its energy needs are compounded because even some of its newest heavy industry plants do not operate as efficiently—or?control pollution as effectively—as factories in other parts of the world, says a World Bank report. Chinese steel makers, on average, use one-fifth more energy per tonne than the international average.
Moreover, the boom is not limited to heavy industry. Chinese buildings rarely have thermal insulation. They require, on average, twice as much energy to heat and cool as those in similar climates in the US and Europe, according to the World Bank. The vast majority of new buildings—95%, the bank says—do not meet China’s own codes for energy efficiency.
All these new buildings require China to build power plants, which it has been doing prodigiously. In 2005 alone, China added 66 gigawatts of electricity to its power grid, about as much power as Britain generates in a year. Last year, it added an additional 102 gigawatts, as much as France. This increase has come almost entirely from small- and medium-size coal-fired power plants that were built quickly and inexpensively. Only a few of them use modern, combined-cycle turbines, which increase efficiency, said a World Bank energy expert, Noureddine Berrah. He said Beijing had so far declined to use the most advanced type of combined-cycle turbines despite having completed a successful pilot project nearly a decade ago.
While over the long term, combined-cycle plants save money and reduce pollution, Berrah said, they cost more and take longer to build. For that reason, he said, central and provincial government officials prefer older technology.
“China is making decisions today that will affect its energy use for the next 30 or 40 years,” Berrah said. “Unfortunately, in some parts of the government the thinking is much more short-sighted.”
Since Hu Jintao became the Communist Party chief in 2002 and Wen Jiabao became prime minister the next spring, China’s leadership has struck consistent themes. The economy must grow at a more sustainable, less bubbly pace. Environmental abuse has reached intolerable levels. Officials who ignore these principles will be called to account.
Five years later, it seems clear that these senior leaders are either too timid to enforce their orders, or the fast-growth political culture they preside over is too entrenched to heed them. In the second quarter of this year, the economy expanded at a neck-snapping pace of 11.9%, its fastest in a decade. State-driven investment projects, state-backed heavy industry and a thriving export sector led the way. China burned 18% more coal than it did the year before.
China’s authoritarian system has repeatedly proved its ability to suppress political threats to Communist Party rule. But its failure to realize its goals of balancing economic growth and environmental protection is a sign that the country’s environmental problems are at least partly systemic, many experts and some government officials say. China cannot go green, in other words, without political?change.?In their efforts to free China of its socialist shackles in the 1980s and early 1990s, Deng and his supporters gave lower-level officials the leeway, and the obligation, to increase economic growth.
Local party bosses gained broad powers over state bank lending, taxes, regulation and land use. In return, the party leadership graded them, first and foremost, on how much they expanded the economy in their domains. To judge by its original goals—stimulating the economy, creating jobs and keeping the Communist Party in power—the system Deng put in place has few equals. But his approach eroded Beijing’s ability to fine-tune the economy. Today, a culture of collusion between government and business has made all but the most pro-growth government policies hard to enforce.
“The main reason behind the continued deterioration of the environment is a mistaken view of what counts as political achievement,” Pan Yue, the deputy minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said. “The crazy expansion of high-polluting, high-energy industries has spawned special interests.”
Hu has tried to change the system. In an internal address in 2004, he endorsed “comprehensive environmental and economic accounting”—otherwise known as “Green GDP”. He said the “pioneering endeavour” would produce a new performance test for government and party officials that better reflected the leadership’s environment priorities.
The Green GDP team sought to calculate the yearly damage to the environment and human health in each province. Their first report, released last year, estimated that pollution in 2004 cost slightly more than 3% of the GDP, meaning that the pollution-adjusted growth rate that year would drop to about 7% from 10%. Officials involved in the effort said at the time that their formula used low estimates of environmental damage to human health and did not assess the impact on China’s ecology. They would produce a more decisive formula the next year.
That did not happen. Hu’s plan died amid intense squabbling, people involved in the effort said. The Green GDP group’s second report, originally scheduled for release in March, never materialized.
The official explanation was that the science behind the green index was immature. Wang Jinnan, the leading academic researcher on the Green GDP team, said provincial leaders killed the project. “Officials do not like to be lined up and told how they are not meeting the leadership’s goals,” he said. “They found it difficult to accept this.”
Despite the demise of Green GDP, party leaders insist that they intend to restrain runaway energy use and emissions. The government last year mandated that the country use 20% less energy to achieve the same level of economic activity in 2010 compared with 2005. It also required that total emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants decline by 10% in the same period.
The programme is a domestic imperative. But it has also become China’s main response to growing international pressure to combat global warming. Chinese leaders reject?mandatory emissions caps, but claim that the energy efficiency plan will slow growth in carbon dioxide emissions.
Even with the heavy pressure, though, the efficiency goals have been hard to achieve. In the first full year since the targets were set, emissions increased. Energy use for every dollar of economic output fell but by much less than the 4% interim goal.
In a public relations sense, the party’s commitment to conservation seems steadfast. The government rarely uses market-oriented incentives to reduce pollution. Officials have rejected proposals to introduce surcharges on electricity and coal to reflect the true cost to the environment. The state still controls the price of fuel oil, including petrol, subsidizing the cost of driving.
China has no energy ministry. Environmentalists expose pollution and press local government officials to enforce environmental laws. But private individuals and non-governmental organizations cannot cross the line between advocacy and political agitation without risking arrest.
At least two leading environmental organizers have been prosecuted in recent weeks, and several others have received sharp warnings to tone down their criticism of local officials. One reason the authorities have cited: the need for social stability before the 2008 Olympics, once viewed as an opportunity for China to improve the environment.
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First Published: Wed, Aug 29 2007. 12 26 AM IST