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China: The most important story in the world

China's development presents an extraordinary environmental challenge for the world. But there is still a case for optimism, argues Jonathon Porritt on the eve of his three-day visit to China.
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In June 2006, the Chinese Construction Minister decreed that all Chinese cities had to re-instate the bike lanes that had been removed over the last few years to make way for the car. All civil servants were told that they must either cycle, or take public transport to get to work.  The Minister was, it seems, determined that China should regain its global fame as "the Kingdom of Bicycles".

He will have quite a struggle on his hands with some of China's increasingly powerful city mayors, for whom the car has become a far more fitting symbol of economic and political success than the lowly bike. Every day in Beijing, for instance, more than 1,000 new cars are rolled out on its already highly congested streets.

That is just one of a seemingly limitless flow of eye-watering statistics about China today. The sheer size of the country continues to astound the rest of the world. And if your passion in life is sustainable economic development, rather than simply the environment, then what's going on in China is quite simply the most important unfolding story anywhere in the world.

If 10% of the 60 million people who live in the UK choose to reduce their energy consumption by 1%, it hardly registers as a blip on the world scale. But when 10% of the 1.3 billion people who live in China take advantage of its surging prosperity to increase their own energy consumption by 1% per annum, then the world had better take notice. Such decisions affect those of us who live in Britain and elsewhere as much as our fellow world citizens in China. In an interconnected and interdependent world, China's emissions are everybody's emissions.

Chinese politicians talk with justifiable pride of their enormous achievement in enabling more than 250 million people to escape grinding rural poverty, and to find jobs in the country's burgeoning economy. Living standards have soared; and average life expectancy increased from just 35 years when the communists came to power in 1949, to 72 years in 2004.

These social gains have been driven primarily by the economic boom – with average growth of around 10% over the last 15 years. But that has caused environmental damage on such a scale that the entire growth model for China is now imperilled. According to a report in Nature in 2005: "The losses from pollution and ecological damage [in China] range from 7% to 20% of GDP every year in the past two decades". The impact on human health has been particularly severe. About 300,000 deaths a year are attributed to air quality problems. Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, and levels of cancer in such areas are amongst the worst in the world.

Things are going to get a great deal worse before they get much better. China is building a new coal-fired power station every 10 days. In 2005 alone, it added about 65,000 megawatts of new power generation – roughly equivalent to the entire power capacity of the UK today. It is already the world's second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and is one of the most inefficient energy users in the world – emissions per unit of GDP are ten times that of the average for developed countries.

There is no point trying to downplay this: there is an ecological apocalypse unfolding in China right now.

But few are more aware of this than the rulers of China themselves. Just a few months ago, the 11th Five Year Plan was unveiled by Premier Wen Jiabao with an exceptionally tough message that China could not follow the old path (which, he might have added, is the path set out by the West!) of "grow first, clean up the environmental mess later". It had to learn to grow sustainably - even if that meant growing more slowly.

The government's impressive targets for the next five years include a significant cut in total greenhouse gas emissions, a 10% cut in total pollution output (notably sulphur dioxide emissions and chemical oxygen demand), a 20% fall in energy consumption per unit of GDP, and a 30% reduction in water use (per unit of industrial value added). It's also developing a green accounting system that will include full environmental costs in its calculation of GDP – something that I would dearly love to see working here in the UK!

It is an extraordinary challenge. But China is capable of moving with great speed when it puts its mind to it: it phased out the use of leaded petrol in less than two years (compared to the decade or more it took us here in the UK), and has recently mandated emissions standards for all new cars that are at least the equivalent of European standards.

All of which guarantees an ongoing battle royal between those who see the glass as half empty, and those who see it as half full. The 'half-empties' look at the existing environmental legacy, factor that into the huge political and social pressures to keep the Chinese economy booming at almost any cost, and remain sunk in impenetrable gloom.

The half-fulls see no reason why China shouldn't become the world's number one nation in terms of eco-efficiency and the kind of "green industrial revolution" that Western leaders love to pontificate about. But they acknowledge that achieving this will take a lot more than some ministerial decree restoring the bike to its rightful place in the hierarchy of sustainable transport systems – however welcome that may be!

The author: Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, an independent watchdog to advise how environmentally friendly development should be put at the heart of government policy. From 19-21 September, Porritt is visiting China to describe his experience in Britain and learn from "our fellow world citizens" in China. Porritt will be talking on China's global role in Sustainable Development at DFID China's office, in Beijing at 4pm on Wednesday 20th September. Anyone interested in attending should contact: Deng Yongzheng, Programme Officer, UK-China Sustainable Development Dialogue, DFID China, tel: 86 (0)10 8529 6882 ext 2048, email:  YZ-Deng [at] dfid.gov.uk

This article appears in “Greening the Dragon: China’s Sustainability Challenge”, a special supplement produced by Green Futures magazine, published in September 2006. www.greenfutures.org.uk

Homepage photo by Jayanth Chennamangalam

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


作者的观点很中肯, 列举的理由和分析也很客观, 不错的文章

Pertinent and objective viewpoint

The writer's viewpoint is very pertinent, his reasoning and analysis is objective - a good article.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Environmental awareness is more important than bicycle lanes

The removal of bicyle lanes could be regarded as a result of increased living standards in China. Personally I am not sure how effective the re-introduction of bicyle lanes will be to ease transport pressure and benefit the environment. I think the key issue is the improvement of Chinese people's awareness of environmental protection. Do you think white-collars and other well-paid people are willing to ride bicyles and take the bus to work?
Well, I sincerely hope China and the whole world will march forward in the direction of green development. Haizi.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Taking another perspective on development

People always say that China's development has brought environmental damage, as if a less-developed China would reduce the world's environmental crisis. In comparison with western developed countries, the history of China's development is shorter. It took a long time for developed countries to get where they are today, it is easy to imagine the waste of resources and environmental damage this involved. It is unfair to now blame China for the whole environmental crisis. Amy

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我很有兴趣知道为什么艾眯认为文章是在谴责中国. 本质上, 发展就是对资源和财富的占有及支配,今天的中国人已经拥有了这俩者,而且这财富的积累发生在非常短的时期内:25年.不辛的是,在这段时期内社会的发展并没有跟上经济发展的脚步,这困扰着外界人士,也使他们怀疑:中国的发展模式会不会偏离轨道和变得丑陋?

Who is blaming China?

I would be interested to know why Amy believes that the article blames China. Development is, in essence, about access to resources / wealth and Chinese people today have more of both. What's more this generation of wealth has taken place over a very short period of time: 25 years. Unfortunately, social development has not matched the progress of economic development over this period. This is what worries outsiders and makes them wonder: will the Chinese development model derail itself and turn ugly?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



The Bike is the Future

The Bicycle is the future of transport in urban centres. There are a multitude of benefits for human well-being: reduced congestion, better air quality, healthier citizens, fewer traffic accident casualties, more space for other activites etc. Long live the Bicycle! One of humankinds greatest inventions! Matt

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


引用:“他将因此和一些中国城市的市长做一番斗争。因为在这些权利不断扩大的城市中,小轿车远比广为普通人使用的自行车更能显示出市长们的经济和政治地位与成就。比如说,现在每天就有1000辆新车开上已拥挤不堪的北京道路。” 我认为期望中国人主动地减少车的用量是不可能的。我能想到的是一个强制性的解决方法: 让每四个家庭组成一个合作社共买一辆车。每个家庭一周可以轮流使用这辆车一天,剩下的三天四个家庭可以讨论决定。只有在需要车的时候才可以使用。办事和上下班,公交应该是够的。自行车在短距离交通中更实用,更快速。在旅居北京的三个星期里,我只用汽车和自行车,觉得很方便。一些公里的距离自行车快多了。中国还没有众多居住在远郊,私人用车成为必需品的居民。据北京最新通过的法律,大型私人建筑是不允许的。这个限制应该在全国实施。而且在北京找到停车的地方几乎是不可能的! Kelvin Mok

Public transport in Beijing

Quote: "He will have quite a struggle on his hands with some of China's increasingly powerful city mayors, for whom the car has become a far more fitting symbol of economic and political success than the lowly bike. Every day in Beijing, for instance, more than 1,000 new cars are rolled out on its already highly congested streets. "

I believe that it will be impossible to expect voluntary restrictions on car ownership. One solution I can think of is to make it mandatory that only four families can form a cooperative to buy one car to be shared among them. One day a week will be for the exclusive use of a designated family. This leaves three days to be negotiated between themselves for extra use. This should satisfy needs that only a car can meet. For regular chores and for work public transportation and bicycles should suffice. In Beijing on a three week visit I got around comfortably by bus and by bicycle. For distances of a few miles its much faster by bicycle.

China does not have sprawling suburban residential areas where a car is a necessity. Large private single buildings are not allowed under a recent law passed in Beijing. This prohibition should apply countrywide. Furthermore in Beijing finding a parking place is next to impossible.

Kelvin Mok

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



bicycling is the future!

I belive the Chinese should start using the bicycle because if they want to keep their country the should stick to the bicycle for a while.