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The terrible cost of China’s growth (part two)

China's brewing ecological crisis requires new commitments from government, argue Jiang  Gaoming and Gao Jixi. Improved environmental laws and new ways to evaluate officials are key.

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At one time, China’s economists proudly proclaimed the country to be the “factory of the world.” But unfortunately, this manufacturing has been characterised by a high consumption of energy and resources, large emissions of pollutants and low added value. And while China has exported many goods to foreign – and mostly developed – countries, we have kept the pollution for ourselves.

China needs to produce 100 million pairs of trousers in order to purchase one Boeing aeroplane. The country manufactures seven billion pairs of shoes a year, more than the world can wear at one time. And the price China pays for this manufacturing, in terms of increased pollution, is an extortionate one.

Among the environmental costs of our economic growth, the most serious and apparent are those caused by pollution. The release of pollutants with inadequate or no treatment, combined with a weak environmental protection framework means that the nation’s emissions continue to increase. A survey of 10 cities and provinces, including Beijing, Shanghai and Hebei, found that between 1986 and 2000, 5.5 billion tonnes of untreated sewage was discharged – a net growth of 2.27 billion tonnes. At the same time, the dumping of urban domestic waste grew by 28.96 million tonnes.

In rural areas the use of tractors means that farmers no longer raise draft animals, and the loss of an important source of organic fertiliser. As a result, the use of chemical fertilisers has risen. Moreover, the improper use of fertilisers means that efficiency is low. China uses an average of 434.3 kilograms of fertiliser per hectare, almost twice the international safety standard of 225 kilograms. But only about 40% of that is actually used by crops, the rest remains in the soil or groundwater. In 2000, an average of 13.4 kilograms of pesticide was used per hectare. Of this land, 70% was treated with organic phosphorus, 70% with highly toxic pesticide and 70% with insecticide. Sixty to 70% of this is left as residue in the soil. Pollution in the form of plastics used to package fertilisers and pesticides is also a serious problem. Half a million tonnes of these plastics lie in China’s fields: almost 40% of the total packaging.

On top of this, 100 million tonnes of straw – 17% of China’s total – is burnt off annually; the resulting smoke presents a danger to road and air traffic. The pollution caused by the production of livestock and poultry is equal to twice the solid waste output of the nation’s industry; in some areas such as Henan, Hunan and Jiangxi, it even reaches four times that level.

The consequences of pollution can also be seen in China’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Half the length of China’s seven major river systems, including the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the middle reaches of the Pearl River, is severely polluted. Eighty-six percent of urban waterways fail to meet minimum standards for water pollution. Environmental analysis of a 2,000 kilometre stretch of the Huai River found that 78.7% of the water failed to meet minimum standards for drinking water; 79.7% was unsuitable for use in fish farming; and 32% did not even meet standards for use in irrigation. In 2001, China’s coastal waters experienced 77 red tides over 15,000 square kilometres, 49 more occurrences than in 2000 and covering an extra 5,000 square kilometres. This was directly responsible for economic losses of one billion yuan (US$128 million).

Red tide photo by thesix

The economic losses caused by pollution are rising, and if they are not controlled they will hold back China’s growth. Direct economic losses due to pollution between 1990 and 1998 amounted to 100 billion yuan (US$12.8 billion) annually – 1.4% of total GDP and 29.4% of government income. And this does not even account for the social and political risks that pollution causes.


What can be done?

China's central government is greatly concerned by these problems. Premier Wen Jiabao has stressed the importance of the “Three Changes”. Firstly, to move from a mode of growth that stresses the economy to one which balances the economy and the environment. Secondly, to move from a situation in which environmental protection holds the economy back, to one where they develop in tandem; from a passive and remedial model of environmental protection to a proactive, protective method. Thirdly, to move from the use of policy and administrative methods to protect the environment to the combined use of legal, economic and technical methods, alongside political intervention when necessary, to adapt to new circumstances and accelerate innovation. Specifically, to resolve China’s environmental problems we should proceed as follows:

First, China must adopt the concept of ‘Green GDP’ in evaluating the performance of government officials. We should develop environmental planning, model projects and a circular economy, and include green GDP in performance evaluations of government officials. And maintain these in the long term. Many of China’s problems are questions of interests, and for officials this means their record of achievements. In the past, this meant only economic successes, and the environment took a back seat. But now, solving environmental problems must start with the evaluation of officials. In some environmentally sensitive regions the environment should be put first, and supported by state compensation.

Second, the country must increase funding for nature reserves and establish compensation systems in river basins. We should be funding national-level nature reserves from the national budget and protecting nature reserves rather than developing them, thereby spurring local economies. Provincial-level nature reserves can be funded in a similar manner, with operating expenses covered by local governments, in order properly realise the nation’s 2,194 nature reserves, which now only exist on paper. Economic losses suffered due to environmental protection should be compensated for by the state – a responsibility which richer areas should shoulder.

Third, we must improve environmental protection law and management systems. China should establish environmental protection legislation and effective protection mechanisms that will robustly intervene in those economic activities that cause pollution or harm the environment. We must strengthen the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA)’s ability to enforce the law and increase its strategic position within the development of the private economy. It is recommended that SEPA be renamed the Ministry of the Environment.

Fourth, we should carry out environmental education and encourage the public to participate in protecting the environment. Improving the environment and harmony between man and nature means fostering an environmental culture, building an ecological civilisation and raising awareness of environmental protection. China’s citizens must move from passive to active participation, using the legal instruments the state provides to protect their environmental interests and uniting against behaviour that damages the environment. The role of environmental NGOs should be strengthened. The media should also increase their coverage of environmental incidents.

Fifth, environmental protection should be developed as an industry. Developed countries realised this when they curtailed the strategy of “pollute first, clean up later”. Market mechanisms can promote private involvement in environmental management, meaning profits can be made from both creating and preventing pollution, and polluters will opt for the latter. The state needs to set clear targets for environmental protection and management, and assign funding. Lastly, these finances should be linked to actual results, not distributed to various authorities to spend on their own environmental protection projects.


Jiang Gaoming is a chief researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany and a doctoral candidate tutor, vice secretary-general of UNESCO’s China-MAB Committee and director of the China Environmental Culture Promotion Association. He is recognized for his introduction of the concepts of “urban vegetation” and “using natural forces to restore China’s ecosystems.”

Jixi Gao is chief specialist and head of the Institute of Ecology at the China Academy of Environmental Sciences. He has long been involved in the evaluation of functional ecologies, environmental assessments of regional development strategies and research into environmental pollution testing.

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匿名 | Anonymous



There is no alternative to Green GDP!

The evaluating system for non-green GDP needs to be ended. Just as robbed fortunes cannot be equalled to laboured fortunes; GDP which does not take environmental cost into consideration should not be regarded as an achievement when officials' work is assessed. Otherwise, would this not mean that those who do more wrong are those who get promoted?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



China’s environmental cost will affect the entire world

China is a too large country. The costs to its environment will affect the entire world, as much as the deterioration of its environment has been caused by the entire world. All the people in the world must help China, and not simply criticize it. After all, we only have one planet. If this cannot be done, there is no hope for our planet.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Relations with government

I learn from the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, that China Daily reported on Wednesday that China had "flunked the first test" in meeting goals aimed at saving energy and protecting the environment. The new targets for China's 2006-2010 Five Year Plan called for energy consumption per unit of GDP to be cut by 20 percent, while polluting emissions were to be cut by 10 percent. The target set for 2006 had been to reduce consumption by 4 percent and pollution emissions by 2 percent. In fact, things went in the wrong direction: there was an increase in energy consumption in the first half of 2006.

Regulations and scale limits imposed fairly are necessary for ecologically efficient production - however, the problem in any society is that state regulators (officials) working closely with business are eventually "taken over" by them. A "revolving door" between business and state undermines effective regulation. Having developed capitalist enterprises as a means to its planning goals the Chinese state is now effectively captured by these business interests and has insufficient independent countervailing power to control their activities.

To address this requires independent organisations and a free press - by people who do not have the goal of trying to "take power", only of trying to influence what those in power do by their wisdom.

Why indeed would want to take over a state? It is too much work and too dangerous:

"When Hui Tzu was prime minister of Liang, Chuang Tzu set off to visit him. Someone said to Hui Tzu, "Chuang Tzu is coming because he wants to replace you as prime minister!" With this Hui Tzu was filled with alarm and searched all over the state for three days and three nights trying to find Chuang Tzu. Chuang Tzu then came to see him and said, "In the south there is a bird called the Yuan-ch'u - I wonder if you've ever heard of it? The Yuan-ch'u rises up from the South Sea and flies to the North Sea, and it will rest on nothing but the Wu-t'ung tree, eat nothing but the fruit of the Lien, and drink only from springs of sweet water. Once there was an owl who had gotten hold of a half-rotten old rat, and as the Yuan-ch'u passed by, it raised its head, looked up at the Yuan-ch'u, and said, `Shoo!' Now that you have this Liang state of yours, are you trying to shoo me?"

However, without threatening ambitions, independent organisations can be motivated to work for the revitalisation of old traditions - for example, those that we can find in the Huainanzi about standards of government and the relations between the governed and the people:

"The law of ancient kinds forbade hunters to deplete the herds or to take the yearlings and forbade fishers to empty the ponds. Traps and nets were not to be set before certain times; wood was not to be cut before the leaves fell; fields were not to be burned before the insects went into hibernation. Pregnant or nursing animals were not to be killed; eggs were not to be taken from nests; fish less than a foot long were not to be caught."


"When society is orderly you protect yourself with justice; when society is confused, you protect justice by yourself."

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous







全球环境研究所 付华辉

Green GDP, "the short board on the wooden barrel" and interdisciplinary collaboration

The effects of Green GDP should be acknowledged and supported. Yet from the standpoint of state officials who assess government performance, the inadequate and contradictory statistics on Green GDP pose great difficulties for its implementation (for a more detailed account, see People’s University Professor Ma Zhong's article "Green GDP: Implementation in the Face of Difficulties” published on this website). What to do? The method proposed by Professor Ma Zhong is for Beijing and local governments to devise and implement ever stricter environmental conservation policies. Experts in the fields of environmental technology and enviromental economic studies can only promote a similar solution within their professional capacities. But whatever happened to the “short board on the wooden barrel” (i.e., the crux of the matter)? I think that scholars of political science and public policy should get involved. They should devise a workable policy framework for officials who assess government performance on sustainable development under the current political system. In other words, the comprehensive nature of environmental problems has yet to receive the comprehensive response it deserves. Especially in the sphere of environmental politics and policy, this most “intangible” of areas, what we really need is fundamental research based on indigenous and interdisciplinary collaboration to lay the groundwork for further action. Moreover, why have two experts in the field of environmental science not raised the issue of raising investment in and bolstering the development of environmental science research? Fu Huahui - Global Environment Research Center

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





[email protected]

Want to discuss with Pan Yue and all readers

Should the index for Chinese ordinary people's involvement in environment protection be calculated by taking into consideration four factors: awareness, behaviors, science and technology, as well as satisfaction of the current environment situation?

In this technology era, the index should indicate the use of technology in China's environment protection.

Lower public awareness and inadequacy in actions sound the alarm that China is in urgent need of efforts in environment protection. This also means there is a tough task in front of us.

To increase awareness and enhance actions, more media, education, regulation and individual efforts are needed as they are key resolutions.

[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Please give more space to non-governmental organizations

In the concern of environmental protection and development of society itself, the single source of support from the goverment is far less than enough. China needs to give non-governmental organizaitons reasonable space to develope. These organizations can play a positive role in environmental issues, help-poverty, disaster relief, etc. They also encourage the whole society to work together and public to take part in ecomonic issues. Giving non-governmental organizations more space is also a necessary condition to Civil Society