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.

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).

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.