Three decades of economic growth have significantly boosted China's international standing. The country now boasts the world's fastest growing economy, expanding by 10.7% in 2006, its fourth consecutive year of double-figure growth.
China's rapid industrialisation has attracted the attention of the west. But over time, some of this focus has shifted to the impact that this growth is having on the environment. Both Chinese and international media increasingly view China as a classic example of failure in balancing the country’s economy and environment; a story seen repeated in other large developing countries such as Brazil and India.
But something different is happening in Jiangsu province. Situated on China's east coast, the province has been described as the flagship of the country’s green development, and is now attracting international attention in its own right.
A leader in sustainable development
Located on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and Huai River, and with a coastline on the Yellow Sea, Jiangsu is less than half the size of the UK, at 100,000 square kilometres, but has a population of 75 million – much higher than Britain's 60 million.
Jiangsu’s contribution to China’s gross domestic product (GDP) has consistently ranked among the country’s top three provinces. The province’s economic growth in 2006 was 14.9%, China’s highest. Last year, it was also one of only two provinces that met national targets on pollution reduction and energy efficiency.
In 2006, emissions of major pollutants in Jiangsu province dropped by 3.3%, far surpassing the national target of 2%. Jiangsu’s power consumption per unit of GPD also fell by 4.02%, just over the target of 4%.
Four of the six cities that were first awarded the title of “Ecological City” by China’s State Council are in Jiangsu province. All four – Zhangjiagang, Changshu, Kunshang and Jiangyin – are among China's ten richest city and county-level economies.
Eighteen cities in Jiangsu have been designated “Environmental Protection Cities”, one-fifth of the nationwide total and more than any other single province. Yangzhou was given the UN-HABITAT Scroll of Honour Award in 2006.
On March 21, Jiangsu Party Secretary Li Yuanchao spoke at a meeting held in the UK's House of Commons, where he described the province as a role model for the country’s efforts to achieve a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. But in interviews he also pointed out that the province's double-digit GDP growth has incurred heavy environmental costs.
Li discussed China's most recent thinking on development. He explained how the country is seeking comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable growth; he also emphasised how the conservation of resources and environmental protection will allow growth that is both rapid and sustainable. In particular, Li stressed the importance of “four priorities”: wealth creation, science and education, environmental protection and conservation of resources.
Of particular interest are Jiangsu's environmental pricing reforms, which include emissions trading and emissions pricing policies.
The concept of emissions trading was first put into practice in the US to control atmospheric and water pollution. It has since been adopted in Germany, Australia and the UK. The system aims to encourage companies to reduce their overall pollution emissions, either by cleaning up the local environment or adopting more efficient production processes. They can then sell any surplus emissions allowances. On the whole, this has proved more effective than traditional government curbs on pollution. Jiangsu’s city of Nantong was the first place in China to adopt an emissions trading scheme; and in 2002, the system was rolled out across the entire province.
Jiangsu’s experience in ensuring that polluters pay and that businesses can benefit from cleaning up their act is now being applied nationwide. Shi Zhenhua, head of Jiangsu's Environmental Protection Office, speaking at the recent National Peoples' Congress in Beijing, said that many companies are now “making money from environmental protection.” He pointed out that in the last five years, not one manufacturer of environmental protection equipment or sewage treatment equipment in China has made a loss.
The province now hopes to raise the cost of emissions further, to dissuade those companies who would sooner pay for their emissions than reduce their pollution. According to reports, companies that continue to pollute can still end up paying a tenth of what it would cost to cut their emissions, and only one-fifth of the losses caused by the resulting environmental damage.
Despite the province’s outstanding record, a recent opinion poll in Jiangsu found that only 56.5% of respondents were “satisfied” or “basically satisfied” with pollution control; in contrast, the national average last year was 60.2%.
Towards the end of his speech, Li Yuanchao said he believes that all of China's provinces will achieve the binding targets specified in the 11th Five Year Plan – to reduce power consumption per unit of GDP by 20%, and emissions of pollutants by 10% by 2010.
A Herculean task
But despite Li's optimism, the overall situation does not look good. Power consumption per unit of GDP fell by only 1.23% last year, and emissions actually rose. State media recently reported the World Bank and China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) as saying that the annual losses caused by environmental pollution may be equivalent to around 10% of GDP.
Speaking at the National People's Congress earlier this month, premier Wen Jiabao stressed that China's economy still faces problems caused by high power consumption and pollution. The latest figures show that in 2007, the continuing growth of power-hungry industries may have caused China's electricity consumption to jump by as much as 20%.
In comparison with most of China's provinces, Jiangsu has unmatched advantages. And it is those regional differences which make the goal of repeating Jiangsu's successes elsewhere in the country such a formidable task.
Jiangsu is known as China's land of rice and fish, with ideal conditions for agriculture and a solid economic, technical and educational base. GDP per capita is US$3,500, a good deal higher than the nationwide average of US$2,500. The total value of imports and exports last year was US$284 billion, almost one-sixth of the national total.
One in four of every dollars of China’s inward investment ends up in Jiangsu province. In 2006, around US$16 billion of overseas investment was put to work in Jiangsu, the nation’s highest for the fifth year running. Fortune 500 companies have started 685 firms in the province.
There are more port berths and greater port capacity here than anywhere else in China, and three of the country's 10 ports that have shipped more than a billion tonnes are in Jiangsu.
Such advantages are little more than dreams for many of China's provinces, particularly those that have less-developed productive capabilities, a lack of funds and of technology and that still rely on heavy industry.
China's scarce resources, its lack of environmental awareness and undeveloped environmental laws continue to hold back the country's progress towards sustainable development.
The green dragon?
A survey published earlier this year identified the environmental issues that Chinese people identify as most worrying: food safety, drinking water contamination and air pollution.
For most Chinese people today, climate change is little more than a scientific discussion, but they know first-hand the environmental pollution that economic growth has brought.
This has also brought both domestic and international pressure to bear on the Chinese government; many are urging China to move faster towards green development.
But we should not forget that western countries only started to control their pollution after 200 years of industrialisation. For instance, it was only in 1956 that the UK, the home of the Industrial Revolution, introduced the Clean Air Act. Thirty years after China’s economy opened up to the world, the country is now realising the importance of environmental protection, and is putting measures in place accordingly.
China has already achieved its first miracle – the country has managed to lift 200 million people out of poverty. Now it needs another miracle to save 1.3 billion people from the effects of a worsening environment. But to know how long this will take, we must wait and see.
Homepage picture by Marc van der Chijs
Dongying Wang worked for Xinhua News Agency as an editor in Beijing and correspondent in Egypt, before joining chinadialogue in 2006 as managing editor.