Environmentalism in the new China

by Conrad Heine / 05 August, 2013
China is taking steps to counter the downside of its economic boom, but just how sustainable is this new environmentalism?
China's growth and the environment
Photo/David White

Traffic crawls around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on clean and well-kept boulevards, no longer a sea of bicycles and Mao suits. In open-top late-model cars – some of the 10 million-odd new vehicles sold in China in 2012 – China’s new urban elite are at play, with casual wear, shades and booming speakers. Save for a single patch of blue sky directly above, a haze fills the air; the skeletons of half-completed skyscrapers and cranes are faint through the miasma lifting from the choked streets and the belt of coal-burning factories around the Chinese capital. The sun is wan enough to look at directly.

This is what a clear summer day in Beijing looks like. In January, the city’s skies made international headlines, as the usual acrid winter smog reached a brutal pitch. Airborne particulates small enough to invade the bloodstream via the lungs soared to 40 times the maximum level recommended by the World Health Organisation, drawing comparisons between Beijing’s air and an airport smokers’ lounge and the 1952 Great Smog of London with its thousands of deaths.

In response, Beijingers went wild on microblogs, while officials scrambled to respond. Factories were shut, government cars ordered off the road and fireworks restricted for the Chinese New Year ­celebrations in February. In late June, levels climbed again: once more, locals donned face masks or stayed inside.

China's growth and the environment
Air pollution in Beijing. Photo/David White

Comparison with London is apt. With its coal-fired and despoiling approach to development, China seems to be “repeating every single mistake that the West has made”, says Associate Professor Terence Tsai of the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. And it’s doing this just as the world’s environment sits on the brink.


Despite the haze, green shoots are appearing in China’s biggest cities, as the urban middle-classes, having reaped the benefits of growth, deal with its side effects. In the foyer of a large media conglomerate in Shanghai, a tour guide proudly points out the real-time carpooling scheme on a screen. Locals complain of number-plate- and driving-licence restrictions designed to limit the number of cars on the road, even though they accept that they are needed.

Most of all, it’s the response of both the public and authorities to Beijing’s smog and other blots on the landscape that is a sign of a changing Chinese approach – they are not simply prepared to accept the environmental consequences of the past three decades’ grow-at-all-costs approach. In May, demonstrations against a petrochemical plant reportedly drew 2500 people onto the streets of Kunming, followed by marches in Shanghai that led to the halting of a planned battery factory. And last month produced a much bigger prize, when protests in Jiangmen caused local authorities to announce the abandonment of a uranium-processing plant there.

Shining light onto the country’s new greening are the microblogs – Weibo, WeChat and others – which have become the information first-stop for China’s urbanites and, increasingly, the rural population, to an extent too great for the Government to control. Says Twizel-born Jade Gray, a Beijinger for almost two decades (who runs his Gung Ho! Pizzeria in Beijing as a local small-business-sustainability pioneer, with an environmental manager and a green team): “It amazes me how much Chinese use social media … China is well ahead of the West in social media terms. Chinese don’t believe the press … they are significantly more inclined to believe social media as fact.”

Social and traditional media work together, too: earlier this year, a campaign by one microblogger challenging local officials to swim in local waterways in Zhejiang Province soon became a national media story when a local businessman offered the equivalent of NZ$40,000 to the officials to take up the challenge (it was declined, naturally).

Meanwhile, in tandem with chasing economic sustainability, the Chinese Government has stepped up the greener approach it has been taking over the past few years as the health and environmental costs become increasingly apparent. Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian was reported in local media as acknowledging the need for change: “If development turns healthy people into unhealthy people, this is a parody of development.”

Since Xi Jinping ascended to the Communist Party leadership late last year, a vision of red capitalism, green cities and blue skies has developed. Past environmental goals and renewable-energy promotions have been boosted by new targets and schemes, including air pollution measures, naming-and-shaming of dirty cities and a target of cutting carbon emissions relative to GDP in the dirtiest industries by 30% from 2005 levels by the end of 2017, and up to 45% by 2020. And in June, state media reported that the death penalty was being considered for serious polluters.

On the back of increased media and public pressure, a new openness is visible, with recent official acknowledgment, for the first time, of the existence of “cancer villages” – settlements near industrial sites and polluted waterways where cancer rates have soared. June saw the launch of a pilot carbon-trading scheme in Shenzhen, with six more cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, planned to follow before a nationwide launch in 2016. Xi himself has come to the party, underlining his commitment to “a beautiful China” in a June speech and stressing that local officials have to meet targets for pollution as well as growth to achieve promotion.

What China does with its environment – particularly its air – matters to the world. Pollution from China has shown up in Japan, South Korea and as far afield as Europe and California. Although it is still snapping at the United States’ heels economic-size-wise, it has been the biggest emitter of carbon since 2007, accounting for 25-30% of global emissions. And with China’s emissions not expected to peak until around 2030, the 2°C global-warming cap agreed at Copenhagen in 2009 is under real threat.

But as a developing country where millions still wait to be lifted out of poverty and with the looming prospect of further massive urbanisation, China faces daunting challenges, especially when it comes to air and energy. Can its greening hope to succeed?

China's growth and the environment
A homeless man in Beijing. Photo/David White


Across Beijing, at Greenpeace’s China office, locked bicycles abound. Spokesman Tom Wang is quietly spoken, in the best tradition of NGO-casual. But he betrays intensity of feeling with his revisiting of his 1970s childhood in the northwestern province of Shanxi, along the Yellow River. Once the “cradle of Chinese civilisation” with a landscape worthy of a pagodas-and-gorges classical painting, Shanxi today is immediately associated in Chinese minds with fine vinegar – thanks to its abundant fields – and coal, with a third of the local black stuff dug out of massive open-cast caverns.

“When I was a kid, I would climb the peach trees. Now coal dust breaks up all the flowers and stops the pollination. I see the soil being polluted, the air being polluted, the roads destroyed. My relatives’ houses are collapsing.” A 2009 study found the rate of birth defects in Shanxi was six times the already high Chinese national average.

Compared with Beijing, Shanghai and China’s other hubs, scant attention is paid to the provinces, less-glamorous industrial cities and towns, and coal hubs such as Inner Mongolia and Shanxi. Wang describes how as the cities of the seaboard clean themselves up, the coal is being burnt back at the source, rather than being shipped to these cities, with the electricity flowing along the grid to where it’s needed. “The pollution stays in the west. The logic is that it is cheaper, and rich people don’t want air pollution.”

China's growth and the environment
Shanghai houses. Photo/David White

Stories of environmental horror abound. By March, the 16,000 diseased pig carcasses found in a Shanghai river had replaced the smog in international news; by May, the story broke of excessive levels of cadmium, a poisonous heavy metal, in rice grown in the country’s south. In China, Greenpeace campaigns on many fronts, but particular attention is paid to coal. “Coal is the biggest problem for China,” says Wang, “and one of the biggest challenges for the whole planet.”

With the world’s third-largest share of reserves, China has cheap and abundant coal that is the dirty backstory to its economic transformation. China is the world’s largest consumer of the black stuff, which generates two-thirds of its electricity. And the environmental effects are becoming increasingly obvious. Last month, an international study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences laid bare coal’s effect on life expectancy, showing people in southern China live 5.5 years longer on average than those north of the Huai River, the symbolic north-south dividing line, above which the state distributed free coal for heating for many years.

Wang remembers the clouds of fly ash he witnessed settling on a dairy farm alongside a coal plant during a Greenpeace investigation. “I would not drink that milk.” With much of China’s coal mined on the arid plains of Mongolia, a long way from the population centres and the electricity grid of the west and south, coal “makes no sense environmentally or economically”, Wang says.

Economics are central to a Greenpeace campaign in China. “Economic language is the sort the Chinese Government understands.” A 2007 Greenpeace China report, “The True Cost of Coal”, calculated that the external costs of coal – in terms of air and water pollution, ecosystem degra­dation, infrastructure damage, human injuries and loss of life, and distorted pricing – were 7.1% of China’s GDP that year.

Also integral to a Greenpeace campaign in China, says Wang, are “solutions”. Wang has one: on the Mongolian plains, behind the black holes of the mines, you see in the background “huge gigantic wind turbines. That is the solution.”

China's growth and the environment
Shanghai street scenes. Photo/David White


Northeast of Shanxi, 70km from Beijing, in cornfields close to where the Great Wall bisects the landscape, the 33 turbines of the Guanting Wind Power Project supply power to Beijing, including, say locals, for the 2008 Olympic Games. In China’s arid north, wind is not a commodity in short supply, and such wind farms have become a common sight, spreading at a dramatic rate – wind capacity more than doubled each year from 2005 to 2010, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The farmers, whose families have tilled this soil for hundreds of years, now reap the benefits of this more lucrative crop in the form of rents paid by the Government, or land sold to the Government, to host the monsters, apparently provoking not a small amount of jealousy from city-bound relatives struggling under the weight of skyrocketing mortgages.

Greenpeace is naturally a big fan of renewable energy, to the extent that it has gained the right to market solar panels that can feed excess power into China’s national grid. And from the elevated expressways of Shanghai and Beijing it’s not hard to glimpse panels gleaming on industrial and residential roofs alike. Meanwhile, especially in China’s arid west, solar projects have offered power to some of China’s remotest off-grid communities.

Greenpeace’s enthusiasm is shared by the Chinese Government, which sees boosting cleantech as part of its economic rebalancing. The renewable-energy law, which came into force in 2006 decreeing that 15% of total energy must come from renewable energy by 2020, was an early point in China’s environmental recasting. Thanks to a green-and-red programme of subsidies and targets, China has become a renewable giant – a commodity on the rise worldwide, with generation from wind, solar, hydro and other renewable sources set to exceed that from gas and be double that of nuclear by 2016, according to a report from the International Energy Agency released in June.

China has made so much progress in renewable energy that it now leads the world. But this is driven by more than concerns over climate change or health. As China grows, so will its energy needs. It also has energy security in mind – it has no desire to emulate the West’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Yet renewables are not without their problems, as Wang’s Mongolian example shows: not all wind turbines are created equal. The turbines are not being used to capacity, he points out, or even linked to the power grid. “They are [producing] too much for Mongolia, but the state grid does not support the transfer [of the excess power].” Meanwhile, the industry has suffered in other ways, with manufacturers in the US and Europe targeting Chinese makers in trade wars, hitting the profits of Chinese producers.

But the main problem overall with renewables is that the country’s targets are not high enough, and it continues to invest too much in coal infrastructure, committing to renewables too slowly to meet its growing energy needs. The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that, thanks to the growth in renewables, coal’s share of generation will decline. But in absolute terms, China will burn 35% more coal in 2020 than it did in 2010. In real terms, China’s renewable legacy will most likely lie beyond China: with the boosting of a renewables industry for the world overall.

China's growth and the environment
Chinese police guard a government building. Photo/David White


Whether China can balance its developmental needs with its environmental ones remains to be seen. But in the meantime, much could be achieved with a better enforcement regime. At the Beijing headquarters of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, spokesman Tao Detian delivers an official but straightforward line: “Overall, the situation is quite grim.” In June, the ministry’s annual report acknowledged China’s poor air, water and land quality, with almost 60% of groundwater in 198 cities and over 30% of major rivers heavily polluted, while in only 27 of 113 cities was air quality acceptable.

Tao rattles through the range of environmental targets and standards China is adopting or is in the process of doing so. One stands out: that “although China is a developing country and growth must be maintained”, GDP targets – the past sole criterion for judging the performance and promotion of local officials, who tend to do the enforcement in China – will now have environmental targets sitting alongside. “If all else is good but environmental targets are not, we will not green-light promotion.”

The sentiment repeats President Xi’s words in June. Wang regards the Chinese Government as “very serious” in its environmental approach and is optimistic about the advantages of a centralised system, where the word of one leader can be transformed into action “very quickly”. If successful, the measure would go a long way towards removing what many see as a key blockage to environmental enforcement in China. Says Associate Professor Tsai, “Enforcement is always a problem.” In the past, local officials have tended to lose out if they gave the environment a higher priority than growth: in February an American study found that doing so actively damaged promotion prospects.

That environmental targets may not have featured so much in the past may come as news to some foreign companies in China. At Fonterra’s vast Yutian-2 containment farm east of Beijing, 3200 milking cows and 2700 calves graze their way through a diet of alfalfa and corn silage in an array of high-tech bunker barns on the flat and featureless agricultural plain. Fonterra applies New Zealand standards to its China operation, but the local Chinese environmental ones are “very high”, says Fonterra China Farms general manager Nicola Morris. “They make the Resource Management Act look easy.”

But according to Tsai, this merely underlines that China applies different standards to foreign investors than to locals: “The idea is that you are coming here to make money from us, so you better bring your best technology.”

But it’s questionable whether the changes to local officials’ requirements will make much difference to enforcing the environmental regime for local companies. The gap between national and local government is closing “slowly, very slowly. The impression is it is not being taken seriously enough.”

For Craig Simons, the author of The Devouring Dragon, a newly published examination of China’s rise and its threat to the natural world (see review here), the idea of control from the centre is best summed up through an ancient Chinese aphorism, “The mountains are high, the emperor is far away” – meaning those out of sight tend to do as they please.

China's growth and the environment
Shanghai commuters. Photo/David White


From an international perspective, China’s changing its environmental approach for economic and health reasons is one thing. The bigger question for the world is whether it will lead to any change in its climate change policy.

China’s climate-change stance is admirable in at least one aspect, Simons says, a point also made by the Economist Intelligence Unit: “In Chinese policy circles, the scientific basis of climate change is not a matter of debate, unlike in Washington DC.”

But even though the causes aren’t questioned, China has held the line that its developing-country status should allow a greater right to pollute, and did so from the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 to the United Nations climate-change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 – a time of “pure disappointment” for Greenpeace’s Wang. Although Copenhagen saw it commit to a target to reduce carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 40-50% of 2005 levels by 2020, it refused to sign an agreement on an absolute cap, saying carbon intensity and per-capita emissions were more appropriate.

That’s why reports in May that China was, for the first time, considering an absolute cap on carbon emissions from 2016 got a lot of attention. The UK’s Independent newspaper trumpeted a “transformational boost” to the battle against global warming ahead of the next United Nations Climate Change Summit in Paris in 2015, where hopes still burn for a legally binding global deal on cutting emissions – Copenhagen’s failure – to take effect from 2020.

A second, slightly more restrained report in the Financial Times quoted Jiang Kejun, a policy researcher at the National Development Reform Commission, which plays a leading role in China’s state carbon policy, speaking of a cap being linked to existing caps on coal consumption, and of an absolute cap being part of China’s next five-year plan for 2016-20.

Yet by June, hopes were fading, after chief climate-change negotiator Su Wei was reported as saying the speculation about an absolute cap did not necessarily align with official policy and dismissing talk of straying from targets based on carbon intensity.

China's growth and the environment
This farmer, like many others, is paid a monthly rent for the wind farm on his property. Photo/David White


China remains a developing country, with many developing challenges, but it is also close to superpower status in economic terms. Although it may yet succeed in rebalancing its economy in more environmentally sustainable terms, with little prospect of a carbon cap or a solid commitment to move away from coal, any prospect of a real and sustained greening may disappear, to China’s and the world’s detriment.

Ultimately it comes down to China accepting its historical moment. Says Simons: “China has to recognise where the world is today. Being a great nation often means taking on a historic responsibility. Maybe environmental protection and climate change will be China’s burden.”

Conrad Heine and David White travelled to China as guests of the New Zealand China Friendship Society.


Craig Simons’s The Devouring Dragon: How China’s Rise Threatens the Natural World is reviewed here.

China's growth and the environment
People in an inner-city Shanghai park. Photo/David White

China's growth and the environment
People in an inner-city Shanghai park. Photo/David White

China's growth and the environment
A man carts his furniture to the market. Photo/David White

China's growth and the environment
Shanghai street scenes. Photo/David White

China's growth and the environment
Shanghai street scenes. Photo/David White

China's growth and the environment
A woman poses for her wedding photos in a Shanghai back street. Photo/David White

China's growth and the environment
A Shanghai supermarket. Photo/David White

China's growth and the environment
A Shanghai street vendor. Photo/David White

China's growth and the environment
An old-style shopping centre in Shanghai. Photo/David White



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