Today's date:
Summer 2006

Growth vs. Ecological Calamity in China

Pan Yue, the vice chairman of China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), is widely applauded abroad for his open acceptance of China’s environmental problems and widely disliked in the Communist Party.

Beijing—In the past 25 years the annual growth in our economy has been about 9 percent. That’s quite a record. But as known to us all, this record economic development was based on the cost and exploitation of the environment and resources. Our energy consumption per unit of GDP is six times as much as that in the United States and 3.8 times even that in India. Hence the (relative) pollution discharged in China is about 12 times the world average, because labor efficiency is also pretty low in China. But the carrying capacity of the environment in this regard is much lower. For example, emissions of sulfur dioxide in China are 22.54 million tons while the carrying capacity of the environment is only 12 million tons. That means pollution overwhelms the environment.

While most other pollutants are being brought under control, in the past year sulfur dioxide emissions have gotten worse. The overall investment in pollution control has been $50 billion (US) in the last five-year plan (2000–2005), about 1.3 percent of GDP in China. And over the next five years there will be a tremendous increase in environment protection.

In addition, two-fifths of the seven major river basins in China are basically polluted, and 90 percent of rivers running through cities suffer from very severe pollution problems. Over 300 million rural residents do not have access to purified water, one-third of Chinese territory is suffering from pollution and the effects of acid rain, and two-thirds of our people are faced with poor air quality.

In addition to this, China is also faced with other new and emerging environmental issues, such as electronic waste. One-third of our territory is suffering from water and soil erosion. Our biodiversity is also facing significant losses.

“DEVELOP FIRST” IS A BAD IDEA | In the next 50 years China is aiming to have a “well-off” society, which can be translated into a quadrupling of GDP. So if we maintain the current production and consumption patterns, energy consumption and pollution will also increase fourfold. And as is well known, in recent months we suffered from a chemical spill accident on the Songhua River (in China’s northeast). Therefore our environmental problems have created very adverse and unpleasant results.

Even in the three or four months following the Songhua River accident, there have been 70 water pollution accidents, and so one of the conclusions we can draw is that if we keep the production and consumption patterns, the more rapidly the economy grows, the more rapidly we will have environmental problems. Environmental crisis is coming to China earlier than expected, especially water pollution.

When analyzing the reason behind this environmental crisis, one could easily come to the conclusion that there might be some technology-related reasons behind it, that there might be poor local environmental protection, or insufficient institutional mechanisms and arrangements. However, as I see it, the problem is elsewhere: The key point is that some of the leaders in the Chinese government have an incorrect concept of development, and some of them have incorrect evaluation systems.

Some leaders misunderstand development patterns and follow the track of “develop first and treat the pollution later.” They think that by developing the economy in a narrow sense all other problems will be solved, including those in politics, society, culture, population, environment and resources. However, that seems to be impossible.

If you take the old track of develop first and treat pollution later, we cannot sustain our development. The reason behind any validity of this (old-track) development pattern is Western countries. During the period of their development, when they, too, were following the old track, the environmental costs of their progress were buried at a global level and were transferred to other countries. However, under the current situation, China cannot effectively transfer its resource or environmental costs to other countries.

In addition, Western countries started to solve the problem of environment when the per capita income reached $8,000 to $10,000 (US). However, in China, we have to start the environmental protection under the situation where our per capita income is only $3,000 (using purchasing power parity), which is pretty small, because the environmental crisis here is interwoven with other crises.

Despite the old-track thinking of some, the current leadership in China, I think, has now fully recognized the significance of this issue. It has created a list of priorities for the future, and “sustainable development” is at its core.

As Premier Wen Jiabao pointed out in his government’s recent report to the People’s Congress, China will have to change its production and consumption patterns to pursue sustainable development, including through building a less-polluting “online” society. In Premier Wen’s report, GDP growth as well as the reduction in energy consumption and pollution have been equally emphasized for the first time.

In short, we are now trying to move from a model of economic development with a cost on the environment to a new pattern where we optimize the economy through the environment. This does not mean stop the economic growth or even reduce economic growth for the sake of the environment. Once there is this transition in fact and in people’s minds, we could produce a greener GDP, and the new opportunities provided by environmental protection will produce more economic growth.

THE WEST’S ECO-BILL | As I have mentioned, the industrialization of currently developed countries has ended up with a bill that is paid by the world, by all countries in the world. And even now 20 percent of the world’s people, mainly in Western countries, are consuming 80 percent of the world’s resources. Under the world system, as established or formulated by the developed countries, developing countries have no choice but to develop their economies on industrial lines, starting with sectors that have high energy and resource consumption and high pollution. On one hand, developed countries, not necessarily the US by itself but all the other countries, are transferring their industries with heavy pollution to developing countries, including China, and, on the other hand, they are not encouraging their industry to transfer their energy-saving and environmentally friendly industries and technologies to developing countries.

On one hand, they have not even fulfilled their commitments of environmental protection assistance to developing countries, and, on the other hand, they are blaming developing countries for their environmental quality and establishing some green-trade barriers.

We will not follow the old track of developed countries and transfer our high-polluting industries to countries even poorer than China. If the developed countries share the same wish, I would like to call upon them to help developing countries, including China, to improve their environment. By doing this they will also be helping themselves. This is an urgent call for assistance, especially since environment agencies in countries like China do not enjoy much influence.

THE AUTO THREAT | If we follow the current track of consumption and production patterns and develop the automobile industry in China, all the resources in China and the rest of the world together could not support an automobile industry (and automobile culture) in China.

Although the automobile industry has produced a lot of GDP growth in a lot of industries, the industry has also caused a tremendous environmental and resource problem. There are 600,000 cars in Hong Kong, 900,000 in Shanghai, but 2.2 million in Beijing, and a lot of them have been bought just in the last three years. So now the major reason behind the air-quality problem in Beijing is the automobile industry. Also, we could never build enough highways to support or sustain such big numbers of automobiles in China.

ECOLOGICAL REFUGEES | A year or two ago I said that I was sent some reports by some scholars which said “there will be some ecological refugees,” end of quote. But as for the specific figure being either 150 million or 15 million—it’s not very accurate without any official calculation to back it up. So I believe there was a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of my words, as officially I am not in a position to estimate the specific figure.

Yet, under the current resource and environmental situation—globally, and not just in China—it’s inevitable that we will see environmental refugees or migrants. It is not possible to avoid this, and China is not an exception.