In 2004, Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, published a sweeping indictment of China’s environmental policy in her book The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future. She described how a centuries-old tradition of trashing the earth, exacerbated by China’s helter-skelter economic expansion since the late 1970s, had led to devastation: erosion, flooding, desertification, water and food crises, shrinking forests, and air and water pollution. "China’s leaders were well aware that they were trading environmental health for economic growth," she wrote.
Since then, a lot has happened. Soon after her book was published, China surpassed the United States as the world’s leading producer of carbon emissions, which has served as a better-late-than-never wake-up call to China’s leaders and to activists all over the world, who point out that global warming could swamp China’s coastal regions and devastate its food production. Tens of thousands of rural grassroots protests against pollution and environmental collapse erupted in China, threatening political stability. Gradually it dawned on Chinese leaders that the country had no choice but to shift toward a more earth-friendly and sustainable path. In particular, Economy says today, China has taken important steps to address climate change. "It is significant," she says. "It represents a real change in China’s climate change policy. When they became the world’s biggest emitter in 2007, that was like putting a big red X on their forehead. They had nobody to hide behind at that point."
The core of China’s environmental paradox is that the vast country must do two things at once: continue to industrialize while simultaneously sharply limiting carbon emissions. "They have to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and stop polluting at the same time," says David Yarnold, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund. "These are huge challenges, and the question is, How do they confront both?" As Chinese officials often point out, on a per capita basis China produces less than one-fourth of the carbon produced by the United States. In advance of the Copenhagen climate summit last December, China pledged to make huge voluntary reductions in energy use on a per-unit-of-GDP basis by 2020. Even so, as its economy expands, its per capita emission rate is certain to increase, and its contribution to worldwide emissions will grow. And despite China’s increased interest in solar, wind, hydroelectric, nuclear and other carbon-free technologies, its consumption of oil and coal is rising fast.
"The fact remains that coal is the backbone of their energy system," says Mark Hertsgaard, journalist and author of the forthcoming book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. "They get three-fourths of their electricity from coal."
But representatives of US-based NGOs in China say Beijing is finally starting to take its environmental challenges seriously. Ailun Yang, climate campaign manager for Greenpeace China in Beijing, told The Nation that over the past few years the threat of air and water pollution and food-safety issues has finally begun to sink in. "I think the top-level government officials have started to get the idea that if you only develop the economy while neglecting the environment, you will start to see the limits of economic development, because the model is not sustainable," she says. "About five years ago you started to see a wholesale change in rhetoric about the environment from Chinese officials, about how we have to balance economic development with environmental protection." Yet implementation remains a big problem, because China does not yet have an effective nationwide enforcement capability, and some provincial and local officials are loath to sacrifice economic growth to curb pollution, environmental activists say.
Still, Barbara Finamore, director of the China Clean Energy Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, agrees that things are changing. This is partly a result of strong popular pressure, both from rural protests and from a growing awareness among the urban middle class that things have to change. "I think the desire to ensure social stability is behind a lot of the actions that China is taking," Finamore says.
In recent years China has moved aggressively to research, develop and manufacture a wide range of renewable energy technology, including solar panels and wind turbines; has pushed faster development of electric cars; and is shutting down its most inefficient steel factories and coal-burning power plants. Beijing has also tried, with limited success, to implement a series of laws and a regulatory framework that often meets fierce resistance from provincial and local leaders. "This is a country that is applying the rule of law across the board in a way that it didn’t five years ago," says Yarnold. He adds that China’s leaders see an enormous opportunity to become the world leader in clean-energy technologies. "The government realizes that green energy technology is the new Industrial Revolution," he says. "They say, We missed the first one, and we’re not going to miss this one."
There’s an irony in that, of course. Critics of China’s export-driven economic growth say that a big part of the country’s advantage has come from its historic lack of environmental regulations, which allows it to make products more cheaply. Unless the United States moves quickly to develop a government-backed green-tech jobs program, China may soon make billions of dollars exporting mass-produced solar panels and windmills to the United States. "We need a strong national policy," says Finamore. "China has done that. The United States has not." —R.D.