China’s green pledges are as deep as a coat of paint

Isabel Hilton writes in the Guardian

A genearlly excellent article. As I have said before, I believe the environment is now the single-greatest issue facing China – economic growth, the wealth gap, civil rights, etc are important, but if pollution is not tackled before it is too late, any changes in those areas could well be irrelevant.

The following was one of my favourite paragraphs:

The targets sounded ambitious, but another set of figures illustrates how much room there is for improvement in China’s industrial performance. It is staggeringly wasteful. Each unit of GDP takes seven times more resources to produce than in Japan, nearly six times more than in the US and nearly three times more than in India. Even small efficiency savings would clearly yield important gains.

India is three times more efficient than China? Ouch!

Hilton then goes on to say how she believes officials will not enforce new laws, even if they are enacted. As she asks, how can we expect anyone to challenge them?

The press is constrained, the legal system is rarely independent, there is no possibility of a change of government via the ballot box and local state environmental protection bureaux come under the authority of provincial governors, whose behaviour they are meant to regulate. The only watchdogs are the infant NGOs – underfunded and vulnerable to persecution. Even at national level, environmental enforcement is the weakest branch of government.

Denial won’t change anything. The central government will have to tackle environmental issues as hard as it can, even if it leads to embarrassing news reports and trouble caused by local politicians or even residents who lose jobs as a result of factory/business closure/fines. If it sticks its head in the sand, hoping that regions will do the right thing, it is condemning China (and potentially the world) to a nightmarish future.

The Discussion: 25 Comments

Three times worse than India. That is amazingly depressing. And the Chinese government’s response to this seems to be to make it more difficult for foreign companies in high pollution industries to come into China, which will only make it easier for even greater polluting Chinese companies in those same industries to thrive.

The reality is that pollution mitigation seems to come when the people are wealthy enough to want it (look at places like Korea). In many Chinese cities that point has been reached, but the government has not yet really responded. When will things start getting better?

February 21, 2007 @ 1:48 am | Comment

Guardian (or NYT for that matter) isn’t the best in facts and figures. FT & WSJ are the best in that regard IMHO. After quite a bit googling, I can’t quite understand what exactly the seemingly nebulous concept “resources per unit of GDP” is. What does the list of resources (energy, minerals, water, land) consist of and how are they weighed?

Don’t get me wrong, I think China has a severe pollution problem. I am just trying to get my arms around the numbers and try to make sense out of it. If the author really meant energy consumption per unit of nominal GDP, according to the latest available numbers, China is about 34% more wasteful than India and about 1/3 as efficient as the US.

But hear me out, there are a couple of good reasons why India is more “energy efficient” than China:

1. India’s industry is less developed than China.
2. The GDP numbers are nominal-based. India runs a trade deficit and China runs a trade surplus. So the chances are Indian Rupee is overvalued compared to Chinese Yuan.

As to compare China and the US, you may want to compare PPP GDP (however imperfect it is) since most developing countries have undervalued currency. As to per unit of PPP GDP, the US is more wasteful than China — it’s kind of common sense if you ask me, Chinese are less indulged in McMansion and gas-guzzling SUVs, despite its industry is being far less energy efficient.

February 21, 2007 @ 2:38 am | Comment

Not to understate China’s pollution problem but a comparison base on GDP vs energy is just plainly misleading. China is the factory of the world and that means occupying the most energy intensive part of the global production chain. Of course it is more energy efficient to run water coolers and expresso machines than a factory.

Let’s say if China today employees the best technology and has the most stringent enviromental rules ENFORCED 100%, how much improvement can there be? China is still going to be at least 5 times more energy intensive than Japan.

And of course there’s the obligatory stab at China for lack of democracy for the reason of its degradation. Let’s all convenient forget the system that produce the Bush’s “Clear Sky Initiative” or the bureaucratic/political paralysis that lead to US embargo of Kyoto. Ya they need to “study” until the Kingdom comes to take any action. Democracy in the works, great. Also, I am sure North Korea has pristine mountains and smog-free sky everywhere.

Fact is, economic development and environment was never easy. It often entails some sort of trade offs. This is not a problem exclusive to China or as a direct result of China’s system. There’s crooked and corrupt officials everywhere that’s willing skimp on standards. In US that means hiring lobbying firms run by vice-president’s buddy to do your bidding.

Energy is US and China’s main challenge alike in the coming years. China has ambitious plan to switch to cleaner source of energy. Nuclear energy might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is simply the best solution out there. Phasing out all coal plants is going to take 50 years, still. This is one place US and China should cooperate.

February 21, 2007 @ 3:22 am | Comment

If China follow the norm of developed nation, she will follow the typical Kuznets Curve. The problem I am really worried about is that could China ever reach the peak of Kuznets Curve without screw up the global enviroments royally (today’s earth is not 100 years ago and resource is even more limited).

Personally I will believe Simon Kuznets’ theory than Isabel Hilton’s because guess who has a Nobel Prize!

February 21, 2007 @ 3:50 am | Comment

While we are at it, i’d like someone to show me where US stand on her energy policy. The global superpower and the number one democracy in the world should have a policy that sets the gold standard for everyone to follow. RIGHT? RIGHT?

But wait! US ain’t got one!!

Seriously though, until Bush is out of office they should stop preaching how lovely their democracy is. It will just sound like some kind of sick joke. If i could vote in China, I wouldn’t trade Hu Jiangtao or Jiang Zemin for Bush if someone were to give me a million dollars.

February 21, 2007 @ 5:51 am | Comment

“If i could vote in China”

But you can’t. And Hu/Wen wouldn’t give you the right to vote. So if you want to vote, they have to go first.

Anyway, this isn’t about democracy – it isn’t even about the US. It’s about how China is failing to address its own problems. Even if they didn’t impact on the rest of the world they would still have to be resolved.

February 21, 2007 @ 6:18 am | Comment

That’s ok! You keep Bush, I keep Hu

everyone’s happy

February 21, 2007 @ 6:41 am | Comment

I think JXie brings up a good point when he talks about the figures of resources used per dollar of nominal GDP. In that case, Hilton is merely comparing the gross volume of resources used and not their market value; a far fairer comparison would be to take the total dollar value of inputs compared to GDP output; in that case, China runs at about 75% India’s efficiency. But when the numbers are revised for PPP, China rises to parity with not only India but also exceeds the United States. So in that sense, China is actually more energy-efficient than the United States when one uses a metric other than nominal GDP (which is discounted by the undervalued RMB.)

I think it is true that China has an environmental problem; but it is not true that the problem keeps worsening. On the contrary, the energy efficiency has doubled in the past five years, and is projected to double again. Environmental problems are decreasing, and the very fact that they are brought into the limelight by the central government’s media is testament to how much the central government wants to solve the problem.

In that regard, India’s federalism may do it more harm than good as popularly elected officials tied down to specific local constituencies lack the political capital to reduce economic growth in favor of protecting the environment. Remember that the Indian industrial sector actually uses more units of energy per dollar of production than the the Chinese industrial sector; it is only because the Chinese industrial sector is 4 times larger and industry tends to use more resources that China appears less energy-efficient than India. But as India tries to lift 400 million people out of poverty over the next decade, it will have to develop polluting, labor-intensive industries, which will cause its energy index to sink while China’s continues to improve.

February 21, 2007 @ 6:58 am | Comment

I believe your feelings about China’s environmental problem is pretty spot on and unless things change, the pollution problem is going to seriously begin to negatively effect economic growth. However, I do think some of the commenters make a good point. I think the central government has put pressure on the lower levels and when it starts to see the economic costs of it, they’ll put even more pressure on them. There are also enough domestic and international NGO’s to put pressure on the government. In the big cities, attempts have already begun to improve the environment and I think it will work its way down in the next few years. Okay, I might just be overly optimistic.

February 21, 2007 @ 7:53 am | Comment

On a side issue, my favorite quotes from the comments following the article:

“While China is adopting the enterprise culture that once made Britain free & great, Britain is adopting the sort of political correctness & self criticism sessions that made Maoist China dreadful.

As evinced by the fact that the Guardian, once a liberal newspaper from Manchester, is now the politically correct mouthpiece of Britain’s nomenklatura.” (9percentGrowth)

“… the only truly serious environmental legislation in the world is China’s one-child policy. Think very seriously about that, and you will see that all the rest, wind-turbines, organic free-range eggs, carbon offsets, are trivial….” (dballardice)

February 21, 2007 @ 8:12 am | Comment

I think the US record on environmental protections, especially under this administration, has been atrocious. That said, I think the laissez-faire approach to economic growth and GDP-ism in China has resulted in some of the most polluted waterways, air, and ground soil that the world has ever seen.

Yes, the US environmental record is horrible, but like lemmings headed over a cliff, China seems blindly determined to follow the United States down a path of development that has proven unsustainable in the US and which would seem even less sustainable in China.

Surely, China with their wise but unelected leaders can do better? Sadly, they are not even trying.

February 21, 2007 @ 9:14 am | Comment

Thankfully, Falen, we don’t have to keep Bush. I am counting the days till he’s gone.

As for Hu, you don’t have a choice or a say in the matter of how long he remains at the top.

I haven’t read this article yet, but as I’ve said before, I think there are some smart, aware people in the Chinese government working on environmental issues, who understand clearly what the stakes are. The problem is, they have to be given the power and resources to actually make their good ideas stick.

February 21, 2007 @ 9:14 am | Comment

Wake up, Jeremiah.

“That said, I think the laissez-faire approach to economic growth and GDP-ism in China has resulted in some of the most polluted waterways, air, and ground soil that the world has ever seen.”

The above statement can only be brought to you by someone who’s never visited the industrial cesspools that define the developing world. China’s filthy waters and atmosphere compare as poorly as those found in Mexico City, Rio, or Mumbai.

Clean air and water is a luxury, pure and simple. It is a desirable luxury that all of us should strive to, but just like mini-skirts and DVD players, it can not be made a priority before economic development.

I use the words “can not” not out of the sort of haughty arrogance that defines your writings; I don’t mean to suggest that I intend to force my values into the lives of billions of people living an equally human existence.

I use the words “can not” in this context to mean that it can not be done. The vast majority of humans desire an increased life expectancy above all else. No low cost solution that preserves the environment has been shown to exist.

You use “laissez-faire” to describe the Chinese policy at hand. Again, probably a pretty accurate terminology… but it’s laissez-faire out of desperation, not by choice.

Some day, as economic growth continues, I assure you we’ll also have a fair share of “save the whales” bumper stickers on the back of our SUV.

February 21, 2007 @ 9:49 am | Comment

Your own Minister of SEPA, Pan Yue, has characterized China’s environmental crisis as so severe that it threatens China’s “economic miracle” – he said “China’s economic miracle will end soon” if something isn’t done.

As he sees it, the crisis is of such a huge magnitude that the costs of pollution – economic and social – outpace China’s economic growth.

February 21, 2007 @ 9:55 am | Comment

I don’t think that GDP-ism is desperation (and here I might refer you the writings of Wang Hui on the subject). I think it is a conscious choice by the CCP who have jettisoned Marxism for Reaganism: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” So long as the legitimacy of the government and the promotion of local officials is tied to rapid economic development, other priorities–environmental protections, workers’ rights, etc.–are going to suffer.

I absolutely hope that in a few years China has a fair share of “save the whale” bumper stickers (though I hope they are not on SUVs). I also hope that China takes the lead in creating a greener and more sustainable path of development. This would truly be an acheivement worthy of China’s grand past. But simply following the road of “pollute first, clean up later” that has failed so horribly elsewhere seems to me truly unworthy of such a great nation.

February 21, 2007 @ 9:57 am | Comment

“I think it is true that China has an environmental problem; but it is not true that the problem keeps worsening. On the contrary, the energy efficiency has doubled in the past five years, and is projected to double again.”

t-co: Your statement would be true if energy use stayed constant. Regardless of efficiency overall energy consumption continues to climb steeply. Why else would they be building so many new coal burning power plants.

Are you serious?

Environmental problems are far from decreasing. The rate at which they are increasing is possibly slowing, which is a good thing, but let’s not get too excited here.

February 21, 2007 @ 9:57 am | Comment

I’d also add…look at the costs of a single incident – the benzene spill in the Song Hua. In addition to the direct cost of cleaning it up, what will the future health consquences be? What about the decline in fishing stock in the river, the lack of potable water? And that’s just one incident.

When you have lung cancer as a leading cause of death among urban young people (yes, I know smoking is also a major contributor) and cancer clusters in villages, where the villagers can no longer grow crops on their polluted lands, desertification that causes choking dust storms every spring in Beijing, and on and on and on…

Well, I’d say “clean air” and the like hardly qualify as a luxury.

February 21, 2007 @ 10:02 am | Comment

has anyone in beijing looked out their bloody window this morning? all i can see is white, and that ain’t fog. beijing is far to dry to ever develop any real fog, and it smells strongly of coal. i am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination, but it looks excessively bad today. i don’t want to go outside.

February 21, 2007 @ 10:32 am | Comment

Strange worldview in which breathable air and nonpoisonous food and water qualify as luxury.
Is the situation becoming better? I am skeptical. With a new coal fired power plant taking up work and another 1000 new car hitting Beijing’s roads nearly every day I don’t see how it could.
Wonder how green those Olympics will be.

OtherLisa: where do you have the information from that lung cancer is a major death cause among Chinas youth?

February 21, 2007 @ 9:43 pm | Comment


“On the contrary, the energy efficiency has doubled in the past five years, and is projected to double again. Environmental problems are decreasing,”

I think you mean that the rate of environmental degradation is decreasing, but that is not nearly enough to prevent the unfolding nightmare.

February 21, 2007 @ 9:58 pm | Comment


“On the contrary, the energy efficiency has doubled in the past five years, and is projected to double again. Environmental problems are decreasing,”

I think you mean that the rate of environmental degradation is decreasing, but that is not nearly enough to prevent the unfolding nightmare.

February 21, 2007 @ 9:59 pm | Comment

whoops!! sorry. Worth saying twice, though.

February 21, 2007 @ 10:00 pm | Comment


~”But simply following the road of “pollute first, clean up later” that has failed so horribly elsewhere seems to me truly unworthy of such a great nation.~

Has it really failed “so horribly”? China is following the same path of industrialization that has defined every modern developed nation. Are there any nations (with a comparable population demographic) that have managed to achieve wealth without going after the low-hanging fruit first? The United States and the UK went through a revolutionary process very similar to what China is seeing today, with the benefit of a population approximately a tiny percentage that of modern China.

For every contaminated river in China, there are 10,000 jobs created that pay far better than working the family plot. For every day of smog, there are 10,000 Chinese living in greater physical comfort.

At some point, the balance will change, and we can really begin to demand for environmental reforms the same way some of us already demand DVD players and mini-skirts. Until then, don’t expect the Chinese to demand anything less than what the rest of humanity has always wanted.

February 22, 2007 @ 1:09 am | Comment

Sonagi, that’s one of those stats I recall reading and would have to search for – which I probably should have done rather than quoting it off the top of my head.

CCT, when I came back from China in 1980, I tried to point out to some radical American “Maoists” (they were members of a group called the RCP and big supporters of the Gang of 4) that people in China wanted to have some of the things that we all had and took for granted, and that there was nothing wrong with such aspirations in the slightest. However, poisoning millions of your own people doesn’t seem like a very good trade-off to me, and being rich doesn’t insulate you from pollution. A friend from Beijing told me recently that a lot of those new suburbs where the wealthy are living have a big problem with heavy metals in the water supply. Whether this is true or just an urban rumor, I can’t say. But everyone breathes the same air regardless.

The difference between “pollute first, clean up later” when earlier nations industrialized and today is a matter of scale. China – and India as well – have many times the populations of earlier countries that went through this process. The consequences of rampant pollution are far more serious to the local and global environments. We are talking about pollution that is killing entire ecosystems – as an example, what percentage of China’s rivers are considered “dead” now? These are not problems that can easily be “cleaned up” and in fact may be irreversible. At some point, the costs of this pollution outweigh the economic benefits created by the development – and I’d say we’re just about there.

February 22, 2007 @ 1:33 am | Comment

Lisa is right.

It was possible for countries with smaller populations to grow as they did because it was a more gradual process. However because technology has advanced so much, today growth can occur faster. But the pace of change is so rapid that it has a bad effect for the population and the world as a whole. This is why a different approach must be taken.

Something I’ve said before here, if China continues with its current path of growth by the time it has a similar GDP per head to the US/Europe, it will consume 110% of the world’s current oil production according to recent environmental studies. So, CCT, unless you want to see a series of global resource wars it is most definitely in China’s interest to take a more environmentally friendly and sustainable road to economic growth.

February 27, 2007 @ 10:36 pm | Comment

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