Modern Chinese history

China's Environmental Policies

Modern Chinese history

Christopher Henson is a teacher who spent six months at Liaoning University in China. This article sets out the work in progress to manage and improve China's environment. Reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine (2010).

China is doing much to improve the environmental situation and is a world leader in many aspects of environmental protection and provision of renewable energy. According to US research figures, China is the world leader in investment in 'clean energy.'

China has regularly posted new economic landmarks during the past year, most recently when it passed Japan to become the world's second largest economy (by aggregate GNP) in July this year. Other notable achievements include becoming the world's largest automobile market - General Motors sold more new cars in China last year than in the United States - and whether you view that as positive news or not, it is certainly excellent news for Detroit. Earlier this year, too, China overtook Germany as the world's largest exporter, a title Germany had in turn taken from the United States in 2003. In 2011, IHS Consulting - the owner of Janes' military reports - forecasts that China will replace the United States as the world's largest manufacturing economy. Many of the predictions made by Martin Jacques in his 2009 book about the ongoing economic rise of China are becoming true even earlier than he had anticipated.

As might be expected, China also became the world's largest energy consumer in 2010, according to the International Energy Agency. China's consumption of energy in 2009 from all sources (wind, petroleum, gas, coal, solar) was equivalent 2.265 billion tons of oil. The US figure was 2.169 billion tons though on a per capita basis Americans consume more than 5 times the energy than Chinese. China's Ministry of Environmental Protection sounded a warning: “Fast economic development is leading to increasing conflicts with the capacity of the environment to absorb demands”. And for the first time, China's dependence on imported oil exceeded 50%.

Other indicators are less positive. China's problems are unfortunately as proportionally large as its successes and food security is one of the most pressing. Environmental damage to natural resources associated with the country's rapid economic successes is severe and will cost an enormous sum of money to put right.

Chinese smog
Chinese smog © Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

A contributing problem is a growing imbalance between cultivable land and population growth in China. With 22% of the world's population, just 14% of China's territory is suitable for agriculture and that percentage is decreasing as urbanization increases. According to a 2006 Xinhua News Agency report, most of the land being lost to construction in eastern China is rated as "higher-quality agricultural" land. Of the remaining arable land only 28% is classified as high-yielding farmland while 32% is classified as low-yielding. According again to Xinhua, China's arable land area translates to 0.027 hectares a head, which is less than 40% of the world per capita average. So while the pressure is on Chinese agriculture to deliver food security the main resource from which it can do so - arable land - is steadily diminishing.

Water resources are also under pressure from both global and local causes. Industrial pollution may be in theory the easiest to solve since it would require simply refocusing government resources and policy to repair the damage. More serious is the evidence of fundamental deterioration in the increasing incidence of severe drought in the northern and southern agricultural areas, and the retreat of glaciers in Tibet. Whether natural or man-made, global climate change is evidently the cause and cooperative global action is the only way forward. China is developing initiatives in two areas of energy policy that are yielding interesting and important benefits for Chinese society and business.

The first relates to the reduction of CO2 emissions and its replacement with "clean" (non greenhouse gases) energy. The clearest manifestation of this policy is in the replacement of petroleum-burning energy production plants with hydro power. The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze in Hubei is the largest of these projects but is just one of many. Eight major hydroelectric dams are planned on one stretch of the Lan Cang River (known as the Mekong when it exits China) through Yunnan province. Three of them are already in operation and two are nearing completion. The target for clean energy production is 15% of all energy consumed by 2020, up from a realized 7% in 2008. The target is ambitious but so is the initiative which is rapidly developing into the creation of new renewable energy industries.

In 2009, China became the largest manufacturer of wind turbines in the world and since 2008 has also been the world's largest supplier of solar panels. The development of the solar energy industry in China is benefiting from a “brain drain reversal” described by the International Herald-Tribune in a March business report. China is the largest single market for clean energy technology and is constantly upgrading its own power generation facilities with current equipment. In 2009 the PRC government invested $440 billion in clean energy projects. Coupled with the country's reservoir of relatively low paid, highly skilled engineers and favourable investment and subsidy programmes for such industries, companies like Applied Materials of California, NatCore of New Jersey and Vestas of Denmark are relocating and building their main production facilities in China.

The pace is similarly frenetic in nuclear power where China currently has 11 reactors in operation and plans to build ten more each year for the next decade. Large investments designed to promote the use of electric cars and something called “straddle buses” are about to be launched. A straddle bus is designed to literally 'straddle' one lane of freeway traffic and carry as many passengers as 40 conventional buses thus saving the 860 tons of fuel consumed annually and preventing 2,640 tons of carbon emissions.

The second initiative is concerned with maximizing energy efficiency. Not as sexy as solar panels perhaps but it recognizes that the structural imbalances, as they are called, in the economy have to be negotiated out.

In a system which has for thirty years rewarded managers for growing GDP, and penalized them for not doing so, any sudden change of direction will not be well-supported.

China currently relies on coal and coal-powered plants for about 70% of its energy production. That will not change overnight and it would be dangerous to assume it could. Nor has the PRC government's commitment to improving the material well-being of the average Chinese citizen changed. Though the country may rank second in the world in terms of aggregate GNP, it ranks about 93rd in GNP-per capita. Consequently targets are set differently. The 11th Five Year Plan that began in 2006 set a target of reducing the overall energy consumption of the economy by 20%. The targets are enforced and plants which cannot meet them are closed. The Guangzhou Steel Mill, one of China's largest and oldest mills, will be closed down in stages beginning this year but two more mills with similar problems have been temporarily reprieved following angry worker demonstrations. Beijing is not Brussels.

The mainstream Western press does not seem to understand how poorly served their readers are by the Eurocentric coverage of Chinese opinion that it offers us. Comments like those made by PRC Premier Wen Jiabao in 2008, when he noted that the West should not consider that it had solved its pollution problems by simply moving the industrial processes to China, represent a valid point. The melting of glaciers everywhere is a global problem. The PRC government's actions demonstrate how seriously they consider the challenge.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2010, reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 27, 2010

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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