By Paolo von Schirach
May 23, 2013
WASHINGTON – For many (and not too good reasons) Western intellectuals truly believe the fantasy of all knowing, supposedly benevolent, authoritarian but “wise” leaders who behind the scenes quietly concoct far reaching strategies that will benefit all humankind. Just like Plato’s Philosopher-King, these benevolent leaders are never moved by issues of power or greed . No, they just put in place the “right” policies for “the people”. Insn’t that comforting?
The “Good Policies”
And when the wise leaders announce measures that seem to be in perfect sync with the prevailing conventional wisdom already embraced by all “progressive intellectuals” in the West, then there is a chorus of approval. And this is precisely the case with supposedly enlightened pro-environment policies launched by China’s leaders.
There you have it: China’s “Green Leap Forward“. It consists of massive investments in green technologies, starting with renewable energy. And so China almost overnight became the paragon of virtue. While here in America we are still in the dark ages, unhappy prisoners of the devious lobbyists working for wicked Exxon and Chevron, China’s virtuous leaders are busy building wind farms and solar panels. So, we are behind. They, the truly enlightened, are ahead. Wise leaders, happily unencumbered by the mundane worries of running for re-election, have the chance of seeing the “Big Picture”. And so, they do “The Right Thing”, for China and for the world.
All very nice. Except that it is not true. Let me explain. It is not entirely false. But it is mostly false. It is true that China is investing massively in renewable energy. And it may very well be true that some Chinese top policy makers do understand the need to develop workable alternatives to carbon based energy.
But it is also true that China is and will remain a gigantic polluter. Chinese environmental standards regarding energy are very relaxed. Chinese diesel has more than 20 times the pollutants allowed in supposedly super dirty America. Yes, you got that right. Chinese fuels foul the air big time. And why so? Because it would cost a lot of money to upgrade refineries so that they would produce cleaner fuels. Got the idea? The short term gain of making money selling dirty stuff prevails over any considerations regarding cleaner air.
In case we forgot, China managed its massive industrialization without any concern whatsoever for environmental protection, at a time in which ignorance about the consequences of these totally irresponsible policies could not be used as an excuse.
In other words, driven by the desire to “make the growth numbers” China’s leaders willfully destroyed the environment, knowing exactly what they were doing. Sure enough, now some realize the extent of the damage. But they have to fight against those who still couldn’t care less about pollution, while they most greedily look at production figures and net profits, without any concern for environmental consequences.
Water and air pollution
And here is the true picture. In China most of the (scarce) fresh water supply is polluted. Most of China’s large metropolitan areas have bad to horrible air quality. So much so that until recently the authorities refused to publish real air quality data, for fear of adverse public reactions. Data on soil pollution is not publicly available, because it is a state secret. There are millions of premature deaths due to pollution. Many Chinese do not trust made in China processed foods because they are afraid of illegal chemicals used by producers.
Yes, there are laws in China. And there is also corruption. Inspectors are paid off, standards are not upheld. The only hope here is in the real proliferation of genuine grass roots environmental movements created by semi-desperate citizens who fight against pollution. These movements are numerous and quite vocal.
High production rates v. higher environmental standards
In summary, of course China produces state of the art solar panels. But then there are all the powerful vested interests that pull in the opposite direction. If China wants to continue industrial production at the current rate or close to it, it will continue to be a super polluter. Retrofitting tens of thousands of industrial facilities, smelters and refineries, while claening up rivers and lakes, would have immense costs and it would slow down growth. The wise leaders have not resolved this issue. The “Green Leap Forward” is at best an aspiration, at worst just propaganda.