Can China Fix Its Environmental Disaster? Enormous sums will be spent; yet it may be too late. Lower economic growth will have political consequences

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By Paolo von Schirach

August 11, 2013

WASHINGTON – China is indeed “The World’s Worst Polluter“, as The Economist newsmagazine put it in its cover story (August 10th-16th, 2013). The implications are bone chilling for the Chinese people who are forced to breathe foul air and who cannot drink their water. But the rest of the world will also pay a huge price, given the enormous impact of China’s massive emissions on the planet. Indeed, the earth is getting close to a tipping point. Scientists indicate that we humans should do our best to keep carbon dioxide levels below 450 part per million. Well, we are now at 400 part per million. And most of the increase is due to China’s emissions. Put it differently, unless China reverses its course, even the combined efforts of the rest of the world may be not enough to avoid climate change Armageddon.  

Growth now, at any cost

Of course, we do know what happened. Over the last 30 years China pursued relentless industrialization, with total disregard as to how it was doing it. In other words: zero environmental protection standards. The goal was growth, fast growth, whatever the cost. Environmental protection measures costs money. This would slow us down. Therefore, no protection.

China’s apologists say that, in its noble pursuit of higher standards of living for hundreds of million of poor people, China was no different from Britain, the USA or Japan: “High growth now, stricter environmental standards later”. So, what’s the big deal about China’s behavior?

Lessons of experience were ignored

This exculpation is totally disingenuous. The truth is that when older manufacturing economies in the West were pursuing higher growth, the extent of the environmental damage their industries were causing was not well understood. But, beginning in the 1960s, policy makers in America, Europe and Japan began to understand it. And they started taking remedial action, while setting new standards that industries would have to abide by. 

Therefore, given  more than 40 years of Western environmental protection studies, enactment of new policies and consequent appreciation of the actual cost of cleaning polluted soil, air and water, China’s policy-makers cannot seriously claim that they had no idea that what they were doing in the 1980s and 1990s would cause serious, in fact horrible, damage.

Because of the well documented and analyzed Western experience, they knew about pollution, its consequences, the high cost of fixing it, and therefore the importance of preventing it. But they simply did not  care. And when it comes to the scale of the damage the Chinese caused, what they have done does not even remotely compare with what Europe or Japan did in the 1960s or 1970s, simply because of size. China is an enormous country of 1.3 billion. Just to cite one factor, most of its electricity comes from dirty, coal-fired plants. In order to provide electricity to all these people, not to mention hundreds of thousands of industrial plants that fueled the export-led economy, China became the largest user of high polluting coal in the world. As a result, beyond the Chinese people, now the entire world suffers the consequences of China’s emissions. 

Serious clean up efforts?

That said, what are China’s leaders going to do? Now that pollution has become a front burner public policy issue, the Government is trying to show that is really working on it. As the cited The Economist story explains, massive clean up investments have been announced, along with new regulations, strict enforcement standards, etc.

Obviously all this new activism is as much about politics as it is about caring for the environment. The Chinese people, especially the new and better educated middle class, understand that higher standards of living are of no value when the city dwellers are forced to breathe the most polluted air on earth. At some point, China’s scattered but vocal grass-roots environmental movements may morph into organized political resistance. And this is a huge worry for the Beijing leadership.     

Powerful resistance

But, while we have literally tens of million Chinese clamoring for clean air and clean water, while worrying about contaminated food, there are equally powerful interests that will resist meaningful change. The big manufacturers, the big utilities, all the super polluters have no intention to spend fabulous sums of money to clean up their mess. And, even assuming that will be forced to do this, the Communist Party leadership understands that making environmental clean up a top investment priority at least in the short and medium terms will result in slower growth. And this awareness clearly creates another political problem. The very legitimacy of China’s  leadership rests on its ability to deliver consistent high growth. If China’s economy slows down substantially, this is likely to create discontent and disillusionment.

Unpleasant political outcomes

So, there you have it. This is a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” most unenviable situation.  Whichever way you look at it, China’s growth will be less potent, while its dreadfully damaged environment will improve only a little bit, and at a very high cost.

Frankly, my hunch is that the environmental damage already caused is so huge that it is probably irreversible. At best, provided sustained efforts and fabulous amounts of money, China may be able to stabilize  a very bad situation. But the price of any improvement will be lower economic growth. And that carries negative political consequences.

Indeed, as this massive clean up effort will unfold, millions of Chinese will have reasons to complain about persistent pollution and/or the impact of permanent damage, while at the same time complaining about slower economic growth and diminished opportunities.

I really have no idea how Beijing plans to manage all this.

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