Articles / Rubric: Global

An Environmentally Conscious China
November 2013 | Global

If it is indeed a threat to us, the problem of Earth’s overpopulation is a long ways off. But signs of global warning caused by greenhouse gases and the depletion of the ozone layer are being observed now. China is responsible for most of the pollution on a global scale, but they are readily starting to develop their environmental legislation. But skeptics agree that the pace of China’s “consciousness” is too slow and this is having a destructive impact on the country’s macroeconomic indicators.

The emission of greenhouse gases has a detrimental effect not just for China’s ecology, but for the world’s as well. In 1990, China accounted for approximately 10% of total global greenhouse gases, but today that figure is closer to 30%. While America and Europe are collectively reducing their emissions by 60 tons per year, China is increasing theirs by more than 500 tons per year. Additionally, China alone currently is responsible for two-thirds of the global increase in carbon dioxide emissions.

This growth of harmful emissions is proportional to the country’s rapid industrialization. Experts believe that had China committed to reduce emissions in 1999 under the Kyoto Protocol, it would have reduced its annual growth by 2-3%.

Marlo Lewis, a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, spoke to WEJ about why it previously wasn’t possible for China to be environmentally responsible: “According to the Kyoto Protocol, limits on harmful emissions for industrial countries should have been cut to 5% of 1990 levels by 2008-2012. For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that China’s CO2 level in 1990 was 2.4 billion tons a year. By 2012, that figure was already 8.994 billion tons, representing a 274% jump. That means that China could hypothetically only make a commitment under the Kyoto Protocol if it deindustrialized its economy. How strong has China’s economy grown in recent years? According to the EIA International Energy Outlook 2013 (IEO2013), China’s GDP grew from $5.3873 trillion in 2005 to $10.7359 trillion in 2012. That’s a growth of 99%. Not surprisingly, emissions grew in parallel just as quickly alongside the GDP. Now, the growth of harmful emissions in China has fallen slightly, but China’s economic growth is still directly tied to the consumption of fossil fuels. Even Kyoto’s “soft” target to limit emissions to 25% more than 2005 emissions levels would have cut trillions in GDP growth in the years following 2005.”

The problem also lies in the tremendous resource-intensity of the Chinese economy. China accounts for 16% of total global energy production, yet consumes 40-50% of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel, aluminum, and zinc. According to the EIA, oil consumption in China grew 84% from 6.5 million barrels per day in 2005 to 12 million barrels per day in 2012. Gas consumption grew nearly 130% from 2 trillion cubic feet in 2005 to 4.6 trillion cubic feet in 2011.

Apart from the fact that the environment in China is significantly worse off than in other developing countries, Chinese business is exporting its pollution to other countries as well. No one should be surprised that along with the advent of Chinese corporations in third world countries came ecological problems. It was recently learned that an oil spoil near forest lands in Chad was the fault of a Chinese state oil corporation.


Robert Sicina, Professor at American University, said that “Chinese companies outside of China act even worse than those at home. China in general is not a responsible global citizen. Once you analyze their actions, you realized they are more engaged in exploitation than development. Look at their ‘investments’ in Africa and it becomes clear right away that Chinese companies are using a model that other multi-national companies left behind decades ago. Chinese business works without paying attention to the environment for the sake of maximizing profits. This applies equally to both private companies and state-owned corporation.”

A Turning Point

China’s problems with water resources are well known. Besides the fact that China’s rivers and lakes are polluted with industrial waste, there simply aren’t enough water reserves. By international standards, it’s considered a “serious water deficit” when there is less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year. In China, this figure is just 450 cubic meters and in Beijing it’s a scarce 100. Four-fifths of the country’s water resources are located in the south, in the Yangtze River Basin, yet half the population and two-thirds of agricultural land are in the arid north. But the stimulus to attracting widespread attention to the environmental disaster in China was destined to be an event not involving water directly.

At the beginning of 2013, a thick, foul-smelling smog settled over Beijing for several weeks, caused by pollution from 200 thermal power plants in the area. Also playing a large role in the pollution of Beijing’s air were the more than 5 million automobiles that travel daily on the city’s streets. The concentration of particles 2.5 microns or tinier reached 900 particles per million, or 40 times over the level the World Health Organization considers safe. It was this event that became a sort of Rubicon and marked the beginning of a series of mass protests that eventually led to a decision by the Chinese government to carry out a number of environmental reforms. In a study published in the summer of 2013, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found evidence that the air in northern China reduces life expectancy on average by five and a half years.

Apart from the obvious hazards, the environmental situation in China has a direct impact on its economy. Data from the World Bank shows that government spending associated with attempts to cope with the degradation of the environment and resources today is equal to 9% of GDP.

In three weeks starting in mid-June, the government announced a series of reforms to cap air pollution. The reforms provided for the introduction of stricter penalties on environmental crimes and, in addition to their other duties, local officials are now responsible for the quality of the air in their regions. Moreover, it was announced that the government will allocate $275 billion over the next five years to clean up the air. This amount of money is total to Hong Kong’s GDP, or twice the size of the defense sector’s budget.

Gone are the days when economic growth was achieved by building up manufacturing capacity without regard to the environment. Yet in the face of declining growth rates, China must combine its efforts to stimulate economic growth with ecological improvements. To do this, China has focused on reducing carbon emission intensity. Over the past five years, this figure has dropped by 20% and the government plans to decrease it to 40-45% by 2020 compared to 2005. This has only been possible thanks to a program to introduce more efficient use of energy in thousands of major, state-owned enterprises.

Another important aspect of Chinese policy has been the widespread implementation of renewable energy production, the goal of which is to generate 20% of all energy needs by 2020. Investments in this project are quite staggering. In 2012 alone, the government spent $67 billion on this ambitious goal, or three times more than Germany spends on alternative energy. It has been officially announced that by 2015, the development of wind power will reach 100 gigawatts and solar power will reach 35 gigawatts.

Text: Olga Irisova


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