I. The People
Increased Public Participation:
Success and Limits to “People Power”
In the last decade or so, as more and more Chinese are personally affected by problems such as the lack of safe drinking water, and illnesses due to pollution, they have become increasingly vocal and active about environmental issues. While there are official channels for citizen complaints (such as the Office of Letters and Visits), large public protests appear to have become the recourse of choice. Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, it is estimated that there are over tens of thousands of environmental protests a year (the official count of 51,000 pollution-triggered “public disturbances” in 2005 are assumed by many to be underestimated).
Two of the more attention-getting mass demonstrations in 2007 — one in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen by residents opposed to the construction of a chemical factory, and another in Shanghai by residents opposed to the extension of the magnetic levitation train line through their neighborhood — actually garnered enough official attention to shelve or “reassess” the project, at least for the time being.
Growing Environmental Movement:
Environmental NGOs and Litigation
There has been a rapidly growing environmental movement in China in the last decade. More than 3,000 environmental NGOs, many led by dedicated Chinese in their thirties and forties, have developed since 1994 that have sought to, among other things: educate as many as possible, including those in remote areas of China about the environment; protest dam constructions; help those harmed by pollution to gain access to medical care and to launch lawsuits; and bring attention to multinationals not acting according to existing environmental standards. Environmental lawyers have also started to litigate class-action lawsuits. Some examples of Chinese environmental NGOs include:
• The Beijing-based NGO Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs publishes an air pollution map and a water pollution map that chart pollution levels in different provinces, as well as databases of factories and companies that have broken environmental regulations.
• Green Society Environmental Action Network
• Green Camel Bell in Gansu Province
• Green Watershed in Kunming, Yunnan Province
• China’s Green Beat creates short user-friendly films to promote environmental causes in China.
II. The Government
Addressing Environmental Problems Head On:
A Matter of Political and Economic Survival
Ever since Hu Jintao became President in 2003, China’s top leadership has realized that addressing its environmental problems is now a necessity and a matter of political and economic survival: not only do citizen riots over pollution threaten the legitimacy and control of the Communist Party, energy and water shortages resulting in declining productivity and transportation delays as well as the world’s rejection of contaminated goods can slow economic growth.
China often argues, especially when it is criticized internationally, that the West bears some responsibility for the world and China’s environmental problems, and that China should not be required unilaterally to sacrifice its economic growth to solve a problem created by wealthy countries which polluted their way to prosperity (some in China see in this “double standard” an attempt by the West to contain China’s growth). But the Chinese leadership recognizes, much more than many in the West give it credit for, that it cannot afford to delay greater action on the environment for much longer. In late 2007, Chinese officials held meetings with U.S. Congress members to try to assess how serious American political leadership is about climate protection. In mid-June 2008, just before the G8 meeting on climate change, and just as it had in the Bali conference of 2007, President Hu Jintao called on developed countries to reduce their own emissions and to provide technical and financial assistance to developing countries.
Energy Policy and Environmental Goals, Laws, and Directives
On the domestic front, the Chinese government has tried to address their environmental problems through a series of industrial and energy policies, a raft of environmental laws and directives, as well as through investment in alternative energy.
After two decades of emphasizing economic development, in 2005, the government at least rhetorically gave equal weight to economic growth and environmental protection by prioritizing renewable energy and efficient energy use in its 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010). The plan also called for improvements in energy efficiency as a criteria for evaluating the job performance of local officials. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change has a good summary of some of the energy policies and climate change mitigation measures China is currently pursuing. Some of these include:
• closing thousands of polluting factories and inefficient industrial plants
• creating incentive programs for China’s 1,000 most energy-intensive enterprises to improve energy efficiency
• limiting logging in old-growth forests and promoting reforestation
• passing regulations requiring export manufacturers who violate pollution laws to close for up to three years
• mandating environmental impact assessments and citizen input on major public works projects
• establishing fuel economy standards for its new vehicles that are stricter than those in Australia, Canada, California, and the U.S. (but less than those in Japan and the European Union)
• issuing regulations such as a “green securities” that requires highly polluting companies to pass environmental inspections when applying for public listing; a “green insurance” policy that allow companies with pollution risks to properly compensate victims of environmental accidents; and a “green credit” policy that will limit loans to polluting companies
• spending more than US$15 billion to clean up Beijing’s air for the 2008 Olympics
• upgrading in 2008 the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) to a Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) to give it more authority and power.
• banning the manufacture and distribution of the thinnest plastic bags (as of July 2008, the policy was relatively well enforced and successful, unlike previous attempts to ban the use of disposable wooden chopsticks and to measure “green GDP”, which tried to factor in environmental costs while calculating economic growth)
Increased Investment in Alternative Energy
In 2005, China passed the passed the Renewable Energy Law, which set a number of goals including having 15% of China’s energy come from renewable resources by 2020. That same year, China was the top investor in renewable energy in the world, having invested $6 billion not including large hydropower. Providing the proper subsidies to these enterprises and enforcing intellectual property rights for new environmental technology will go a long way towards encouraging technology transfer and cooperation with foreign countries and companies who have the knowledge and expertise. So far, the Chinese government has been developing alternative energy sources such as:
• Small Hydro
• Wind: Wind farms are a rapidly growing industry in China today (China is expected to be the top wind turbine producer in 2009) but currently only provide less than 1% of China’s electricity. Experts think wind power has the potential to satisfy 10% of China’s power needs by 2020.
• Solar: China is already the world’s largest producer and user of solar water heaters (for example, 99% of households in urban Rizhao city use solar water heaters).
• Biofuel and Biomass
• Clean coal technologies: China is participating in various clean coal and carbon capture projects with the U.S., the European Union, and other Asian partners, but these technologies tend to be quite expensive.
• Nuclear: The Chinese government also plans to build more nuclear power plants, increasing electricity generated by nuclear power from less than 2% today to 4% in 2020.
• 1st “Eco-City” in the world: China is building the first “eco-city” in the world at Dongtan on Chongming Island off Shanghai, which will provide carbon netural living for up to 10,000 people from 2010.
III. Impediments to progress
Despite the response of the Chinese government and people, however, China still faces a number of significant challenges: Some estimates of compliance with environmental laws are as low as 10%, and goal targets for the reduction of pollution and energy use are often not achieved.
Continuing Economic Growth
The fact that China is a country that is still developing, with Premier Wen Jiabao having called for quadrupling per capita GDP by 2020, is a major impediment to faster environmental progress. That a number of shorter-term energy efficiency and emissions reductions targets set forth in the 11th Five-Year Plan have not been met suggests that economic growth is still a priority.
The technologies for clean coal and carbon capture exist but the costs are extremely high, and so far, the Chinese government has not been willing to bear the costs alone, nor has the United States or other nations been willing to pitch in. Some observers like Robert Collier, a visiting scholar at the Center for Environmental Public Policy at the University of California- Berkeley, question why some of China’s massive foreign reserves ($1.7 trillion in July 2008) have not been used to create some kind of green investment fund that China is instead asking the world to provide, pointing also to the fact that China is already receiving significant aid through the Clean Development Mechanism. As well, the higher cost of newer, more efficient technologies in production make producers and manufacturers reluctant to switch from conventional, less efficient technologies.
Lack of Enforcement due to Decentralized Power and Corruption
China has a decentralized political system; this means that the central government often issues directives and edicts but lacks the political power to force provincial and local governments to enact or enforce the laws. Many local authorities still tend to watch out for their own provincial interests and privilege economic growth over all else, since this has been rewarded by the central government for the better part of the last 30 years and is still apparently the de facto practice despite rhetoric to the contrary. Hence, big polluters who are major local employers tend to be sheltered by local authorities and the courts.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
A central government-issued one-size-fit-all approach to managing the economy with the environment is highly impractical for a country with regional economic disparities.
Lack of Accurate Information
The complexity of the issues, the lack of independent watchdogs to monitor official statistics and environmental data, which can sometimes turn out to be inaccurate or misleading, can all inhibit progress, although the government is working on improving data collection.
Although the Chinese government has greatly encouraged NGOs and the media to expose environmental problems due to its own limited ability to enforce green statues locally, and has also sanctioned independent legal activities to protect the environment, it appears to draw the line at any direct criticism of the central government. Those who cross the line or who knowingly or unwittingly appear to go against the interests of the central government can find themselves detained or their activities severely curtailed.
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