Eye to the Future
With China barreling along at an average annual growth rate of around 10%, and a slate of large scale public works projects in the offing such as the South to North Water Transfer Project, and the soon-to-be-completed Three Gorges Dam, which officials have admitted may cause significant environmental damage, China’s environmental problems look likely to increase faster than they can be solved. The pressure is tremendous for China’s leaders to make environmental protection even more of a priority. Albert Keidel of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace posits the question of whether pollution will stop growth for China or whether growth will eventually reduce pollution, and believes that sooner or later, economic growth, higher standards of living and already increasing environmental resources will help to reduce pollution. In the meantime, we can likely look forward to:
More Public Protests
With the successful environmental protests in Xiamen and Shanghai, we can expect to see increased public protests and participation among the Chinese on environmental issues.
Move Towards Transparency, Accountability, and Rule of Law
But it is also widely recognized by experts and observers, if not the Chinese government, that all the government measures, laws, and directives will only go so far without proper enforcement and enactment, and that in order to get its environmental house in order, China will ultimately have to have a system of transparency, accountability, and rule of law that rewards those who do the right things and punishes those who don’t — a scenario unlikely in the near future. In the meantime, however, the Chinese government can edge closer to this goal by holding localities and officials accountable for enforcing environmental rules and regulations; following through on their intention to make environmental performance a criteria for local official evaluation; allowing NGOs to function more autonomously and free from official pressure; making more transparent the legal system and courts and trials; and improving independent environmental data collection not provided by local authorities who may have alternate agendas.
The Chinese government also needs to impose financially significant penalties on polluters and withhold approval and funding on projects that do not meet environmental standards. Though the Chinese government is moving in this direction, the jury is still out on how successful enforcement will be.
Many environmental experts agree that one easier and more immediate way of improving China’s environmental problems is to make Chinese factories and buildings more energy efficient. This can be accomplished with help from international or local NGOs, multi-national companies, Chinese environment protection bureaus, industries, and individuals.
Critics such as Elizabeth Economy of the Council of Foreign Relations believe that China has not been able to get its environmental house in order because its has been unwilling to pay the political and economic price to get there. To a great extent, the same of course can be said of the United States. The world will be watching closely and expecting the new U.S. President in 2009 to take more active action on the environment, both in the U.S. and on the international front.
1 Mara Hvistendahl, “China’s Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?,” Scientific American, March 25, 2008, http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=chinas-three-gorges-dam-disaster (accesed 4/14/08).
1 Albert Keidel, “China’s Economic Rise – Fact and Fiction,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Policy Brief 61, July 2008, p. 11, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=20279&prog=zch (accessed 7/18/08).
1 Elizabeth Economy, “The Great Leap Backward?,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2007, http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070901faessay86503/elizabeth-c-economy/the-great-leap-backward.html (accessed 12/10/07).