China waking up to green nightmare

As China powers ahead with its economic development, NGOs and the government are beginning to take the environmental side effects more seriously.

The Yangtze absorbs three tonnes of sewage a minute
The Yangtze absorbs three tonnes of sewage a minute

From Wu Dengming’s small office window you may not be able to see the Yangtze River as it meanders through the western Chinese city of Chongqing, but on warmer days you can certainly smell it.

As the occasional rotten egg waft rises up from the quayside below, Wu shakes his head.

“We should share the aspirations to improve our environment, to have clean air and clean water,” he says in his capacity as head of the city’s only NGO devoted to environmental causes.

These days he is not alone in his concern.


As China’s factories and power stations continue to spew often foul-smelling pollutants into the atmosphere, a growing body of NGOs, well meaning initiatives and government sound bites are suggesting that the less sanitary side-effects of China’s protracted economic growth are being taken seriously. 

“The problem is China, like any developing country, puts economic growth before all else”

Liang Benfen, environmental issues expert, Chinese Academy of Social Science

The Asian giant has the unenviable statistic of having 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities (according to the World Bank) and a river like the Yangtze which absorbs three tonnes of sewage a minute (according to government figures).

“In China, after 20 years of economic growth the leaders are now realising the scale of the problem,” believes Zhao Ang of the environmental group China River Network.

Since taking the reins of power almost two years ago Premier Wen Jiabao has often stressed the idea of balanced development with local governments no longer just being judged on GDP growth rates but also on more sector focused criteria such as farmer’s income and environmental degradation.

In addition, exposes on “cancer villages” where dangerous toxins are literally killing the local population and announcements that polluting factories are being fined (albeit often non consequential amounts) or shut down regularly appear in the Chinese press.

Even the much-vaunted Three Gorges Dam project is not above reproach with questions being raised in the media about whether the Yangtze is silting up behind the dam’s vast walls, and if so, how quickly.

Greater awareness

“In China now there is a much greater awareness of environmental issues. In both social and education arenas there is growing influence to do something,” says Yu Jie, a Beijing based campaigner for international environmental group Greenpeace.

Environmental damage makes disasters such as floods worseEnvironmental damage makes disasters such as floods worse

Environmental damage makes
disasters such as floods worse

But given the size of the country, serious problems remain.

According to some government estimates, between 1985-2000 environmental costs accounted for 2% of GDP.

A World Bank report, however, painted a bleaker picture, saying pollution costs China 8-12% of its annual GDP, and with growing car ownership and soaring energy demands, the pressures on the environment show few signs of abating.

“It is a very complex issue,” explained Liang Benfen, an expert on environmental issues with the Chinese Academy of Social Science.

Travelling around China explaining to local governments how to implement and respect environmental policies, Liang is cautiously optimistic that China’s future will be green, rather than grey.

Growth v green

“The problem is China, like any developing country, puts economic growth before all else.

“What will a local government think when trying to attract investment to their county? ‘Do I want environmental quality first or money and provision of jobs?’ Of course they will take the money and jobs,” says Liang.

“Overall the atmosphere is more optimistic. But it is a very long distance to solving the problem”

Environmental group China River Network’s Zhao Ang

And as local governments are responsible for the subsidisation of services such as education and health, as well as the payment of government salaries, the immediate taxes to be derived from industries are sorely appreciated, more so now as agriculture is experiencing an economic slump.

“In my experience, different regions have different attitudes. Those areas that are richer, where economies are more highly developed, these are the areas that pay attention to the environment,” believes Liang.

Helping to focus local government attention and break down the often cosy links between industry and government has been a recent initiative from the central government to introduce a Green GDP that calculates environmental degradation as a percentage of economic growth.

In use before on a trial basis, it was launched nationally in September with the idea that local governments will have a stronger personal interest in working to improve the environment in order to avoid black marks on their record.

Complicated to calculate and potentially easy to fudge, it’s lasting impact may be more psychological than physical.

Renewable energy law

It comes at the same time as a law on renewable energy is making the rounds among Chinese decision makers, a further sign of the slew of positive sounding ideas being worked on.

China’s many poorer areas tend not
to pay attention to the environment

According to Li Junfeng of the Chinese Renewable Energy Association, the government’s goal is to increase the total reliance on renewable energy sources from the present level of 5-6% to 10% by 2010.

However, government figures show that producing electricity from renewable energy is almost twice as expensive as burning coal, throwing some doubt over how widely adopted it will become.

“Prices are prohibitive,” says Yu Jie of Greenpeace. “We believe, though, that this can be reduced by locally producing, rather than importing the necessary construction materials plus the government should offer tax incentives for operators.”


But even “greener” alternatives are not without their drawbacks.

In the southwestern province of Yunnan it was first revealed two months ago that a major construction firm was planning to dam the Tiger Leaping Gorge, a local scenic spot that abuts the town of Lijiang, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

This was without the permission of the central government, which had earlier put a temporary halt to a similar construction on the nearby Nu River.

Speaking to a Yunnan based environmental group, was told to “call back next year”, an indication that despite the growing interest and public airing of environmental issues, provincial activists and media have been forbidden from discussing this particular controversy.

“Overall the atmosphere is more optimistic,” concluded Zhao Ang of the China River Network, “but it is a very long distance to solving the problem”.

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