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Dossier: the great clean-up of China

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in Climate
Smog in Tiananmen Square in Beijing Smog in Tiananmen Square in Beijing Shutterstock
01 Jun
China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's worst environmental record is changing its ways

When it comes to environmental issues, wherever you look, China is there. If it’s the elephant in the room, it’s an elephant on the rampage, trampling any landscapes, wildlife and people that happen to be unfortunate enough to find themselves in its way. Power plants, factories and heavy industries belch out black, pollution-laden air as the environment is sacrificed for the sake of economic development.

China’s environmental track record is appalling, to the extent that it single-handedly alters the debate on the climate. Many of us have looked at China’s gluttonous appetite for fossil fuels and asked: what’s the point of flying or driving less, of using green energy, when China, the devouring dragon, simply cancels out any efforts we make?

In 2007, China surpassed the USA as the world’s biggest carbon emitter. In 2012–13, it overtook the USA as the world’s largest net importer of oil. It also accounts for half of the world’s annual coal consumption. Those fossil fuels feed factories and power stations, which, in turn, release shocking levels of air pollution, particularly in winter, when cold, stagnant weather combines with an increase in coal burning, creating weeks of heavy smog.

This inconveniences more than just the tourists unable to take pictures of Hong Kong’s iconic Victoria Harbour. Of greatest concern are two kinds of particles, known as PM2.5 and PM10 (particulate matter less than 2.5 and ten microns in diameter, respectively). These are the fragments of unburned fuel small enough to reach the lungs and cross into the bloodstream.

The World Health Organization (WHO) sets a maximum safe limit of exposure of 25 such particles in every cubic metre of air over a 24-hour period. In December 2013, dirty air smothered Shanghai and its neighbouring provinces for days. The density of PM2.5 exceeded 600 per cubic metre of air; the story was the same in Beijing, Guangzhou and Xian.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection, last year, 74 of the country’s cities exceeded the WHO limits. Greenpeace calculates that abiding by WHO limits would have cut premature deaths in the affected cities by 81 per cent.

More than 600 million people were affected by a ‘globally unprecedented’ outbreak of smog in China last winter, according to the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. As Dr Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (WWICS) in Washington, DC, puts it: ‘China is like the classic London fog of old – on steroids.’

RTXZVVX 2 REP optA man uses electric rods to catch fish in the heavily polluted Zao River, Xi'an



According to Li Shuo, Beijing-based climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia, the problems are entirely caused by China’s economic model, which, he says, has for two decades ‘pursued a high-emission, high-growth pathway’. He adds that ‘much of the GDP growth is based on intensive energy consumption and pollutant emissions. Without doubt, China faces the most daunting environmental challenges in the world. In many regards, the severity of the environmental problems here is unprecedented in human history.’

There are plenty of other examples and symbols of this environmental devastation. Although the damming of the Yangtze River remains the most potent symbol of China’s capacity to treat its natural environment as a construction site, it’s just one of many dam projects that have displaced 20 million people in the past ten years.

But the impact extends far beyond China’s borders. International Rivers says that China is building 312 dams in 72 countries, across Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia. Both China’s Export–Import Bank and the China Development Bank lend more money than US and UN lending bodies (see Overseas investment).

Agricultural pollution is widespread, spawning high-profile scandals over cadmium in rice and other contamination of farmland by heavy metals. According to the WWICS, Chinese industries are among the most water intensive in the world, at the same time as almost 300 million people – nearly a quarter of the country’s population – has no access to clean drinking water. ‘The big irony is that we drive BMWs and drink polluted water,’ says Lo Sze Ping, chief executive officer of WWF China.



It would be easy to conclude that China remains a monolithic, environmentally uncompromising juggernaut. Except that, just as the bamboo curtain was pulled back in the 1970s, so a greater green awareness is filtering through the country, from governments to grassroots activists. ‘For three decades, we have had economic success based on a model that said we would develop and clean up later,’ says Lo. ‘We’ve got to the point now where that model can’t continue any more. The time to clean up has long come.’

In March, Premier Li Keqiang said that China would ‘declare war’ on pollution, reform the energy market to encourage non-fossil fuel power and cut capacity in the steel and cement sectors. According to the WWICS, industrial fuel efficiency in China is now based on rigorous EU standards. Chinese authorities have even deployed drones to spy on polluting industries in Beijing, Shanxi and Hebei provinces.

‘The pollution has reached such a stage that it almost seems impossible to tackle,’ says Turner. ‘The challenge remains the production growth rate, with the population pressure layered on top of that. Lots of industrialisation needs a lot of cement and energy. To get a handle on the pollution issue involves running a marathon at a sprint.’

But some shards of light now pierce the smog. ‘The new administration is starting to take the environmental issue seriously – it simply has to,’ says Li. Last year, the country’s environmental watchdog, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, vetoed 32 projects worth ¥118.4billion (US$19.5billion) on the grounds that they were excessively polluting.

More optimistically, Li points to a ‘breakthrough moment’ whereby environmental issues are no longer framed in a stand-alone fashion, but are increasingly viewed as ‘an issue that links to the legitimacy of the administration. Blue sky, clean water and safe food – these are the basic needs of people. Delivering them will inevitably be a crucial test for the government.’

 RTX6J7Y REP optCoking kilns on the outskirts of Changzhi, Shanxi province


Another striking feature is how emboldened local grassroots activists now feel. Last year, street protests in Kunming, in Yunnan province, played a significant part in a rethink of the construction plans for the huge Anning refinery, which will process 11 million tonnes a year of imported crude oil into gasoline and diesel, and feed an adjacent new petrochemical plant. The months of local protests appear to have succeeded in moving the proposed site for the processing plant further away from the city.

In the Huai river basin between Shanghai and Beijing, the central government has worked with civil society groups, such as the Huai River Warriors, to clean up one of the most polluted areas of the country. ‘The government has been cleaning up the river, putting money into cancer treatment and keeping companies under control,’ says Dr Anna Lora-Wainwright of the University of Oxford. ‘It shows what the government can do if it intervenes, and the power of civil society to work with the local government.’

Meanwhile, campaign groups feel able to talk more openly about environmental issues than they could in the past. ‘We’re seeing environmental-rights movements and protests in most cities,’ says Lo, ‘whether it’s over a waste incinerator or a chemical plant. People are prepared to defy a curfew or provincial order. There’s a lot of awareness of how the quality of life should be upheld – in many ways it isn’t very different from the West.’

Lo perceives an ‘unspoken cooperation between the top level of the state and the grassroots’, while Greenpeace’s Li also feels that ‘grass roots environmental movements are burgeoning. Solving the environmental problems in China will increasingly prove to be an uphill battle. To win it, the government needs to realise that it will require all of the possible forces to work in the same direction.’

Outside observers have picked up similar trends. ‘The central government gets it,’ says Turner. ‘It’s more progressive and some good legislation has been passed. The implementation is where it gets dodgy.’



The central problem appears to be that polluters and local governments feel that they are unaccountable to regulations passed in distant Beijing. Officials have acknowledged that the ministry’s punitive powers are limited, with fines far lower than the cost of compliance, so many companies are prepared to simply pay up and continue to break the law. ‘Local government has never been evaluated on environmental performances, so it has never had the incentive to turn on the less environmentally polluting equipment,’ says Turner. ‘Economic success has come about by creating a federal system with no checks and balances.’

With some understatement, Li notes that ‘we have complicated central–local dynamics. The central government has limited power, and local governments are often emphasising GDP growth instead of enforcing environmental regulations that they see as being in conflict with GDP growth. The solution is enforcement, enforcement, enforcement.’

The evidence of people’s eyes can also no longer be countered or denied by the state, Turner suggests, pointing to the 2013 ‘airpocalypse’ in Beijing and other cities, when pollution sparked widespread social media protests that, she says, ‘struck fear into the government. People see it. China isn’t a developing country; people are educated and literate. So you have a population that realises that this isn’t right, that says, “We’re getting sick, our children are getting sick.” The public believes that it has a right to a green China and they can see the disconnect right in front of them.’

However, Lora-Wainwright is wary about what motivates the government’s environmental awareness. ‘The government lets civil society run with it for a bit, and then it shows who is boss; it makes big statements,’ she says. ‘The central government is genuinely concerned and it knows it needs to tackle the issue. But it’s a way of curbing potential social unrest. Beyond the health issues, that’s what it’s really concerned with.’



According to Lo, this contradiction also runs deep within the Chinese government. ‘The government isn’t a homogenous, unified entity,’ he says. ‘We have the Ministry for the Protection of the Environment and other departments that are sincere and genuine in carrying out their duties – there’s no doubt about it. They do mean it when they talk about a paradigm shift and the need for change. On the other hand, there are government departments more focused on economic development that have a contradictory position.’

This, says Lo, is why China has some extraordinarily contrasting impacts at the ‘environmental extremes of the world’. In 2011–12, China reduced energy intensity by four per cent and exceeded its targets for solar power sevenfold, says Lo. Last year, it installed more solar power, 12GW, than the USA has in total and the government wants to install 14GW of additional photovoltaic capacity this year.

China is also the world leader for wind energy, with installed capacity of around 91GW (the USA has 61GW). It’s also one of the few countries to have embraced carbon capture and storage, with 363 plants planned for construction.

The National Energy Administration intends to encourage imports of high-quality, less-polluting coal and put limits on the use of fuel with high sulphur and ash content. Yet, such developments are dwarfed by the almost unfathomably vast demand for conventional fossil fuels.

According to the Clean Air Task Force, which took its data from the China National Energy Administration, fossil fuels added nearly 140,000 terawatt hours in new electricity capacity in 2013, and wind added just over 20,000 terawatt hours, nuclear around 18,000 terawatt hours and solar around 4,000 terawatt hours. China’s coal use accounted for 65.7 percent of its total energy consumption in 2013. Domestic oil demand is forecast to rise 1.8 per cent to 510 million tonnes this year, and natural gas demand by 14.5 per cent to 193 billion cubic metres.

‘The huge developments in wind and solar energy are real, but so may be the stories of two coal-fired power stations being built every week,’ says Lo. ‘Both are very true and very acute.’

 RTX1637N REP optPipe discharging waste water into the Yangtze from a paper mill in Anqing, Anhui province


Despite the ambivalence around even the more positive developments, Turner and others are confident that air pollution, at last, can be significantly addressed. ‘The big challenge with air pollution is that [polluters] don’t turn on the de-sulphuring equipment,’ she says. ‘The technology is there to deal with a lot of air pollution, it just doesn’t get used.’

Yet although tackling air pollution may be achievable, it’s clear that other issues will take much longer to solve. ‘Soil pollution is going to be a tough nut to crack,’ Turner says. ‘Water pollution is a bigger issue than air pollution; it’s much more intractable. It involves a lot of action that the government will find difficult to do.’ Despite the fact that the 12th Five-Year Plan ordered industries to recycle 30 per cent of their water, overall, a lot of water isn’t recycled, says Turner, ‘although some companies do recycle more than the statutory rates’.

Another driver is the increasing wariness of international companies about moving to or basing regional headquarters in China. ‘A lot of companies are now saying that they can’t get clean water, that their employees can’t get clean air,’ says Turner. ‘If China starts losing foreign investment, it will be running scared.’

Such practical and utilitarian reasons are more likely to trigger meaningful action than sentimental affection for the landscape, according to Rey Edward, China sustainable finance coordinator for Friends of the Earth. ‘The Chinese government doesn’t necessarily do things for altruistic reasons,’ she says, ‘but the authorities recognise that the extent and depth of pollution and environmental problems are truly unsustainable and terrifying. They’re worried about the quality of the environment and also the future economy – you can’t build an economy in an environment that’s literally falling apart, where people are dying from lead pollution. There’s no alternative but to pay attention to the environmental problems.’



Another argument often put forward in China’s favour is that if an authoritarian government puts its mind to it, legislation and action can be pushed through more quickly, unencumbered by business and grassroots campaigners pushing their own agendas. ‘Environmental authoritarianism can be quite effective, but there do need to be more political reforms,’ says Turner. ‘There’s a question of accountability, and it’s too simplistic to blame everything on local government. We’re starting to see officials’ feet being put to the fire because they have to get results and enforce legislation.’

The West has a role to play, too. Turner feels that Western countries, happy that China is able to make lots of everything, cheaply, must change tack. ‘We hold some responsibility,’ she says. ‘We like cheap stuff, but it’s cheap in large part because there are no emissions controls in the factories in China where it’s made. If China starts enforcing environmental regulation, the costs of making the stuff will go up.’

The WWICS calculates that by outsourcing manufacturing to China, the USA emits up to 1.1 per cent less sulphur, 0.5 per cent less CO2 and 0.8 per cent less black carbon a year; but this is outweighed by the drift of returned pollution related to China’s increased goods production, which raises sulphur levels by between three and ten per cent, and causes one additional day of smog in Los Angeles every year.

‘Shouldn’t we, as consumers, start demanding that the things we buy aren’t polluting?’ Turner asks. ‘We do this with coffee and wood products, so why not other consumer products. We need to be accountable.’

More optimistically, Turner believes that Chinese laws are set to become more enforceable and to be implemented by people with the right training. ‘I don’t envy Chinese government officials,’ she says. ‘This is no easy job. Talk of a “war on pollution” sounds a little fluffy, but sometimes good, crazy talk is what’s needed. I’m optimistic. There are now institutions in waiting – judges, lawyers being trained in environmental law. They aren’t used enough, and people are still kind of afraid, but they’re now ready to take difficult decisions on environmental action.’

Even so, the condition of the environment in China is likely to get worse before it gets better, suggests Lo. ‘I think that there are many reasons for us to believe that the situation will improve, but it will take some time before there’s fundamental change. If you look at the industrialisation [taking place], then we’re going to see further deterioration. We have to hope that we hit that ceiling as early as possible. I think things will be better in ten, 20 years’ time – but it depends on political willingness.’

This story was published in the June 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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