China is facing 'environmental apocalypse'

Posted: 12 September 2006

China's environmental crisis has now reached the point where it threatens world stability - but the country's economic dynamism and scope for innovation could make it the world leader in a sustainable future according to a report released today to coincide with the visit to London of the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Writing in Greening the Dragon, Jonathan Porritt, Founder of Forum for the Future, which has produced the report, says: "What's going on in China is quite simply the most important story anywhere in the world....There is no point trying to downplay this; there is an ecological apocalypse unfolding in China right now." China's own deputy environment minister, Pan Yue, warns that: "China's economic miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace."

The country faces devastating air and water pollution, along with a growing shortage of water and agricultural land. And it will soon be the world's single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Set against that, though, the government's declared ambitious targets to boost renewable energy and is planning a whole wave of new 'eco-cities' which could be a model for the rest of the world. "It is an extraordinary challenge", says Porritt. "But China is capable of moving with great speed when it puts its mind to it. There's no reason why China shouldn't become the world's number one nation in terms of eco efficiency."

Greening of the loess
Greening of the loess
The world's largest tree-planting project has brought colour - and soil - back to the loess hills of Shaanxi. Credit: © John Lui
As Greening the Dragon's Editor, award-winning journalist Martin Wright, puts it, "China needs a true green revolution. If it can pull it off, there's hope for the rest of the world. If it can't, the future's going to be grim. But if anyone can do it, China can."

Published in colour with photographs from leading Chinese photographers, the special supplement sets out the key sustainability challenges facing China, and describes some of the green breakthroughs under way, from the 'green city' of Dongtan, near Shanghai, to the ecological restoration of the Loess Plateau -where decades of desertification are being reversed in the largest project of its kind anywhere in the world.

Greening the Dragon draws upon leading experts, journalists and thinkers from both China and elsewhere, to provide a one-stop guide to the "the most important story in the world."

Bike plea

In a foreword to the report Jonathan Porritt writes: "Back in June, the Chinese construction minister decreed that all Chinese cities had to reinstate the bike lanes that had been removed over the last few years to make way for the car. All civil servants were told that they must either cycle, or take public transport to get to work - with the minister apparently determined that China should regain its global accolade as "the Kingdom of Bicycles".

"He'll have quite a struggle on his hands with some of China's increasingly powerful city mayors, for whom the car has become a far more fitting symbol of economic and political success than the lowly bike. Every day in Beijing, for instance, more than 1,000 new cars are rolled out on its already helplessly congested streets.

"That is just one of a seemingly limitless flow of eye-watering statistics about China today. The sheer scale of the place continues to astound the rest of the world. And if your passion in life is sustainable economic development, rather than simply the environment, then what's going on in China is quite simply the most important unfolding story anywhere in the world.

Bike transport in China
Bike transport in China
In China, the 21st century can still arrive by bike. Credit: © Gideon Mendel/Corbis
"If 10 per cent of the 60 million people who live in the UK choose to reduce their energy consumption by 1 per cent, it hardly registers as a blip on the world scale. But when 10 per cent of the 1.3 billion people who live in China take advantage of its surging prosperity to increase their own energy consumption by 1 per cent a year (by buying a car, or eating more meat, or getting a larger flat), then the world had better take notice. Such decisions affect us here in the UK as much as our fellow world citizens in China.

Living standards

"In an interconnected and interdependent world, China's emissions are our emissions. Chinese politicians talk with justifiable pride of their enormous achievement in enabling more than 250 million people to escape grinding rural poverty, and to find jobs in the country's burgeoning economy.

"Living standards have soared; and average life expectancy increased from just 35 years when the communists came to power in 1949, to 72 years in 2004.

"These social gains have been driven primarily by the economic boom - with average growth of around 10 pr cent over the last 15 years. But that has caused environmental damage on such a scale that the entire growth model for China is now imperilled.

"As Nature reported in 2005: "The losses from pollution and ecological damage range from 7 to 20 per cent of GDP every year in the past two decades."

"The impact on human health has been particularly severe. About 300,000 deaths a year are attributed to air quality problems. Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China, and levels of cancer in such areas are among the worst in the world.

Power stations

"Things are going to get a great deal worse before they get much better. China is building a new coal-fired power station every ten days. In 2005 alone, it added about 65,000 megawatts of new power generation - roughly equivalent to the entire power capacity of the UK today. It is already the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and is one of the most inefficient energy users in the world - emissions per unit of GDP are ten times that of the average for developed countries. There is no point trying to downplay this: there is an ecological apocalypse unfolding in China right now.

"But few are more aware of this than the rulers of China themselves. Just a few months ago, the 11th Five Year Plan was unveiled by Premier Wen Jiabao with an exceptionally tough message that China could not follow the old path (which, he might have added, is the path set out by the West) of "grow first, clean up the environmental mess later". It had to learn to grow sustainably - even if that meant growing more slowly.

"The government's impressive targets for the next five years include a 10 per cent fall in total pollutants (notably sulphur dioxide emissions and chemical oxygen demand), a 20 per cent fall in energy consumption per unit of GDP, and a 30 per cent reduction in water use (per unit of industrial value added).

"It's also developing a green accounting system that will include full environmental costs in its calculation of GDP - something that I would dearly love to see working here in the UK.

"It is an extraordinary challenge. But China is capable of moving with great speed when it puts its mind to it: it phased out the use of leaded petrol in less than two years (compared to the decade or more it took us here in the UK), and has recently mandated emissions standards for all new cars that are at least the equivalent of European standards.

"All of which guarantees an ongoing battle royal between those who see the glass as half empty, and those who see it as half full. The 'half-empties' look at the existing environmental legacy, factor that into the huge political and social pressures to keep the Chinese economy booming at almost any cost, and remain sunk in impenetrable gloom.

"The 'half-fulls' see no reason why China shouldn't become the world's number one nation in terms of eco-efficiency and the kind of "green industrial revolution" that Western leaders love to pontificate about. But they acknowledge that achieving this will take a lot more than some ministerial decree restoring the bike to its rightful place in the hierarchy of sustainable transport systems - however welcome that may be!"

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future and Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission.

The full report may be downloaded from the Forum for the Future website here.