ANALYSIS Under a sooty exterior A green China emerges

Posted: 18 November 2008

Author: Fred Pearce

You've heard the environmental horror stories: rivers running black, air unfit to breathe, two new coal-fired power plants a week. But thanks to a surging entrepreneurial spirit and new policies, China is fast becoming a leader in green innovation, from recycling to developing electric cars to harnessing the wind. This article by Fred Pearce is reproduced by arrangement with Yale Environment 360

Fred Pearce
Fred Pearce
Call it the new China Syndrome. Putting the world's most populous country in the environmental doghouse is a game anyone can play. You've heard the litany of sins. China is buying up whole mountains in Latin America to get at the copper inside. It is the world's largest importer of tropical hardwood, most of it hacked illegally from rain forests. Its carbon emissions are now the world's largest, exceeding even the United States. Many of its rivers are little more than industrial discharge pipes. And didn't you see all that smog in Beijing around the time of the Olympics?

All true, of course. But even so, much of what is said about China and its attitude toward the environment - even by usually fair-minded folk - is hypocritical and decidedly unfair.

In my travels as a journalist, I have seen the bad side. I have visited the wharves at Zhangjiagang on the River Yangtze, where they turn the rain forests of Asia, Africa and the Amazon into floors for apartments in Shanghai and Beijing. I have literally held my nose at the foul air in industrial cities from Hong Kong to the North Korean border.

I have wondered at how Beijing, once the city of the bicycle, now has a new ring road every time I visit (there were seven at the last count). Just as we have off-shored our manufacturing to China, so we have off-shored our carbon emissions.(And I have read the statistics about how, as it builds its infrastructure, China is pouring 50 per cent of all the world's concrete.

Fifth of humanity

China, in other words, does the bad things that most of the world does, but sometimes with more vigour because it is so big and growing so fast. Its development zeal feels like the United States must have felt in the late 19th century - only with a population an order of magnitude greater.

Haze from China
Haze from China
Air pollution from eastern China regularly spreads to South Korea and Japan and out over the Pacific Ocean. Trans-boundary pollution occurs in many places across the globe. Credit: SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE
And there's the rub. China is huge. For most of human history, it has been home to as much as a fifth of the world's population. And many of the scary statistics simply reflect that.

China, as WWF reported recently, consumes 15 per cent of the world's resources. But with 20 per cent of the world's population (1.3 billion people), is that really surprising? Likewise, should we be shocked that the world's most populous country has the world's largest carbon footprint? If China were instead a series of smaller countries each reporting their statistics separately, we probably wouldn't turn a hair.

The people of China don't have lesser rights because there are so many of them. China may now emit more carbon dioxide than the United States, but its per-capita emissions are only a quarter those of the USA. And that is before we take account of the Chinese carbon footprint generated by goods that are manufactured there and then exported to the rich world.

A study by the British Tyndall Centre at Sussex University recently concluded that 23 per cent of Greenpeace China's carbon emissions were produced in manufacturing goods for export. Just as we have off-shored our manufacturing to China, so we have off-shored our carbon emissions. "But passing on our emissions to someone else is not cutting our emissions," points out the author of the study, Tyndall's science policy researcher Jim Watson. Thus far, off-shoring has proved an efficient way of passing on the blame, however.

Nor should we forget that the eager new industrialists of Shenzhen and Tianjin, Suzhou and Shanghai, have been pumping poisons into the air for much less time than us in the industrialised world. And that matters, because greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. Most of what Britain puffed into the air as James Watt's steam engine kick-started the industrial revolution is still there. China will take several more decades of breakneck industrial growth before it can exceed the accumulated volumes of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere that should be labeled "Made in America."

Going green

So China is not responsible for where we are today on climate change. And I doubt that either its cumulative or its per-capita emissions will ever approach those of the USA. Why? Because, believe it or not, China is going green.

We hear a lot about China building a new coal-fired power station every week. I checked the stats. It's worse. It has recently been building two new 1000-megawatt plants each week. But last year, China also built more wind turbines than any other country. And its biogas and solar power industries are also growing fast.

China's green credentials are surprisingly good in many respects. China has long led the world in aquaculture. By raising most of its fish in artificial ponds it has done a huge good turn for the world's ocean fisheries.

On an island at the mouth of the Yangtze river near Shanghai, they are building the world's first eco-city, powered by renewable electricity, with citywide water recycling and plans for a car-free transport system. Similarly, the recently completed 1,200-kilometre railway into Tibet employed "green construction" methods, according to a paper in Science last year. And the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 is devoted to green urban design.

In June, the country officially banned free plastic bags in shops. The world's largest plastic bag manufacturer (Chinese, of course) shut down as a result. And the Chinese are now the world's leading recyclers.

Using waste

Recycling e-waste, China
Recycling e-waste, China
Recycling e-waste, China. Photo © Greenpeace
Some people worry that much of the trash from Europe and North America gets shipped from Los Angeles, Rotterdam and Seattle to China for recycling. They seem to think that the Chinese secretly landfill it. Why would they do that? In fact, China is so desperate for raw materials to keep its industrial revolution going that it finds uses for almost any waste it can get its hands on: plastic packaging, the metal in old computers and other electronic goods. Just as the country used to run its agriculture on "night soil" (a handy euphemism for human faeces), now it runs its industry on as much trash as it can get its hands on.

Witness the success of China's "Queen of Trash," Cheung Yan. Ten years ago, when China stopped logging its own natural forests to prevent a recurrence of big floods, she anticipated a paper shortage. She went to the United States and drove around in an old pick-up begging municipal garbage dumps to sell her their waste paper. She was so successful that today her company, Nine Dragons, ships more than 6 million ton of waste paper a year into China, which she recycles into boxes for electronics goods that will be taking the next container ship back to Europe and North America.

Nine Dragons is now the world's largest manufacturer of packaging. Cheung is reportedly mainland China's richest person - and possibly the The problems that China is finding in obtaining raw materials for its manufacturing plants is pushing it into taking a world lead in waste recycling.

I don't want to be too starry-eyed. China's pollution problems are extremely serious, and they have global repercussions. But my guess is that China will be forced into adopting ever-greener policies. Its use of coal will soon be curtailed by urban middle-class uprisings against the smog (much as happened in Europe and North America half a century ago). And the very problems that China is finding in obtaining raw materials for its manufacturing plants is already pushing it into taking a world lead in waste recycling.

It is doing out of necessity what environmentalists have been demanding for a long time - "closing the loop" in natural resources, by mining waste to make new.

Electric cars

China already is the world's largest manufacturer of both wind turbines and biogas fermenters and is in the forefront of developing electric cars. Who can doubt that if the United States makes a once-for-all shift to greener energy generation in the coming decade, then the Chinese will be scrambling to become its major supplier of wind turbines and solar panels and much else. Or that if China sees the U.S. switching to renewable energy, it will rush to take the same path. Last month, consultants McKinsey and Company advised China in a new report to "charge up" for manufacture of electric cars to meet likely demand at home as well as abroad.

Call me an incorrigible optimist if you like, but it is at least possible that the two global environmental pariahs - China and the United States - could soon be leading the charge to a more climate-friendly future. And that would be a China syndrome worth nurturing.

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff (Beacon Press, 2008). Pearce has also writtern for Yale e360 on world population trends and preserving seed diversity.

This copyright article was posted on the Yale e360 environmental website on November 14, 2008, and is reproduced by special arrrangement. To read this and other articles on Yale e360, with comments, go to e360.yale.edu