Special Reports
China's Pollution Nightmare Is Now Everyone's Pollution Nightmare

By Jacques Leslie
The Christian Science Monitor
March 19, 2008

The environmental disaster springs largely from its emulation
of the American way of life so let's set a better example.

The emergence of China as a dominant economic power is an
epochal event, occasioning the most massive and rapid
redistribution of the earth's resources in human history. The
country has also become a ravenous consumer. Its appetite for
raw materials drives up international commodity prices and
shipping rates while its middle class, projected to jump to
700 million by 2020, is learning the gratifications of

The catch is that China has become not just the world's
manufacturer but its despoiler, on a scale as monumental as
its economic expansion. A fourth of the country is now desert.
More than three-fourths of its forests have disappeared. Each
year, uncontrollable underground fires, sometimes triggered by
lightning or mining accidents, consume 200 million tons of
coal, contributing massively to global warming. A miasma of
lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other elements of
coal-burning and car exhaust hovers over most Chinese cities.
Meanwhile, roughly 70 percent of the world's discarded
computers and electronic equipment ends up in China, where it
is scavenged for usable parts and then abandoned, polluting
soil and groundwater with toxic metals. If unchecked, such
devastation will not just put an abrupt end to China's
economic growth, but, in concert with other environmentally
heedless nations (in particular, the US, India, and Brazil),
will cause mortal havoc in societies and ecosystems throughout
the world.

The fallout

The process is already under way. Acid rain caused by China's
sulfur-dioxide emissions severely damages forests and
watersheds in Korea and Japan and impairs air quality in the
US. Every major river system flowing out of China is
threatened with one sort of cataclysm or another. The surge in
untreated waste and agricultural runoff pouring into the
Yellow and China Seas has caused frequent fish die-offs, and
overfishing is endangering many ocean species.
The growing Chinese taste for furs and exotic foods and pets
is devastating neighboring countries' populations of
everything from gazelles to wolves, and turtles to parrots,
while its appetite for shark fin soup is causing drastic
declines in shark populations throughout the oceans. According
to a study published in Science in March 2007, the absence of
the oceans' top predators is causing a resurgence of skates
and rays, which are in turn destroying scallop fisheries along
America's Eastern Seaboard. Enthusiasm for traditional Chinese
medicine is causing huge declines in populations of hundreds
of animals including tigers, pangolins, and sea horses.
Seeking oil, timber, and other natural resources, China is
building massive roads, bridges, and dams throughout Africa,
often disregarding international environmental and social

China has also depended on imports of illegally cut wood in
becoming the world's wood workshop, supplying oblivious
consumers in the US and Europe with furniture, flooring, and
plywood. Chinese wood manufacturers have already consumed the
natural forests of Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines,
and at current rates will swallow the forests of Indonesia,
Burma, Papua New Guinea, and the vast Russian Far East within
two decades. Most of these forests are formally protected by
law or regulation, but corruption and ineffectual enforcement
have fostered a flourishing illegal trade.

China has probably already overtaken the US as the world's
leading emitter of CO2, and the country's ecosystems are
displaying climate change's consequences: Arid northern China
is drying out, the wet south is seeing more and more flooding,
and, according to a June 2007 Greenpeace report, 80 percent of
the Himalayan glaciers that feed Asia's mightiest rivers could
disappear by 2035. Such a development would jeopardize
hundreds of millions of people who depend on the rivers for
their livelihood.

Nevertheless, China has maintained that the developed
countries bear primary responsibility for global warming and
must be the first to counter it. The argument has some merit:
After all, the US alone is responsible for a quarter of the
man-made greenhouse gases pumped into the earth's atmosphere
over time, while China's cumulative contribution is still less
than a third as much. And even today, China's per capita
carbon-dioxide emissions are less than a fifth of America's.
Yet China's refusal to curb emissions soon could
single-handedly wipe out reductions made elsewhere, crippling
the international effort.

All this is common knowledge among those who follow Chinese
environmental trends. Still, the news has not shaken China out
of its money-induced euphoria. One likely reason is that
China's growth rate takes no account of the environmental
devastation the boom has caused. In 2006, an official at
China's State Council said environmental damage (everything
from crop loss to the price of healthcare) cost 10 percent of
its gross domestic product all of the economy's celebrated
growth. Vaclav Smil, a highly respected China scholar at the
University of Manitoba, pegs both the environmental-damage
rate and the growth rate closer to 7 percent, "so basically
every year environmental damage wipes out the GDP growth," Mr.
Smil says.

Who's to blame

Of course, what the Chinese are chiefly guilty of is emulating
the American economic model. Since the 1980s, Chinese
policymakers have gone on foreign-study missions to figure out
how developed countries fostered economic growth. As Doug
Ogden, former director of the Energy Foundation's China
Sustainable Energy Program, puts it, "It's not surprising that
the lessons the Chinese drew from their international
experiences are often based on sprawl development, private
automobile ownership, and highly energy-consumptive
practices," since the economies they studied all possess

One of the Chinese officials' most fateful choices was to
promote the automobile industry as a pillar of China's
economy. The decision must have seemed obvious. After all,
cars are the foundations of the American, Japanese, and South
Korean economies, generating economic activity.
Now China's car industry is the world's third largest, but
many of its cities are paralyzed by traffic, the inhabitants
are choking on the fumes, and China's foreign policy
increasingly revolves around courting outcast nations such as
Sudan to obtain oil at premium prices. From an international
perspective, the potential impact on climate change is worst
of all. Motor vehicles now account for no more than 3 or 4
percent of China's greenhouse-gas emissions, but the industry
is still nascent. According to one projection, the number of
cars on Chinese roads will grow from 33 million to 130 million
during the next 12 years.

What now?

The United States passed up the opportunity it had at the
beginning of China's economic transformation to guide it
toward sustainability, and the loss is already incalculable.
But what is left is the one option that would have served
Americans (and the world) best all along, which is to model
environmental sanity.

Stop buying products made from illegally cut wood. Stop
building coal-fired power plants. Instead of subsidizing oil
companies, promote sustainable-energy technologies. Build
effective mass-transit systems in every city. Make drastic
cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. Such acts would not just
revive our capacity for moral suasion; given the breadth of
the world's environmental crisis, they are prerequisites for

Jacques Leslie is an environmental writer and the author of
"Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People,
and the Environment." This piece was adapted from one
published in Mother Jones magazine.


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