Special Reports
In China, Pollution Crashes the Party

By David Agrell
April 23, 2006

China's rapid economic growth has come at a cost: environmental degradation that
stokes civil unrest, affects economic growth and ultimately surpasses its own borders.

The problem has become so bad that the government now says further progress is
impossible without first establishing targets to reduce the damage.

But previous pollution-reduction plans have failed to meet such targets, and
some solutions bring problems all their own.

Industry and unrest

After 20 years of industrialization, two-thirds of the world's most polluted
cities are in China, threatening urban residents with illness and disease.
Acid rain, polluted rivers and inadequate sewage treatment have left half the
rural population without access to clean drinking water, says the World Health
Organization (PDF).

As peasant farmers take the brunt of this, unrest often follows.

On April 8, villagers armed with iron bars vented their frustrations toward
polluters in the rural Fujian province by attacking factories they say were
fouling water supplies, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.
Similar protests are frequent. The Guardian reported that riots over land, water
and environmental issues averaged 230 a day last year.

China's communist government recognizes the problem, and its latest Five Year
Plan for National Economic and Social Development calls for "building a
resource-efficient and environmentally friendly society" by reducing pollution
and energy and water use.

The state-controlled Xinhua news agency said that the government recently
ordered the cleanup of 20 polluting chemical plants, and suspended approval for
44 others because of potential safety threats.

But China failed to meet many previous environmental protection goals in the
late 1990s due to rapid industrial growth and massive energy consumption.
Despite goals to reduce sulphur dioxide, emissions increased in 2005.
According to the China Daily Online, a government-run news outlet, efforts to
reduce carbon dioxide output have also failed.

This unchecked industrialization takes its toll on China's neighbors.
In Korea, giant clouds of "yellow dust" -- a putrid mixture of industrial
pollution and dust from the Gobi desert -- regularly cross the border, causing
breathing and skin ailments.

The problem is fueled by deforestation and greenbelt degradation, according to
the Korea Times.

Energy crises

Speaking to Reuters, Greenpeace campaigner Yang Ailun said that reform is
obstructed by China's growing energy needs, as well as provincial governments
that favor economics over environment.

With its dependence on coal-fired power plants, China is among the world's most
wasteful energy users, spending 2.4 times more energy per unit of gross domestic
product than the rest of the world, according to the United Nations Development Program.

The International Energy Agency, a treaty organization supported by 26 signatory
nations, reported that China's power consumption will double over the next 20 years.

The agency also found that carbon dioxide released by fossil-fuel use in
developing countries, including China and India, will exceed that of developed
countries in the 2020s.

CNN reports that this huge increase is spurring widespread fear of global
warming, habitat degradation and "volatile weather."

Although China currently consumes only four percent of the world's oil, its
vehicle population is growing fast, and in 2005 was second only to the United
States in new vehicle sales.

To discourage petroleum use, legislators have introduced a luxury car tax based on engine size.

But Dongquan He, of the non-governmental Energy Transportation Program in
Beijing, said most are too small to be affected by the proposed tax.

A better solution, he told the Associated Press, would be to tax vehicles based
on their fuel efficiency.

Alternative energy sources -- such as hydroelectric, wind, nuclear and "clean
coal" technologies -- have their own problems.

Greenpeace China claims that "clean coal," such as coal gasification, is a myth,
because the technology merely moves pollutants "from one waste stream to another."

China's hopes for increasing hydroelectric power have also raised red flags.
Conservation International fears that a government plan to build eight dams on
the upper reaches of the Mekong River, in the southern Yunnan Province, will
affect millions of lives by upsetting ecosystems as far downriver as Laos and Cambodia.

China also intends to expand nuclear production sixfold by 2020, and struck a
uranium mining deal with Australia this month.

News of the deal got mixed reactions Down Under.

"Australians are rightly concerned about nuclear power and uranium mining due to
intractable problems of economic cost, waste disposal and nuclear
proliferation," said Anthony Albanese, Australia's Shadow Minister for
Environment and Heritage, on the Australian Labor Party's website.

Simple Economics

Environmental health costs, wasted resources, reduced work efficiency due to
illnesses and disaster cleanup have had an economic impact that China and the
world are increasingly unable to ignore.

Greenpeace says that China Light & Power, a coal-fired power agency based in
Hong Kong and serving much of Asia, released nearly 17 million tons of carbon
dioxide into the air in 2004.

The activist group says the "negative cost" impact on the global economy amounts
to US$1.6 billion.

Back on the mainland, another $1.2 billion is earmarked for cleanup of a recent
chemical spill in the Songhua River near the city of Harbin.

Former government economist Bai Hejin told state-controlled media that
environmental damage is responsible for a two percent decrease of GDP growth, or
a loss of up to 12 percent of annual GDP.

"There is no need to damage the environment for a high growth," Bai said.
Some environmentalists are impressed with China's efforts to acknowledge their
global impact, such as its announcement in 2004 that it will become a global
wind power within the next decade.

"This is a golden opportunity -- if China is able to fully utilize its immense
renewable energy resources, it can leapfrog over the polluting fossil fuel age
straight into a clean renewable energy future," said Greenpeace's Lo Sze Ping on
the group's website.

However, the Chinese Academy of Science remains cautious, reports Agence

"China has not fundamentally broken away from its economic growth model that
relies on the intensive use of natural resources," the academy said, adding that
eco-friendly economic growth was currently "not feasible."


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