Wednesday, November 10, 2010

China’s Environmental Burden

Worries about overpopulation and the impact on the environment arose over a thousand years ago. Neither the political conditions nor the ethical underpinnings were ever available to allow much progress on these issues. Rather, the conventional wisdom was to assume that China’s teeming population was a source of strength, allowing for the formation of massive armies and higher tax revenue. It was not until the death of Mao that a concerted effort was put in place to control the size of the population. These efforts have perhaps slowed population growth, but growth continued.

The death of Mao created the opportunity to consider many changes in how China was to be governed and in what its long term goals were to be. The most significant new initiative was the thrust to recreate China as a modern industrial nation. The environment was not totally forgotten, but it usually had lower priority than generating the jobs and wealth required to keep all those citizens fed and employed.

Elizabeth C. Economy has written a detailed account of China and its environmental issues: The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future. One can find references to related data and cost estimates, such as the Bloomberg article here, but Economy’s book provides that plus a broad background in the history and current status of both environmental activism and government response. Her book is heavy lifting for the casual reader because of the details she provides. Fortunately the book is well organized and one can extract most of what is of interest from a few chapters.

The author provides copious discussion of the environmental ills tormenting China. An attempt to simplify the discussion will be made by focusing on the broad topics of land, water, and air. A few “highlights” are presented.

“More than one-quarter of China’s land is now affected by desertification or is degraded due to overgrazing by livestock, over cultivation, excessive water use, or changes in climate. In the northwest, the pace of desertification more than doubled from 1,560 square kilometers (sq km, approximately 600 square miles) annually in the 1970s to 3,436 sq km (approximately 1,300 square miles) annually in the later half of the 1990s. Each year an area equal to the size of New Jersey is degraded due to desertification, soil erosion, and salinization. Four hundred million people in China, or more than thirty percent of the population, live in an area affected by desertification, producing a continuous stream of migrating farmers and herders.....In May 2000, then premier Zhu Rongji worried that the rapidly advancing desert would necessitate moving the capital from Beijing, although assessments by China’s scientific community suggest that such a dire outcome is unlikely to result....Some estimate that nearly forty cities have been abandoned in northwestern China as a result of desertification.”
“....officials in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Taiyaun have all cited water scarcity as the number one environmental concern, and the Ministry of Water Resources predicts a ‘serious water crisis in 2030 when the population reaches 1.6 billion and China’s per capita water resources are estimated to decline to the World Bank’s scarcity level. According to the World Bank, 400 of China’s 660 cities are already short of water and 260 million people find it difficult to get enough water for their daily needs. Moreover, 300 million people in rural areas lack access to piped water. In the absence of adequate piped water, people must rely on surface water, which is often highly contaminated due to run-off from surrounding farm land and factories. As a result, 700 million people in China drink water contaminated with human and animal waste.”

“Over the past twenty years, main stream water flows have declined by 41 percent in the Hai River Basin, 15 percent in the Yellow River and Huai River basins, and 9 percent in the Liao river basin. Since 2004, Beijing has resorted to drawing water from fragile groundwater supplies as deep as one kilometer below the surface. Even still, the city’s per capita water availability has plummeted from 1,000 cubic meters in 1949 to less than 230 cubic meters in 2007....China’s plundering of its groundwater reserves, which has created massive underground tunnels, is causing a corollary problem. Some of china’s wealthiest cities are sinking—in the case of Shanghai and Tianjin, by more than six feet during the past fifteen years. In Beijing, land subsidence has destroyed factories, buildings, and underground pipelines, and is threatening the city’s main international airport.”

“ investigation conducted by the Ministry of Water Resources found that drinking water in 115 out of 118 cities surveyed was polluted, largely by arsenic....and fluoride....”
“Beijing is one of twenty Chinese cities among the thirty world cities with the most polluted air. A 2005 survey determined that half of China’s cities did not meet the governments own air quality standards. Moreover, according to the World Bank, in 2007 only 1 percent of China’s urban population breathed air considered safe by European Union standards....China’s sulfur dioxide emissions, which cause acid rain, are now the highest in the world, affecting one-third of China’s territory. Acid rain poisons the country’s fisheries, ruins cropland, and erodes buildings....Japan and South Korea also blame China for much of their problems with acid rain, a situation that has contributed to ongoing tensions in the region.”

“A joint study by the World Bank and SEPA in 2007 estimated that 650,000 to 700,000 people in China die prematurely from air pollution annually. In the country’s most polluted cities, when children breathe, it is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes per day.”
The findings provided above provide a hint at the scope and depth of the environmental problems facing China. One might assume from this that the Chinese government has chosen to ignore these problems, but that would be a mistake.

One of the more interesting insights from Economy’s book is just how ineffective the central government is. After Mao died there was a conscious effort to decentralize the government, with more power going to the individual provinces. In the U.S. the sharing of authority and jurisdiction between the federal government and the states has been worked out over the last 200 years. China is not at that stage yet. Beijing can make statements, but there are not always the laws, enforcement agencies, and courts to make sure they are carried out. Some regions in China are working diligently on their environmental problems; others are ignoring them and choosing to go for maximum economic growth.

Another insight pertains to the surprising fragility of China’s social structure. The natives are quite restless. If one chooses to close a polluting factory, the workers who lost their jobs are likely to demonstrate against the government. If they do not close the polluting factory, the rest of the people are likely to demonstrate against the government. If there is a solution to this dilemma it is a subtle one. One fears that the structure of the country could come tumbling down one day. Consider this description of the mood in the country.
“In China, societal discontent is evident everywhere. It is expressed in forms as diverse as labor unrest, mounting peasant protest, and increased ethnic violence. As the government has diminished its role in guiding the economy, its role in managing society has decreased as well. For this reason, it retains few levers to shape public opinion and action, with the exception of suppression or media and internet censorship. It is this discontent, if mobilized throughout the country and more specifically directed at the Communist Party, that Chinese authorities fear.”

Assuming that China can find a path forward that balances all the competing demands, it is now appropriate to consider the cost of living with the current situation, and the cost of fixing this environmental mess. Numbers are quoted, but it is difficult to know exactly what they mean. The author refers to a World Bank report claiming that pollution alone “costs China about 5.78 percent of GDP annually.” She also states that “the costs of environmental pollution and degradation range from 8-12 percent of GDP annually.” The Bloomberg article quotes two estimates of what it would cost annually to clean up the environment: 2 percent of GDP or 2-4 percent of GDP.

Those estimates sound low. How do you put a price on running out of water in two decades? How do you turn a desert back into wheat fields? How do you assign costs to the unknown but large number of deaths, birth defects, and debilitating illnesses being caused by pollution?

If these large numbers quoted raise the awareness of the world to the magnitude of the problem, then that is for the good. I am less concerned about precise numbers than about the realization that China may be headed for some sort of tipping point, as a nation, that could prove hazardous to everyone’s wellbeing.

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