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How Can China Fix its Colossal Environmental Problems?


28,000 rivers have disappeared from China over the past few decades, according to an official study by China’s Ministry of Water Resources. More than half the rivers with catchment areas of over 100 square kilometers have disappeared since the 1990s. Many of the rivers that remain are poisoned by pollution. So is the air. Outdoor air pollution led to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, according to a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet.

It’s common to assume that China’s environment is decaying so dramatically because the central government encourages breakneck economic development with scant regard to pollution. This is not exactly the case. Many decision-makers in China recognize how dangerous continued destruction of the environment is now and will be in the future. It’s a delicate balancing act. If they’re not sensitive to environmental concerns, there might not be much left for future generations. But if they back off economic progress, the better to save trees and rivers and make the air cleaner, factories will shut and people will lose their jobs. In his recent book, China Airborne, James Fallows writes, “The system has to keep growing fast enough that most people continue to feel that things are overall getting better rather than worse, and that the disadvantages of a one-party system are outweighed by its effectiveness.” As for the environment, “recognizing what must be done is quite different from summoning the political chutzpah to achieve it.”

Moreover, not everything that Beijing says, goes. Local governments take their own initiatives, legal or otherwise. Local bureaucrats want to get ahead. They have incentives to fudge numbers, to exploit local resources. To save the environment, Beijing must provide “incentives to governors, mayors, managers, bureaucrats, to pull in the direction the government wants—plus the means of figuring out whether they are doing what they say,” writes Fallows.

And here a familiar VM theme makes an appearance: telework. Exhaust from commuters’ cars is hardly the only reason smog is so bad in cities like Beijing. But it’s a significant factor. Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard, writes, “[O]n the street, it’s the output of tailpipes burping their low-quality gasoline that hits you in the face….The bad air quality drives people into cars, which makes the air quality worse. And once you have a car, you can drive to work from greater distances. Commuter traffic not only kills the air but also clogs the roads. Traffic has gotten so bad that the municipality has instituted a ‘drive every other day only’ rule.”

To keep its economic engine running, and save its environment at the same time, China must move away from energy intensive industries like manufacturing to high-tech, high-skilled industries associated with post-industrial societies. Encouraging telework would be a smart step in the right direction.

[Photo of smog in China courtesy Wikipedia]

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  • Thirdsyphon

    It’s an interesting thought, but encouraging telework in an economy that’s still so focused on manufacturing would be putting the cart before the horse. China would do better to simply mandate tighter emissions standards. That would drive up the cost of gasoline, which would cut down on the number of people driving and the number of hours they can afford to spend doing it. That in turn would improve urban air quality, reduce traffic, and save lives.

    • Clayton Holbrook

      Mandating tighter emission standards gets to the delicate balancing act that is mentioned in the post. W/o widespread technological improvement that offers drivers an affordable lower emission vehicle it could hurt the economy and make the single-party system seem less favorable in the eyes of a population with ever increasing lifestyle demands. Vehicle emissions standards could be gradually implemented with emission reductions overtime, but is that enough w/o over regulating?

      You make a good point in regards to the state of the Chinese economy being more manufacturing based and telework be not so plausible, but in the last paragraph WRM seems to suggest that they look at the overall structure of their economy. Maybe it’s about time China start looking into a more post-industrial economy. That alone would reduce industrial emissions while addressing the notion that a developed country can’t rely on industrialism alone in the 21st century. A structural perspective, as opposed to quick fix standards delaying needed economic diversity and reform for many reasons.

      • Thirdsyphon

        Good points all, but I think China’s current model for creating income growth has already hit a wall regardless of environmental standards. There’s only so much that competing on low regulation and low cost of labor can get a country, and China has ridden that strategy more or less exactly as far as it can take them. Indonesia and Vietnam are more than happy to compete with China on that field, and huge swaths of the developing world are already lined up behind even them, patiently waiting their turn.

        • Christopher Anderson

          The Chinese economy will do fine. We’re going to see slower growth. But household registration reform will happen. This will encourage migrant workers to consume more.

          We’re probably also going to see land reform. Individuals with rural household registration, I believe, are already allowed to sell their land in Chongqing. If scaled up, this will create real efficiencies in agriculture. It also pads the growth figures because you’re eliminating subsistance production that isn’t really measured.

  • Douglas6

    The Party floated a rumor a few months ago about moving the capital of China to somewhere else, probably a small city in the western part of China, since the congestion and pollution problems of Beijing are otherwise probably unsolvable. China has had many capitals over the centuries, so there’s plenty of precedent for a move. This rumor appears to have been a trial balloon – it’s not clear what, if anything, will happen next.

  • Anthony

    “China must move away from energy intensive industries like manufacturing.” The one problem with this is that other countries will begin generating massive amounts of pollution when industry moves elsewhere. Many environmentalists in the west like to congratulate themselves on how much less pollution there is in the west compared to the recent past. They don’t talk about the fact that all of that pollution isn’t gone. It’s been moved to other countries, so it isn’t as much of a victory for mother nature as some people think.

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