How Can China Fix its Colossal Environmental Problems?
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]