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Christina Larson

China’s bright future - and filthy present

By Christina Larson
September 2, 2009

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RIGHT NOW is a great time to be an environmentalist in China - especially if you’re a foreigner. The politicians here care, at last, about your issues.

In recent months, Beijing has made increasing commitments to boosting alternative energy and energy efficiency, which will reduce the rate at which China’s carbon emissions rise over the next two decades. China is pouring billions of dollars into alternative energy - an investment that, as a percentage of GDP, is 10 times that of the United States. Its installed wind capacity has doubled in each of the past four years.

No wonder international newspapers have carried recent breathless headlines about China’s “green-power revolution.’’

Yet at the same time, domestic Chinese newspapers have carried a string of reports about the human costs of local pollution. Indeed, the faltering response to pollution contrasts starkly with China’s foresight on energy, and indicates that the country’s political system is far better at envisioning solutions for the future than fixing problems already at hand.

To name a few examples: a polluting smelter in Shaanxi province resulted in 600 children sick with serious lead poisoning; more than 500 residents near a chemical factory in Hunan province are suffering from cadmium poisoning; tap water contaminated by raw sewage in Inner Mongolia sickened 4,000 people. The Beijing-based magazine Caijing recently reported on how chemical pollution has contaminated the soil and rivers throughout Hunan province.

Even as China is greening its power supply, its rivers are getting blacker, according to Jin Jiamin, founder of Global Environment Institute, a domestic Beijing-based NGO.

The reasons are largely political. Efforts to increase alternative energy and energy efficiency are backed by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission and usually coincide with Beijing’s economic agenda. Targeting more money to wind-turbine manufacturers and hydropower companies (and local governments, whose tax base increases) helps enrich everyone.

But efforts to enforce stricter pollution controls, which can threaten factory shut-downs and stand in the way of economic activity, have proceeded much more slowly. And their champion, the Ministry of Environmental Protection, occupies a much weaker position in the Beijing political pantheon.

“In China, we’re still facing a lot more immediate environmental problems than climate change,’’ says Wen Bo, a well-known environmental advocate in Beijing.

Since the first legal Chinese civic organization, Friends of Nature, was founded in 1994, environmental groups have been the spearhead of China’s fledging non-governmental sector, with more than 5,000 groups in existence today.

Ironically, even as climate change has climbed on the national agenda, the political space for domestic green groups has shrunk. Lawyers championing the rights of pollution victims in China have been harassed, and a number of green groups have faced recent scrutiny for alleged tax problems (a typical intimidation tactic). Five years ago, “public participation’’ was a popular mantra among some environmental officials in Beijing, but today the chief government advocate for opening political space, Pan Yue, has been relieved of many of his former responsibilities.

There are in essence two environmental movements underway in China - one focused on forward-looking climate and energy issues; the other on immediate domestic issues, such as air and water pollution. The former is championed by international coalitions; the latter by local groups. The former is growing at a rapid clip, with Beijing’s political blessing (stirring amazement and admiration of many foreign observers), while the latter is decidedly struggling (new cases of cancer linked to environmental pollution continue to rise in China).

Sometimes the goals align: Building clean-energy infrastructure in place of coal-fired power plants will help ensure less sooty air in the future. Yet wind farms in Inner Mongolia alone won’t clean up the province’s contaminated water.

In the West, environmental movements followed a certain trajectory: First we dirtied and then cleaned up our air and water; now we’re grappling with climate change. China is trying to do both at once. And in reverse of what happened in developed countries, Beijing is prioritizing energy first. China may soon have the odd distinction of being the world’s leader in alternative energy - and industrial pollution.

Christina Larson is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

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