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China: Economic growth, environmental destruction

By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- This week the Chinese government unveiled its long-anticipated blueprint for tackling climate change and atmospheric pollution.

The 62-page action plan, issued ahead of the forthcoming G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, and in the face of growing international pressure to set concrete targets for controlling greenhouse gas emissions, openly acknowledged the scale of China's pollution problem

It reaffirmed Beijing's aim of cutting energy use by a fifth before 2010, and of doubling its reliance on renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro and nuclear power by 2020.

At the same time, however, it refused to set binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions, emphasizing that it was down to the world's major industrialized nations to take the lead in tackling a problem for which historically they bore the burden of blame ("unshirkable responsibility" as the report termed it.)

More significantly for a country that still relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy requirements, Beijing insisted that economic development must remain higher on its priority list than environmental protection.

"The first and overriding priorities of developing countries are sustainable development and poverty eradication," declared Ma Kai, chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission, which produced the plan.

"Climate change is an environmental issue, but also a development issue. The international community should respect the developing countries' right to develop."

So just how serious is the pollution problem in China? And, despite its avowed good intentions, just how serious is the Chinese government about actually tackling that problem?

Respiratory disease and contaminated water

The issue is perhaps not quite as clear cut as some commentators have made out.

"It is not enough to simply say that China is a big polluter and leave it at that," Dr. Tim Forsyth of the London School of Economics told CNN.

"You have to analyze exactly what you mean by 'pollution.' If you are talking about climate change, for instance, rice paddies emit very significant levels of methane, but you can't very well criticize people for growing food.

"On a per capita basis, given the size of the country, China is actually not a big polluter at all. Per person it's responsible for about half the carbon emissions of somewhere such as the U.S."

If the situation does not allow for glib, black-and-white analyses, however, there is little disagreement -- even from Beijing itself -- that China is not only responsible for significant levels of pollution, but also suffers very significantly from the effects of that pollution.

Currently second behind the U.S. in the table of the world's leading greenhouse gas emitters, China -- whose economy continues to grow at a rate of about eight percent annually -- is expected to top the list in the near future, with many analysts predicting the "near future" to mean this year, 2007.

As well as contributing to global warming, those emissions -- as well as a host of other toxic by products of Chinese industrialization -- are having a catastrophic effect on the health and environment of the nation that is producing them.

According to environmental monitoring group the Worldwatch Institute, China now boasts 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities.

As much as 70 percent of the country's water is suffering from pollution, with an estimated 300 million people drinking contaminated water on a daily basis, and 190 million drinking water that is so contaminated it effects their health.

Crop returns are decreasing both in terms of quality and quantity as a result of polluted land; while approximately 400,000 people in China die annually from respiratory infections directly attributable to air pollution.

"The sheer scale of the economic activity in China means that pollution is as probably bad as it has ever been anywhere in the world, ever," Lester Brown, head of Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, told CNN.

"Such is the pollution haze in many of the cities that you can't even see the sun.

"A lot of the rivers are so dirty their water can't now be used for irrigation, while some of the soil is so badly contaminated with cadmium and mercury that there is a question as to whether food grown in those soils is safe to eat."

Nor is the cost just human and environmental.

Ironically given that it is China's bullish economic growth that is fueling such high levels of pollution, that same pollution is proving increasingly detrimental to the country's economic well being, with the China's economy losing an estimated $200 billion annually due to the effects of pollution and global warming, almost 10 percent of its GDP.

Bleak picture

Overall, then, a bleak picture, and one that most analysts are predicting will become bleaker before it improves.

"The Chinese government are certainly aware of the problems," says Lester Brown, "And they do regularly issue proclamations from Beijing to try to improve things.

"The difficulty is that at present they have neither the institutional structure nor the local enforcement to make a real difference.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection agency, for example, has about 17,000 staff. The equivalent organization in Beijing has less than 1,000.

"In the end things are left to local officials, and at the moment the imperative for those officials is to create jobs and raise the standard of living, not protect the environment."

Despite this there are signs that things are changing, albeit slowly.

Environmental awareness has certainly increased within China, with over 2,000 environmental NGOs operating around the country, while the Chinese government is actively monitoring pollution levels at some 300,000 factories.

And while it fell short of what many western governments and green lobby groups would have liked, the recently released action plan nonetheless represents a significant step by the Chinese authorities.

"China will not take the old path of rapid development with high resources and energy consumption," insisted Ma Kai.

"We will blaze a new road of low energy consumption, low levels of emissions, high efficiency and high productivity."

"This is a first," Yang Ailun, of Greenpeace China, acknowledged in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.

"It shows China has done its homework about what needs to be done. Even though the plan is mostly a compilation of existing policies, that shouldn't detract from its significance or the current level of effort."

Certainly the suggestion that, fixated on the rush to industrialization, the Chinese authorities are wholly blind to the environmental consequences of that industrialization, is an overly simplistic analysis of the situation.

"I think the Chinese government is well aware of these issues, is worried about them and is serious about confronting them," says Dr. Tim Forsyth.

"They are taking rational decisions about technological development, energy supply and energy efficiency.

"What they are not doing is simply giving in to what western governments and environmentalists would like them to do. They are more canny than that."


China pollution

Analysts predict that China could become the world's single greatest emitter of greenhouse gases by the end of 2007

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