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What Do China’s New Policies Mean for the Environment?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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An example of China's high speed trains. © David Biello

BEIJING—A Chinese high speed train whispers into the station, before finally engaging the brakes and coming to a stop with a sound like the tinkling of breaking glass. Five years ago, such trains hardly existed. In the span of one Communist-style planning period, China has built a high-speed train network that now crosses the entire U.S.-sized country on special-built tracks, often elevated to minimize turns, rises and dips to permit cruising speeds of more than 300 kilometers-per-hour.

The high-speed train—despite the corruption involved in its construction that resulted in safety concerns—may be the most tangible example of China combining the seemingly contradictory objectives of growth and green. After all, high speed train trips will keep Chinese per-capita emissions down by displacing more polluting airplane travel used to cover similar distances in the U.S. Announcements on the trains themselves even promote the China Railway Highspeed (CRH) suite of trains as “green.”

The more than 9,000 kilometers of high-speed track and the trains to run on them are also an example of the kind of growth through infrastructure China has favored in the most recent decade, or what economists like to call “fixed investment.” Building the subways, roads, apartment blocks, electric grids and everything else that now cover China consumes natural resources from all parts of the globe—whether coal or iron ore—at an advanced clip, but has also delivered a rising standard of living, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. There has been a tremendous environmental cost, both abroad and at home.

That’s why the output of the Third Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Chinese officials stolid rebuttal to George Orwell, included “ecological civilization” among its litany of potential reforms. Haze wreathes the country, completely obscuring landmarks like sacred Mount Tai. Breathing can feel like smoking a cigarette, including rawness at the back of the throat and an unrelenting cough. The smog and smoke can achieve a density sufficient to block cellphone reception or prevent GPS from providing the requisite guidance coordinates, with the sky itself become like the ceiling of a building. (Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism against spy satellites, ordinary Chinese joke.) Even China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection provides tacit acknowledgement by noting tersely that a full third of the year in major cities across the country is taken up by days that boast “substandard air quality.” And that’s just the air.

Reform may prove tricky. There have been efforts to restrain pollution before, from green GDP to current premier Li Keqiang’s promise to sacrifice growth for sustainability. All plans for an “ecological civilization” in the new report have turned up before, from improved property rights for natural resources to ecological compensation, and all these reforms point to higher prices. But it is hard to argue with growth, especially when it has become the mantra (and enrichment scheme) of local government officials in China. Various environmental authorities, particularly at the local level, would also need greater power of enforcement, a reform that has been blocked by recalcitrant and enormous bureaucracy in the past.

There has been so much talk of environmental improvement, so little sign of clean air (except for the authoritarian aberration of the 2008 Olympics.) And it’s clear from the 22,000 characters of reform in the Third Plenum’s report that the Chinese people themselves are the main worry of central government leaders, a better environment a bid to assuage their concerns.

In recent years, transport has graduated from bicycles to SUVs in a little more than a decade. Private vehicle ownership continues to expand, growing in some cities as much as 30 percent per year and leading to immobile lines of traffic engulfed by a thick cloud of pollution. This despite the fact that driver’s licenses can be hard to come by legally (but easily procured with enough money and/or “guanxi” or connections.) Some families have two cars now—more vehicles than progeny— leading to traffic jams here in the capital city even on Sunday, a putative day of rest.

Despite past promises of government officials, city buildings are lit up through the night, resplendent in LED displays reminiscent of New York’s Times Square or Las Vegas. China burns some 3.5 billion metric tons of coal a year, an amount that has tripled in the past 15 years and continues to grow. It’s as if the world added two new nations as coal-happy as the U.S., but all confined within territory the size of the contiguous states. That has earned China its position as the world’s biggest CO2 polluter, a “carbon major” by any metric, even if its emissions in 2012 only grew by 3 percent as its economy grew by 8 percent, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

China may have begun to become rich enough to afford the seeming luxury of a healthy environment (as predicted by economist Simon Kuznets long ago) but that reduction in carbon intensity has come about largely through replacing small, inefficient, heavily polluting coal-fired power plants with larger but more efficient ones (along with a growing contribution from large dams, which have their own environmental impacts in China and beyond.) Pollution apportioned per capita is tiny when meted out over a population of 1.35 billion. Like the rest of the world, a lot depends on class, however. The newly rich are responsible for pollution that exceeds that of the typical European bourgeois, while hundreds of millions of poor peasants hardly contribute to this global environmental burden. Now imagine as said north China peasant graduates from a coal-warmed bed to a lightbulb and, ultimately, a television and maybe even a hot plate. That lightbulb better be a compact fluorescent or light-emitting diode.

Then there’s the haphazard nature of planned development as per the mandate of Communist party functionaries, like the recent outbreak of “urbanization.” Random outcroppings of buildings sprout in the middle of peasant’s fields across the countryside. This may be building future homes for a retired and consolidated peasantry or it may prove construction of ghost high rises doomed to be victims of a looming real estate investment bubble. Those homes that are occupied boast air-conditioners, a parking spot or garage for a car, lights and televisions, all signs of ever-increasing energy use.

For all the growth of the past three decades, there’s still plenty of room for more as more and more ordinary people acquire more wealth, more gadgets, more electric bicycles if not cars. There will be more consumption.

Take just one modern example: China’s novel holiday known as Single’s Day on 11/11 (for all the ones in that date). This year, the Chinese spent more than $5 billion on a day that is really a celebration of consumption on everything from underwear to home furnishings. Said furniture, for home use and export, has turned China into the world’s biggest importer of illicitly felled tropical hardwoods from the retreating rainforests of Indonesia, New Guinea and beyond. Another dubious environmental distinction to go along with the country’s status as world’s largest polluter, main driver of elephant, rhino, shark and tiger extinction, and many more.

The Chinese dream is coming very close to the American one—a home, a car, sprawling cities, conspicuous consumption and a better life for the children (however many of them there may be). It’s the kind of dream espoused by a man I met who praised the “invisible hand” of the market, cherished the thinking of economist Friedrich Hayek and paid for membership in the Communist Party. He was just waiting for the property bubble to burst and prices to come down to more reasonable levels before buying his own dream home. It’s the American dream with Chinese characteristics. No policy can change that.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. tuned 10:49 am 11/22/2013

    Things like the train are real progress.
    The rest is a degenerate form of society so corrupted that it actually hurts to breathe in.
    They say there are (5 year) plans.
    With such ghost towns, ghost disneylands, etc. in the midst of astounding pollution and even extinctions one must wonder who makes the plans.

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  2. 2. tamatiesous 10:52 am 11/22/2013

    Just as a matter of interest………..if a new system for creating energy was developed, which would be low cost, both structurally, producing energy at a fraction of the cost of present systems, causing no pollution and of simple design, providing ease of conversion of coal and oil burning energy plants…………how could this become a reality in China and the US, both with corrupt bureaucracy and major financial control by oil companies and the like. Is it a pipe dream ?

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  3. 3. Sisko 12:11 pm 11/22/2013

    China’s “new” policies are not any different that their old policies. China tends to implement sensiable policies for the development of their nation on a long term basis.

    They will strongly lean towards development of their economy. They will take actions to prevent environmental damage when it creates either sufficient internal or external dissent sufficiently strong to be a rsik to their long term economic development.

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  4. 4. sault 12:13 pm 11/22/2013


    A “new system” has already been developed that satisfies your requirements. They’re called wind and solar power along with many other renewable resources. Funny thing is, the major polluters like Exxon and Koch have spent million$$$ making up false accusations about renewable energy in order to mislead the public about its potential. If you stick around these forums long enough, you’ll eventually see some of these lies repeated by the polluter advocates / shills that come around here from time to time.

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  5. 5. Sisko 1:08 pm 11/22/2013

    Comment #4 written by an individual who has admitted lying and attributing quotes to others that were untrue.

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  6. 6. David Biello in reply to David Biello 1:12 pm 11/22/2013

    Easy Sisko and sault. This is a civil place (or I try to make it one.)

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  7. 7. Sisko 1:24 pm 11/22/2013

    David–I apologize, but it is frustrating when the individual has been caught posting quotes attributed to me that were completely untrue.

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  8. 8. M Tucker 4:51 pm 11/22/2013

    That big investment in the high speed trains is a benefit for the rich. The Chinese coal miner, factory worker or farmer cannot afford to ride it. Too bad the poor are forced to suffer the consequences of environmental degradation that the rich and politically well connected have created. You didn’t mention the polluted rivers, canals and lakes where the poor once were able to get healthy fish.

    China has created a massive nightmare of pollution that they will have a very hard time correcting.

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  9. 9. sethdayal 12:44 am 11/23/2013

    Actually, Tamatiesous, the Chinese have done so taking American nuclear shut down by the corrupt influence of Big Oil money on the attorney’s we elect as politicians and on the Big Oil owned media, and running with it as the low cost zero environmental footprint solution to their energy needs.

    While China has a corruption problem, the successful building of 9000 km of high speed rail shows its far less of a problem in a society run by pragmatic engineers without the influence of an immensely powerful small group of corporations. Even 100 km much less 9000 of high speed rail is an impossible dream in an America now run by Big Oil.

    At $87 ton the operating cost of Chinese coal is 6 cents a kwh. With the cost of Chinese nuclear at 3 cents a kwh only the politics of keeping established industries and need to wait to 2017 for the HTGR is slowing nuclear.

    Nope, the Chinese HTGR nuke under construction for service in 2017 will be the game changer. Factory built, rail car shipable, with costs predicted at a penny a kwh and 70% devoted to synfuel production at $30 a barrel, this unit marks the end of the coal/tar sands/oil/gas industry. Get used to it.

    By contrast that same HTGR is the only expenditure on advanced nuclear R&D in the US – $250M annually – a tiny fraction of the $tens of billions spent on worthless expenditures on carbon capture and ethanol. Like US high speed rail, The US attorney/pollutician has a plan for deployment on this tech in 2030, 13 years after the Chinese build and a decade after factory shipments have blanketed China.

    That build will be followed by a Russian designed IFR type machine in 2018, a project abandoned in the US after Big Oil money purchased Clinton and shut down the IFR project in 1994 after the production model machine embodied as the GE Prism was blueprinted ready to build.

    Finally the antinuclear Obama admin has passed the US’s MSR design data to the Chinese which have $500M and 250 staff dedicated to a commercial half cent a kwh implementation.

    Too bad really.

    With GE’s Prism,David LeBlanc’s DMSR or Flibe’s LFTR unit, the West had a chance at an industrial future, but when one votes for corrupt Big Oil corrupted polluticians, you get halfwits and warming instead of a future.

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  10. 10. sethdayal 12:58 am 11/23/2013

    And tamatiesous don’t be fooled by Big Oil’s wind and solar lobby. These technologies have been around for thousands of years.

    With all economies of scale in, and Chinese dumping slowly ending, the cost of wind is leveling out at 50 cents a kwh and solar 80 cents when inefficient fossil backup, 7 times sized transmission facility and offpeak power surplus dumping are added in. The use of inefficient fossil backup ensures that these dodgy energy sources produce much larger amounts of air pollution and GHG’s than efficient fossil plant or zero carbon nukes.

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  11. 11. gunt 5:27 pm 11/29/2013

    Looking at our misguided experiences in Germany with solar and wind I have to confirm Seth’s note.
    The direct cost of on-shore wind kwh is always quoted as being on a near break-even point with coal or nuclear.
    But – when you add the costs of the needed back-up power plants, the costs of the grid extensions (20 billion Euro here), the costs of the needed material like concrete, copper, steel (3 – 5 times more for the same effective power than for nuclear) then the cost picture changes.
    A special material problem is the requirement for rare earths (Neodymium) for the large direct drive windmills (about 200 kg for each windmill).
    And just remember, 95% of the rare earth metals are mined in China.
    In addition a wind park is crap after 20 years – a nuclear power Station is planned for 40 – 60 years.

    In the meantime we here in Gemany arrived in the renewable energy wonderland.
    With subventions for this ‘green crap’ (this is a quote from David Cameron – the PM of Great Britain) adding up to 24 Billion Euro (about 30 Billion $) in 2014 – payed on our electricity bill.
    And – as we chose to close down our nuclear plants and replace them by coal power our CO2 emissions are on the rise again.

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  12. 12. Crasher 6:31 pm 12/3/2013

    China is an interesting experiment in alternatives to democratic capitalism. While there are many issues with regards to individual freedoms and the way China gets things done they are proving a point that OUR way of organising society is not the only way. They are certainly showing the way on how to get things done and how to enrich its vast population. But there are still winners and losers…..just like capitalist democracies.

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