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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

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

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china-high-speed-train

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.

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

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