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Column: Environmentalism Begins to Stir in China

The outline of China’s looming environmental challenges may be familiar, but the details are so staggering that they bear recounting: The dark side of being the world’s factory for three decades is a landscape of rivers, fields, and smoggy cities now so degraded that the World Bank estimates pollution damages annually siphon off 5.8 percent of China’s GDP. The poor are disproportionately affected, and 242 million rural residents — roughly the entire population of Indonesia — lack access to clean drinking water. Cancer is the country’s leading cause of mortality, implicated in nearly one in four deaths.

China’s major cities remain cloaked in smog. And though environmental officials have successfully shuttered many polluting factories, the fast-multiplying number of vehicles in the world’s top auto market poses another air-quality challenge. Likewise, the environmental ministry knows that dangerous levels of heavy-metal pollution contaminates a tenth of China’s farmland, but cleaning up is another matter.

If only China had the luxury of just focusing on existing problems. But water scarcity — China is home to a fifth of the world’s population, but just 7 percent of available freshwater resources — is likely to become more dire, as another 350 million people transition from rural areas to urban lifestyles, and bustling metropolises rise in the country’s arid west. Proposed engineering solutions, like the massively ambitious South-to-North Water Diversion Project, threaten to do as much environmental harm as good. The aquifer under the North China Plain, the country’s breadbasket, is fast being depleted. Some 243 lakes have vanished in the past five decades.

With national energy demand rising steeply, China’s coal consumption tripled between 2000 and 2010. Eighty percent of China’s electricity is now generated from coal, which is also responsible for 85 percent of the country’s acid rain-causing sulfur-dioxide emissions and a major contributor to its greenhouse-gas total. A central government-led push to develop renewable energy has complemented but not offset the growing appetite for coal. And now the country’s plans to expand large western coal bases seem poised to collide with regional water shortages (the operation of coal-fired plants is highly water-intensive), as HSBC concludes in its September report, No Water, No Power.

In its quest to develop alternative energy sources, in early November China’s government announced subsidies to speed the development of shale gas. Although the International Energy Agency has estimated China’s total theoretically recoverable gas reserves from shale beds to be 150 percent that of the United States, production has so far been a trickle, largely because China’s shale beds tend to lie in mountainous and geologically difficult to access regions. If shale gas production picks up in earnest, it would provide a cleaner-burning fuel source, but could also aggravate water scarcity problems and contribute to ground-water contamination in a country where regulations meant to protect farmers living adjacent to mining sites are often trampled in the name of rapid development.

And then there’s climate change. China has since 2010 been the world’s top emitter of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, but it is also among the countries most vulnerable to its impacts. Scientists estimate that extreme weather events — such as last summer’s prolonged drought and the severe blizzard of 2008 — cause the loss of nearly 10 percent of China’s grain output annually. The diminished flow of the Yangtze River last year stalled hydropower plants and led to rolling blackouts. Climate change will alter the intensity and duration of monsoon seasons across Asia, but models remain fuzzy as to what the future of regional agriculture will look like. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently listed China’s Pearl River Delta — including the megacity port of Guangzhou — as among the urban areas most likely to be engulfed by sea-level rise.

When it comes to China, Jonathan Watts, author of When a Billion Chinese Jump and until recently the Asia environment correspondent at the Guardian newspaper, argues that the environment is everything — “a prism” through which to assess the country’s worsening economic and human health. As Watts explained at the 2012 China Environmental Press Awards in Beijing this spring: “Mostly the environment is treated as a subcategory and posted away to certain pages in newspapers and on the websites. But it should not be a niche interest; it should be mainstream. The ecology is the basis for the economy, not the other way around.”

There has long been an assumption that, somehow, China will muddle through: that these are serious, slow-boil issues, but never the country’s most urgent. The attitude of China’s government has historically been that the country should first get rich, and then clean up its environment (the key variable by which local officials are evaluated for promotion remains GDP growth). Or that somehow, technology will come through in time — to squeeze more water out of dry land, or to bury carbon in the ground instead of releasing it into the sky.

China has at its disposal tools and strategies it could deploy to move more quickly toward solutions, but without a free press, independent court system and vibrant civil society to force change, it often seems more convenient to bury bad news than to respond to it, he says, especially for officials far from Beijing.

But in recent years, we’ve seen a new dynamic: People in China’s wealthiest cities are no longer willing to cut corners, or to wait and see. Armed with smartphones, social media and more access to information, they are increasingly willing to take to the streets, in prosperous cities like Ningbo, Dalian and Xiamen to oppose the government’s secrecy in approving projects and to call for chemical plants — which they believe may lead to harmful health impacts — to be shuttered. In just a year, the number of major environmental protests jumped 120 percent, according to Yang Chaofei, vice-chairman of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences.

The recent protests reveal not only concern about environment, but also fraying trust for officialdom. Even after the government of Ningbo pledged last month to stop the expansion of a PX plant, one 30-year-old protester told me: “We don’t know if the chemical plant really will be canceled. Most of us think our city governors are just politicians and liars. ... There are still some projects being carried out that will also pollute the soil we live on, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. We’ll still keep our eyes on them.” He added: “The environment is a reflection of the political issue.”

At an event on the sidelines of the 18th Party Congress, Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian told reporters that new bids for large industrial projects must now include assessments of their potential impact on “social stability.” It seems Beijing is finally hearing that message — that environmental damage can cause political fallout.

Christina Larson is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.