For China's Environment, Technology Transfer and International Diplomacy May Never Be Good Enough

"A UN climate change conference began yesterday with a call from the most vulnerable developing nations for large and rapidly developing countries such as China and India to do more to tackle global warming. The group of the 48 least-developed countries plus a group of small island states has previously maintained a united front against what it perceives to be the lack of action from industrial nations which are responsible for the bulk of carbon dioxide emissions...But its call stopped short of demanding mandatory targets for developing nations." This bit of introductory news is Via:: The Guardian, "India and China urged to cut emissions"

No matter that mandatory targets were not called for. China is not going to be tackling climate change seriously anytime soon. Better for us in the West to focus on "Big Steps" that industrialized nations can take on their own, not holding our breath for the serious changes in governance that must first come from within Chinese society. The following excerpts are from a lengthy analysis in the journal Foreign Affairs. Have a look for yourself. Full article is linked at the end. Warning: might spoil an otherwise nice day.

" China declares itself open for environmentally friendly business, officials in the United States, the European Union, and Japan are asking not whether to invest but how much.

Unfortunately, much of this enthusiasm stems from the widespread but misguided belief that what Beijing says goes. The central government sets the country's agenda, but it does not control all aspects of its implementation. In fact, local officials rarely heed Beijing's environmental mandates, preferring to concentrate their energies and resources on further advancing economic growth. The truth is that turning the environmental situation in China around will require something far more difficult than setting targets and spending money; it will require revolutionary bottom-up political and economic reforms."Some especially striking excerpts from the Foreign Affairs article:

"Consumption in China is huge partly because it is inefficient: as one Chinese official told Der Spiegel in early 2006, "To produce goods worth $10,000 we need seven times the resources used by Japan, almost six times the resources used by the U.S. and -- a particular source of embarrassment -- almost three times the resources used by India."

"...although China has plenty of laws and regulations designed to ensure clean water, factory owners and local officials do not enforce them. A 2005 survey of 509 cities revealed that only 23 percent of factories properly treated sewage before disposing of it. According to another report, today one-third of all industrial wastewater in China and two-thirds of household sewage are released untreated."

Seemingly, the robber baron approach has global reach:
"Chinese multinationals, which are exploiting natural resources in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia in order to fuel China's continued economic rise, are devastating these regions' habitats in the process."

The result, internally at least, is social disorganization at spectacular rates:
"Social unrest over these issues is rising. In the spring of 2006, China's top environmental official, Zhou Shengxian, announced that there had been 51,000 pollution-related protests in 2005, which amounts to almost 1,000 protests each week...The Chinese people have clearly run out of patience with the government's inability or unwillingness to turn the environmental situation around. And the government is well aware of the increasing potential for environmental protest to ignite broader social unrest."

Loans and grants won't help much either:
"The Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, which reports to SEPA, disclosed this year that only half of the 1.3 percent of the country's annual GDP dedicated to environmental protection between 2001 and 2005 had found its way to legitimate projects."

Nor will Chinese-owned companies:
"...a recent poll found that only 18 percent of Chinese companies believed that they could thrive economically while doing the right thing environmentally."

It's more fun to blame outsiders after all.
"A few Chinese officials and activists privately acknowledge that domestic Chinese companies pollute far more than foreign companies, but it seems unlikely that the spotlight will move off MNCs [multi-national corporations] in the near future. For now, it is simply more expedient to let international corporations bear the bulk of the blame."

Government regulatory systems and agency staffs are not up to the task:

The Chinese equivalent of the USEPA, called SEPA, "operates with barely 300 full-time professional staff in the capital and only a few hundred employees spread throughout the country. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a staff of almost 9,000 in Washington, D.C., alone.) And authority for enforcing SEPA's mandates rests overwhelmingly with local officials and the local environmental protection officials they oversee."

And in conclusion:
"...improving the environment in China is not simply a matter of mandating pollution-control technologies; it is also a matter of reforming the country's political culture. Effective environmental protection requires transparent information, official accountability, and an independent legal system. But these features are the building blocks of a political system fundamentally different from that of China today, and so far there is little indication that China's leaders will risk the authority of the Communist Party on charting a new environmental course."

For anyone content to sit around beefing about China needing to take a lead before developing nations do, we strongly suggest reading the entire article. It's very well written.

The Great Leap Backward? Elizabeth C. Economy, From Foreign Affairs, September/October 2007, Foreign Affairs

Image credit: The Guardian

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