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China’s “green economy” will have to wait

China is neither green nor clean. It’s a major polluter that promises to clean up its act — someday.

china pollution 1

Last week, I was stuck in a traffic jam in Zhongguancun, the high-technology zone in northwest Beijing. The air was hot, thick and dark gray with smog. Six lanes of cars, trucks and buses were at a near-standstill in both directions. The driver predicted — accurately— that the nine-mile drive to downtown would take an hour. I found myself thinking: This is the new, green China I’ve been reading about?

In fact, China isn’t green at all; as the Chinese themselves say, referring to the ever-present smog in their megacities, it’s gray. Air pollution is getting steadily worse, and water pollution is a major crisis as well. China burns more coal (by far) and emits more greenhouse gases than any other country. It sells more automobiles than any other country too (it passed the United States last year). And all those bad numbers are still going up, because China’s No. 1 goal is increasing industrial production, not protecting the environment.

The country’s breathtaking growth has been built on heavy industry, infrastructure construction and amazingly inefficient energy consumption. China creates about 8% of the world’s economic product, but it does so by consuming about 20% of the world’s energy.

“We cannot blindly accept that protecting the climate is humanity’s common interest; national interests should come first,” Yu Qingtai, China’s chief climate negotiator, said in a speech last month. “The country has to develop … and if that increases emissions, I say, ‘So what?’ The people have a right to a better life.”

But wait, you ask. Hasn’t China made a “green economy” its national goal? Isn’t it working to increase efficiency and reduce emissions? And isn’t its government investing billions in alternative energy?

Yes, yes and yes. But that doesn’t make China green or clean. It makes China a major polluter that promises to clean up its act someday — after it grows its economy. If alternative energy is going to be a lucrative business, China wants to be in on it, and that’s a good thing; but in its own energy diet, clean alternatives are still a drop in the bucket.

There’s one more big factor that makes improving China’s environment difficult: the messy realities of China’s authoritarian bureaucracies. National leaders in Beijing announce ambitious goals, but many local officials and business owners ignore or subvert them, often as a result of perverse incentives that reward increasing production without considering other costs.

In central and southern China, for example, local governments met Beijing’s demand for lower energy consumption this year by imposing electricity blackouts, but many factories merely fired up diesel generators to replace the electricity. That way the local officials met their performance targets, but more pollution went into the air.

In some parts of China, favored firms get official status as “protected businesses,” immune from environmental inspection. In Anhui province in eastern China, six environmental inspectors were fired last spring because, as China Central Television reported, they were working too hard: They checked on a tire factory three times in one month. “Doing that to a business really affects our development environment,” a local official explained.

But the real story, China scholars say, is more subtle, and more interesting. China may be a one-party state, but officials in its central and local governments are often referred to as “fragmented authoritarianism.” In Beijing, President Hu Jintao has declared environmental protection a top priority, and proposed evaluating bureaucrats’ performance on more than just production. But when I visited local officials in Sichuan province last week, they said their top priorities were building 3,000 miles of new freeway and attracting foreign investment to create jobs; energy and the environment sounded distinctly like an afterthought.

It’s nice that China has made a big commitment to clean up its act. It will be even nicer if China delivers.


traffic jam– heavy car traffic; when vehicles are stopped on the road due to heavy traffic

standstill– stop

at all– in any way

smog– visible air pollution; smoke-like haze from industrial or vehicle emissions

lucrative– profitable, beneficial

drop in the bucket– something set aside for later, something of little importance (uncommon)

subvert– threaten, undermine, not take seriously

favored– privileged, special

immune– protected

fired– dismissed or discharged from a job

subtle– delicate, faint

afterthought– see “drop in the bucket

deliver– accomplish, perform

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think China is not delivering results for environmental protection? What are the main problems?
  2. Does China have good intentions when it says it wants improve industry and create jobs?
  3. How might the government be able to create jobs and increase industry while helping the environment at the same time?
  4. Do you think that it’s necessary for countries to focus on environmental issues immediately, or do we have time to spare?

By Doyle McManus

September 23, 2010,0,1133668.column

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