Friday, September 15, 2006

Greening The Dragon

"What happens in China, happens to the rest of the planet, for good or ill," according to Jonathan Porritt, Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission.

Porritt's comment is in reference to what the UK publication Green Futures calls "the most important unfolding story anywhere in the world" -- China's drive to modernize its economy.

There's no question that in some respects, living standards in China have improved dramatically as a result of the country's economic boom. According to "Greening the Dragon" an outstanding special supplement to Green Futures, the average life expectancy increased from just 35 years in 1949 to 72 years in 2004. Some 250 million people have found jobs allowing them to escape extreme poverty.

But these gains have extracted a heavy toll on the environment:
  • Within ten years, China is likely to be the prime emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide.
  • China is building a new coal-fired power station every ten days.
  • Overall, China added 65,000 megawatts of new power generation in 2005 alone (approximatley equal to the UK's total installed capacity) .
  • 1,000 new cars are rolled out onto the streets of Bejing each day.
  • According to the Chinese deputy environmental minister, acid raid is falling on one third of the country.
  • Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China.
There is reason for optimism, however. When China released its 11th Five Year Plan earlier this year, Premier Wen Jiabao vowed that China could not afford to follow the "old path of grow first and clean up the environmental mess later."

As a result the government has set some ambitious sustainable development targets:
  • 10% reduction in total pollutants
  • 20% fall in energy consumption per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
  • 30% reduction in water usage (per unit of industrial value added)
China is also developing a green accounting system that will include full environmental costs in its calculations of GDP.

Jonathan Porritt writing in "Greening the Dragon" views the commitment to these goals as a sign that China could lead the world in a kind of "green industrial revolution that Western leaders love to pontificate about."

Orville Schell, author of nine books on China and Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley sums it up this way: "China thinks long-term, but can it re-learn to act long-term?" (GW)


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