Forum for the Future (a UK group) just released a very interesting report on China’s environmental problems. “Greening the Dragon” is online at http://www.forumforthefuture.org.uk/news/china_page431.aspx and includes articles on energy, water, sustainable cities, grassroots activism, and other facets of environmentalism in China. The report includes the usual litany of impossible-sounding statistics, like the following:
– 1,000 new cars are introduced every day on the streets of Beijing.
– in 2005, China added new power generation capacity approximately equal to the total UK power capacity.
Yet at the same time, the paper raises the hope that China could perhaps be a testing ground and a leader for environmental policy solutions. In some ways, it seems to me that the economic attitude of Chinese people, despite living in a communist country, is closer to the prevailing attitude in the U.S. than to Europe. Consumerism is rampant, personal wealth is a high priority, and environmental protection is not high on most people’s radar screens. However, because of the obvious pressure on the country’s water and energy resources, policies that would never fly in the United States – green taxes, for example – have already been implemented in China. China has introduced fuel taxes to discourage the purchase of SUVs and other gas-guzzlers and a 5% tax on wooden disposable chopsticks (which consume 25 million trees each year). China’s new national renewable energy law requires 15% of China’s energy to be generated from renewables (unfortunately including large hydro) by 2020, a goal which rivals those of many U.S. states. Here the demand for renewables is driven not just by climate change and desire for energy independence, but also by the terrible air quality. China, which will have to build housing for about 300 million people in the next ten years, is literally building new cities – including a carbon-neutral city that will ultimately house half a million people. The Chinese government is also developing a “green GDP” national accounting measure that will account for the social and environmental costs of its economic boom.
Granted, some of the measures that China is taking that would never fly in the U.S. probably shouldn’t be flying in China either – such as the massive South-North water diversion project that I mentioned in a previous post. But in many cases, it seems that the sheer scale of the problem here has pushed the government to the realization that innovative and ambitious environmental policy solutions are necessary. So the big question with China is, as always, will it be enough?