China breathes freer

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
September 10, 2005

Globalization, and Chinese-style corporatism, are profoundly affecting China’s environment. China’s smokestack industries are booming like never before, China’s roads are clogged with private vehicles for the first time, China’s air is cleaner than it has been in decades and the Chinese people are better able to voice their preferences than at almost any other time in their 4,000-year history. Totalitarian rule can do good when turned to a good cause.

Twenty-one years ago, during a month of travelling in China, I was struck by the appalling state of its environment. The air was foul, the urban surroundings all but devoid of greenery, the health of the population compromised by almost comical conditions. To heat their city homes, for example, Chinese residents burned coal debris compressed to puck size, and then exhausted the soot through stovepipes that exited the front of their homes into the faces of passersby.
CREDIT: China Photos; Getty Images
Smog is still visible in China, but
conditions are immeasurably improved.

Twenty-one years ago, storms carrying dust from distant erosion, along with coal soot and other pollution, was so severe that hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of Chinese routinely wore surgical masks when out in public. In that era, when the Chinese government touted forest conservation, it ordered that not one twig be left behind in a national drive to harvest merchantable wood. In that era, Chinese males were extraordinarily heavy cigarette smokers – indoor spaces reeked of tobacco.

This last summer, during another month in China, I saw an environment, and a people, transformed. Smoking in China’s major cities is in great decline, perhaps comparable to smoking in the cities of Europe today and those of North America five years ago. In local restaurants, for example, although smoking is not banned, only one table out of 10 might have smokers. Like North America, smoking is banned in buses, elevators and many other confined spaces.

The city air is far cleaner, too, thanks to growing bans on coal burning and the growing use of clean fuels such as natural gas and cleaner techniques such as district heating. Greenery abounds in many major cities, which now have budgets for landscaping. To arrest the erosion, the result of desertification following deforestation, the government has imposed logging bans and is investing in reforestation.

International trade is behind much of this improvement in the environment: China, as a signatory to the World Trade Organization, is required to comply with pollution-prevention regulations. Multinationals execute much of the improvements: Typically, a Western multinational will purchase a decrepit and polluting Chinese plant and upgrade it to Western standards, in the process slashing its emissions. In some cases, especially in the case of curbs on the automobile, the Chinese are ahead of the West. Shanghai runs a weekly auction in which owners of new private vehicles now bid some 45,000 yuan ($6,550) for the right to drive their car on Shanghai roads. After a public hearing next week, Shenzhen will decide whether parking fees should be higher during peak hours and in congested places.

China’s environmental performance still lags far behind the West’s – the surgical masks haven’t entirely disappeared and ruinous megaprojects still get built more often than not. But for the first time, the public has a right to bring complaints about a government project to public authorities, improving the chances that grievances will be addressed and compensation paid. That forces a project’s backers to incorporate these otherwise hidden costs into their cost-benefit analysis. The ability of developers to ignore hidden costs is among the chief reasons that uneconomic developments are commonplace throughout China.

For the first time, too, environmental groups are beginning to flex their muscle. Earlier this week, 61 of them signed a petition demanding the release of an environmental impact assessment for a proposed dam. “Dam builders should not externalize the huge costs of dam construction on affected people, the public, the nation’s finances and future generations,” they wrote. Had they dared do so in the past, they would have been quickly jailed.

China’s great advances in environmental protection are unlikely to continue for long, however. The government’s toleration of dissent is limited to the environmental sphere, narrowly defined, and then only to a point. Without dissent in all areas of society, the feedback required for informed environmental and economic decisions is distorted, leading to waste and environmental harm.

China’s environmental progress to date, in fact, is impressive only in comparison to China’s recent past. The country had hit rock bottom following Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a time of immense failures in agriculture and elsewhere that led to environmental ruin and widespread starvation. Almost any approach would have led to improvement.

Mao’s successors, for their next round of environmental miracles, plan to rely on exhortations to convince the citizenry to conserve energy. The exhortations, in energy and elsewhere, will count for naught if they don’t relax their grip on society and let people through free markets and the rule of law replace decisions by state fiat. The environmental miracle workers, in the end, can only be the public at large.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute;

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