China gets a bad environmental press. It’s become somewhat of a cliché in the west to dismiss China as a dirty, fossil fuel powered juggernaut which is merrily going about destroying the planet in pursuit of economic growth.
Yet from my experience of travelling through the country for 2 months, this is a vastly oversimplified view of what’s really going on. This is the first of a series of blogs I’m going to write on the subject of China’s environmental future. In them, I’ll look at both what gives me hope and what makes me despair. Obviously I can’t touch on everything here, so the observations below are all based on thoughts/ sights/ ideas I was personally exposed to during my 2 months.
At the outset it’s worth saying that this blog was initially going to be about a more ‘sustainable’ future for China, but my time in the country has really made me question what the term ‘sustainable’ actually means. I find it a difficult, subjective term. I’ll return to this in the last of the blogs in this series.
This blog is the first of 2 about what gives me ‘hope’ for a cleaner environmental future. It highlights 3 recurring themes I found to be representative of the situation in China as a whole. These themes underpin many of the specific examples found in the second blog to follow.
1) It’s the economy, stupid
During my trip through China, I was accompanied by Jonathan Watt’s excellent book called ‘When a billion Chinese jump’. It’s part environmental expose, part travelogue as Watts traverses China exploring different environmental issues in different states. One of the most illuminating comments for me in the book was that China’s economic growth is being hindered some 5% per year due to the effects of pollution (on things such as human health, agricultural productivity, the cost of cleaning up). Thus, even if you don’t give a crap about the fundamental good in protecting the environment, then it makes simple economic sense to become cleaner. Combine this economic imperative to clean up traditional ways of production with the huge economic opportunity associated with clean tech, and it’s a powerful combination.
2) ‘My kids are bullshit with environment’
Although a rather strange use of English, I thought that this sentiment offered by a university professor I met at a ‘Green Drinks’ event in Beijing was quite important. When I asked him exactly what he meant he said that the young people of China were so pissed off with the pollution in the country that a tipping point had been reached where they were like ‘bullshit. I’m not taking any more of this crap. I want to do something about it’.
Indeed this was a common theme which I heard throughout my time where people allured to an ‘axis of filth’ having been reached and now people were waking up to it being time to do something about it. People kept on telling me of the parallels between China now and the western world when it was going through its industrialisation. ‘Look at how dirty London used to be’ they pointed out to me. And by and large, now in the West, we have cleared up many of our more obvious pollution problems with things such as the Clean Air Act (although obviously problems do still exist).
Pollution is a real hot topic of conversation in Beijing. Asking what the ‘API’ is (Air pollution index) is as common as asking how hot it is or whether it will rain. Everyone has an API app on their phone which tells them exactly how high it is. Although this often reveals worrying results, at least it shows just how embedded it is in the public consciousness right now, and how much people want to change it.
The Chinese engineering capacity
Another common theme throughout my time was the constant reference to China’s huge engineering potential. If there’s one thing the Chinese can do well, it’s to get both huge and innovative engineering projects done. It’s all very much in line with the government’s principles of ‘Scientific Development’. Although projects such as the 3 gorges dam may have mixed sustainability credentials, there’s no doubting the engineering excellence associated with it (its not showing any signs if bursting just yet).
There’s a similarly ambitious project underway known as the South – North water diversion project which is seeing water from the Yangste river in the relatively water rich south being diverted to the Yellow and Hai rivers of the water poor north. Mao himself put it rather succinctly a number of years ago ‘Southern water is plentiful, northern water is scarce. If at all possible, borrowing some water would be good’.
Some may believe that this is just papering over the cracks and is even the very definition of ‘unsustainable’ behaviour, but within China there’s a very real belief that the huge engineering ingenuity might just get them out of trouble. Some of the specific examples shown in the next blog reflect this incredible capacity. For me, the capacity is a source of hope….
Which of these factors is most important is debateable. But the result is a number of specific examples springing up around the country which really did give me hope that things were moving in the right direction. These examples are the subject of the next blog