The previous post in this series on China looked at how the situation on energy and climate change specifically made me despair for China’s environmental future. Sadly, its only 1 of a plethora of other things I observed directly or read about during my 2 months in the world’s new superpower. Readers may notice some similarities between this and the ‘hope’ blog post. Sadly every rose has its thorn….
The other side to what had given me hope:
Tianjin Eco city: Sadly, although I admired the plans and ambition of those behind the Tianjin eco city, my overall feeling coming away from there was one of more concern than hope. Of immediate concern was the cost of the city. 20 times more expensive (upfront costs) than building a new city of equivalent size without the environmental considerations I was told. At that kind of cost it made me question whether the whole thing would ever actually get built (eco cities in China & the Middle East have an unfortunate recent history of being delayed, shelved or abandoned)
Perhaps of longer term concern, however, was the nature of the development in the area immediately surrounding the eco city. The eco city is part of the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA). It’s a major source of GDP growth for China with the GDP of just that zone reaching over $32bn by the end of 2012, with a growth rate of 23% since the previous year. It’s becoming the home to many multinational companies – with a particular focus on the chemical and port industries.
When driving in the area around the eco city its quite an amazing spectacle. The area is just one giant construction site.
I went down to have a look at where the new port and factories are starting to be constructed. Currently they are just preparing the ground and reclaiming land from the sea. Huge trucks are everywhere. Billboards line the side of the street showing the impressive vision of what its all going to be like when its finished by the middle of the 2020’s. I’d love to return then to see what it’s actually like.
The point is that the eco city is only one tiny piece of a huge scale development. I asked one of the people working on the eco city project if the same ‘sustainability’ considerations were being taken into account for the rest of the development area. ‘Not at all’ his reply.
And this is the point. It seems throughout China there are ‘islands of hope’ surrounded by a ‘sea of despair’, at least from an environmental perspective. The eco city is a perfect physical embodiment of that…
Linfen & Beijing pollution
I also wrote about how I’d had a pleasant surprise by Linfen and Beijing – supposedly the ‘world’s most polluted city’ and the ‘world’s most polluted metropolis’ respectively. Well, unfortunately it’s not always such a great story. Regarding my surprise at the beautiful blue skies in Linfen for the couple of days I visited, and surprising number of ‘blue sky’ days in Beijing during my month there, it does appear that I just visited at a particularly good time.
Beijingers told me of a particularly bad winter. Indeed in January 2013, the much talked about Air Pollution Index (API) reached an all time high of 755 (500 is supposed to be the top end of the scale). Residents went on lock down, afraid the go out of their houses in conditions which were described as ‘beyond hazardous’. Check out the New York Times article here
Even though its now well acknowledged that air pollution in cities is a major problem to both the population’s health and the economy, there is also the concern that high pollution levels from factories are just being transferred from the main cities to the country’s less populated rural areas. There’s a good article about it here
Locally, it could be argued as just continuing the trend whereby the West outsourced its pollution to the developing world (including China), now the developing world is outsourcing its pollution from its developed cities to its undeveloped countryside.
Electric scooters. Although electrifying much of the scooter fleet shows an ability to alter transport energy consumption on a vast scale, the scooters are only as ‘clean’ as the energy which produces them. Currently that’s predominantly coal – again coming to the point that fundamental problems are being transferred rather than eliminated. If I was being particularly harsh I could argue that electrifying transport was more a reflection on China being relatively more blessed with coal resources than it is oil.
Trains & planes. I also noted the excellence of some of the train system in China in the ‘hope’ post. Yes, some swanky new high-speed trains are already up and running. And many more are slated. But this has to be set in the context of the growth in China’s other, less environmentally friendly transportation options. Just to pick one – aviation. According to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), in the period 2011-2015, China is planning to add 70 new airports, renovate a further 101 and add 4000 new aeroplanes to its fleet. Wow!
And its not as though flying isn’t going to be massively more expensive either. When I was looking into getting from Kunming to Beijing everyone told me that a flight would be just as cheap as a train (certainly in ‘soft sleeper’ class), and would save me 37 hours of transport time (3 hours vs. 40 hours). My overland rule ensured I took the less convenient of these options, but had I been a rational economic being I absolutely would not have!
Although I highlighted how China is the world’s recycling capital, this doesn’t seem to extend to the attitudes of the general public or measures at a domestic level. My Chinese friends flippantly told me how the separate ‘recycling’ section of public bins in Beijing was actually joined to the general waste (I can’t verify that claim, but the implication is that its all just for show). Certainly in rural areas, there’s also the culture of just chucking away rubbish onto the street or field. This was no better exemplified than the picture I photographed below from a tourist magazine showing Yunnan’s beautiful nature. Even in this photo rubbish is lining the river. Culturally it seems to be OK.
This problem is by no means limited to China, and was one of my main bugbears throughout the journey. Someone explained it to me as being a consequence of older generations being bought up in a world without plastic packaging. Traditional packaging would be bio-degradable (things such as banana leaves). Obviously these could be chucked with no consequence or lasting effect. The switch to plastics had taken place, but the corresponding cultural shift in how to dispose of them had not.
Other things I read about
The above were just things which I directly observed or experienced. As I mentioned previously, I read Jonathan Watts’ excellent book ‘a billion Chinese jump’ on my way. Through that I learned of all sorts of other pressing environmental concerns including water, food and e-waste. All these problems, it was argued, were not helped by too much political power residing in the hands of Chinese ‘middle men’, which meant that there was a perverse incentive to doctor the numbers to please the top brass of the communist party.
I want to finish this post by briefly touching on one of the issues mentioned above – water. Water is actually seen by most as China’s worst and most pressing environmental problem. I’ll just finish this blog post with some alarming stats (from the economist) which serve to illustrate this:
- Beijing has the sort of water scarcity usually associated with Saudi Arabia: just 100 cubic metres per person a year
- The number of rivers with significant catchment areas has fallen from more than 50,000 in the 1950s to 23,000 now
- Of the little water left, the quality is atrocious. In 2007 the Yellow River Conservancy Commission, a government agency, surveyed 13,000 kilometres (8,000 miles) of the river and its tributaries and concluded that a third of the water is unfit even for agriculture. Four thousand petrochemical plants are built on its banks
Moreover, as explained in the themes blog, this is all set against a backdrop of ever increasing demand – for energy, food and transport. It all means more water is going to be needed. At a time when its becoming increasingly scarce! No wonder the South – North water diversion project looms!
The final blog in this China series sums up my overall feelings towards China’s environmental future