It took a winter’s drive though Shanxi, the heart of coal country, to remind Fat Dragon of just how immense the challenges facing China are for the next 10 to 20 years.
The landscape itself is bad enough, dominated by sandy, desert-like soils impervious to vegetation. Rice paddy-like terraces have been carved out of the hilly terrain, but this seems like a futile gesture of hope rather than the basis for any crop. There is no water in sight, let alone rice.
And then there are the coal mines, scores of small dark blights on the landscape, plus the odd large and menacing state-owned concern.
Coal fuels China – about 80% of the country’s primary energy comes from the black mineral. In 20 years time, it is expected to be 60%, which is mind-boggling, when you remember that by 2009, the Middle Kingdom will have already taken over the US as the world’s largest emitter of energy-related greenhouse gases.
With an apparent scientific consensus that greenhouse gases need to be capped within years, how will China manage its global responsibilities?
So far, Beijing’s response has been that it should not have to take on that responsibility at all.
To be sure, things have changed since the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol. Then, China’s representative said that the West’s emissions were "wealth emissions", whereas China’s were "poverty emissions". Now the country acknowledges that it must produce cleaner, greener power, but not, however, at the expense of economic development.
To keep the West at bay, China says emissions should be judged on a per capita basis. With most of the country’s population yet to enter the modern economy, this argument suits Beijing well, but it might spell disaster for the rest of the world.
Neither is the argument sustainable. Once the US moves on the issue – and it will do, most likely after George W. Bush’s term finishes as president – then China will no longer have Washington’s recalcitrance on this issue to hide behind.
Nor for that matter will India. The two have a similar problem: how to satisfy populations which have grown used to economic growth and expect nothing less from their governments.
Indians can at least throw their governments out at elections if they feel let down.
To enforce tighter energy standards, China needs a powerful, independent environmental watchdog that can override local party officials. In other words, they need the kind of institutions that exist in an open and democratic society. The way politics works in China at the moment, the present watchdog cannot satisfy any of these conditions.
How, too, will the center force on localities the costs of "clean coal" power stations? And where is all the water going to come from to wash the coal beforehand? There is not enough water to drink, let alone wash billions of tons of coal.
Sure, other countries have been mired in pollution problems before and managed to clean themselves up. But London’s "pea-soup" fog and the black mist scandals in Japan during its 1960s ascent are not of the same dimension.
Optimists who think that technology will solve the problem have never taken a drive through China’s coal country. It is a sobering experience.