No creature represents the power and symbolism of China’s ties to nature and the land quite like the horse. For centuries, strong steeds helped farmers feed the nation.
Even so, perhaps it is no more than sheer coincidence that just as the people of China settled down to usher in the Year of the Horse, some good news regarding the country’s torrid pollution was highlighted by a leading environmental report.
The 2014 edition of the annual Environmental Performance Index, compiled by US-based Yale and Columbia universities, said China had made huge strides in slowing the growth of its greenhouse gas emissions in the past decade.
“Despite high economic expansion averaging greater than 10% annual growth in GDP, China reported a 20% decrease in carbon intensity between 2005 and 2010,” the report noted. This is the amount of carbon emitted for each unit of economic growth.
Reducing the speed at which the world’s largest industrial nation is pumping harmful gases into the atmosphere may not be the same as actually reducing overall emissions, the criterion by which rich nations are judged, but it is a start. The report’s authors are optimistic that the policies that delivered this deceleration will continue to bear fruit and may one day lead China to actually reduce emissions.
Under its 12th five-year economic plan, running 2011-2015, China vowed to reduce carbon intensity by 16-17% from 2005 baselines levels, with a longer-term goal of 40-45% reductions by 2020. That target may even be tightened in future plans.
“Although it is too soon to tell how effective these early steps will be, China’s performance… demonstrates the tangible results of policies implemented over the last few years that have helped to reduce energy and carbon intensity,” the report said.
This doesn’t mean that China has made similar progress in other environmental areas. It hasn’t. Heavy smog engulfed Shanghai, these days primarily a services hub, on the night before Chinese New Year. China Economic Review cycled past countless open incinerators burning household rubbish and highly polluting tractors on country roads in Guilin province earlier this week.
The index ranked China bottom globally in terms of air pollution with most of its residents exposed to dangerously high levels of PM2.5, a fine particulate matter. Overall it came 118th out of 178 countries, faring poorly also on issues like water.
Even on carbon emissions China’s progress could be better. The target of a 16-17% reduction in carbon intensity by the end of 2015 from 2005 levels looks like it may not be met, judging by early results for the five-year period.
Failing on this front would undermine all the small but important gains that China has made in improving its environmental record. Although the situation is dire, the country is taking steps to curb emissions and has invested billions of dollars in clean energy products and services with the potential to be deployed anywhere in the world.
Pollution threatens the health of the people of China and undermines their quality of life – the very thing the Communist Party has staked its legitimacy on improving. Top officials have no excuses not to force the issue home at all levels of government.
One argument they frequently wheel out to defend their record is that economic development is still the priority in order to pull its people out of poverty, something the report agrees with. Yet as the chief economist of technology group Intel warned this week, if not tackled, bad air will undermine China’s future economic growth.
Green fields and clean skies are a sign of a better life; they also symbolize progress. China simply cannot afford to keep damaging its natural surroundings any longer. At the very least it must meet all of the environmental targets that it has set for itself.