How much does China care about the environment? The conventional wisdom, most recently outlined by Jonathan Watts in his environmental travelogue When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind – Or Destroy It, is that it does not care nearly enough.
Anyone unfortunate enough to have sweated out the summer in Beijing this year would surely agree. Just two years after the Olympics were supposed to bring blue skies to China’s capital, the air today is filthier than locals remember it being for a decade or so.
The green brigade say that, in addition to the belching fumes produced by four million cars jammed on the capital’s five ring roads, Beijing felt the impact of China’s stimulus-led investment boom, as hundreds of steel mills in neighboring Hebei province cranked up rebar production.
Environmental degradation is an age-old problem. Paradise Lost, John Milton’s 17th-century epic poem of the fall of mankind, tells how Mammon first taught men to ransack the earth for its natural resources. "With impious hands," the blind poet recounts, "[they] rifled the bowels of their mother Earth for treasures better hid."
But China is now doing this on a scale that even Milton’s fallen angels would find it difficult to comprehend, and the scale of environmental destruction threatens to dwarf anything that occurred during the previous three centuries of industrial development put together.
China is already the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), has now overtaken the US to become the number one energy consumer. Beijing disputes the IEA’s findings, but it’s a moot point: China inevitably will be the world’s biggest energy consumer for years to come. Dispiritingly, the vast majority of this energy will come from the dirtiest source of all – coal.
Critics of China’s record claim that the government is not doing enough to stave off environmental catastrophe. But there is nothing policy makers could do – other than turn their back on industrial development altogether – that would be enough to silence all but the most even-handed of detractors.
And in the interests of fairness, it is worth pointing out just how much Beijing has done in the past five years alone to improve China’s appalling environmental record.
First, in 2005 it pledged to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP by 20% by 2010 – a tough target, but by the end of last year energy intensity had already dropped by nearly 16%, suggesting it is one well within reach. Second, it passed a renewable energy law requiring 15% of the country’s energy mix to come from renewable sources by 2020, a considerably more ambitious target than many developed countries have set. Third, it wants to cut carbon intensity per unit of GDP by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2020, another extremely ambitious goal.
True, even if Beijing meets its carbon intensity target China’s total carbon emissions in 2020 will be double the level in 2005, presuming that GDP grows by an average 8% a year over the next decade. But it is also worth pointing out that the country’s pollution controls are less than 15 years old, and it has made more progress in the past five years than many far wealthier nations.
China’s environmental record is poor, and it needs to improve. But constructive criticism of Beijing’s performance must recognize the genuine efforts it has made.