Want to Save the World? Start in China

Within a few days, Yale e360 published two extremely interesting analyses of China’s recent environmental and social problems: China’s Great Dam Boom by Charlton Lewis and China at Crossroads by Ed Grumbine. Both fascinating in their own right, these articles show that if you want to save the world from a looming environmental catastrophe, you have to start in China.

Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping initiated the economic reforms that have made China’s the most dynamic economy in human history, the country’s nominal GDP as measured in USD has risen by 3700% (as of 2012). Its share in the world GDP has increased from approximately 2% to more than 10%.  At the same time, China’s population has grown by around a third. Nonetheless, according to World Bank figures, the share of population having command over less than 1.25 USD per day has declined from 85% in 1981 to 13% in 2008. Also, China’s Human Development Index has risen from 0.407 to 0.699 between 1980 and 2013 (for comparison: world HDI has changed from 0.561 to 0.694 over the same period).

These few stylized facts, while very crude, give you a glimpse at how remarkable the economic success of the People’s Republic has been. It has come, however, at a cost. I won’t dwell on social and political issues, since they are not my field of expertise, but Grumbine’s article provides some hints, including some links for further reading. Economically, also, the story has not been one of pure success – a huge, though statistically “hidden” debt burden and the steadily growing but not very useful mount of US government bonds are but a couple of examples. What I am interested in here, however, is the environmental cost of China’s economic explosion, which have been and will likely continue being huge.

As stressed by Charlton Lewis, the problem starts with energy issues. Since 2006, China has been the world’s largest emitter of CO2, and its per capita emissions have been rising, too. Currently they are approaching the levels of most European countries. The main reason, of course, is the country’s reliance on coal as its main source of energy (accounting for almost 70% of all electricity production in 2006). But, as shown by Lewis, even the presumably “clean” hydro-energy (21%) is by far not as clean as widely believed. Apart from the social, ecological, agricultural and cultural “collateral damages” of China’s huge dams, their greenhouse gas emissions are oftentimes not significantly lower than those of gas plants. But what are the options China otherwise has? Despite its alleged move towards a “green economy”, especially its worldwide leadership in renewable industries, the non-hydro renewable sector is quite small, accounting for around 1% of electricity production. While the Communist Party is planning to increase this share to 8% by 2020, coal should be expected to dominate the Chinese energy generation sector for years to come. This is understandable: China may push for more wind and solar, but, first, they just have started from scratch and inland energy demand keeps rising. Second, renewable energies are still far more expensive than coal at market prices. Third, we are still waiting for reliable storage technologies. Stable and constant delivery of power is particularly important for China, whose economy relies on industry rather than services. Given the difficulties of Western countries to meet their renewable energy goals (even without the pressures resulting from still prevalent poverty), it cannot be expected that China will become a clean energy country within a few years.

On the other hand: it actually has to. According to the IPCC, we are going to use up the “carbon space” in the atmosphere within 40-50 years at current emission levels. This “carbon space” of some 1000 Gt, of which we already have used more than a half, is believed to correspond with the global 2°C-above-preindustrial stabilization goal. Being the world’s largest emitter, China has to be involved in any meaningful attempt to tackle climate change. But, as stressed above, there is no reason to believe that its coal consumption will decrease significantly any time soon. So, may nuclear power be the lesser evil here? I neither think that it has the needed potential nor that it would be a good idea if China would try to replace coal with nuke. For the time being, nuclear power accounts only for about as small a share in Chinese electricity generation as non-hydro renewables. Considering the huge investment costs that every new nuclear plant entails, there is no reason to hope for a “nuclear salvation”. Furthermore, I would hesitate to call nuclear power a lesser evil in China’s case. This technology may be “safe enough” in Western democracies, where high legal standards have a tradition and where there is a free public to watch that standards are adhered to. In China, however, both factors are lacking.

But climate change is not the only environmental problem China has. Maybe it is not even the most important one, at least for China itself. Speaking of coal – recently, the extremely high levels of air pollution in Chinese cities has gotten particular media attention. As mentioned by Lewis in the article I linked above, the quality of soils in China is so bad that the government keeps the respective data secret. Soils have deteriorated due to pollution from different sources, ranging from agriculture to chemical industries. Low or even hardly existent environmental standards in many industries have been the reason for environmentalist campaigns in Europe and beyond. Biodiversity loss is at its highest rates in China. And this list could be extended almost infinitely. In other words: after 35 years of unbridled economic growth, resulting environmental collateral damages are overwhelming. Many of China’s problems are global problems, too, climate change being only the most obvious example. So, if we are serious about “saving the world” from an environmental catastrophe, we have to start by saving China. Or, rather, by helping China to save itself.


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