The Chinese way of Development Threatens Survival

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By He Qinglian on February 13, 2012
(translated by kRiZ cPEc)

Serious pollution problems in the soil, water and air of China

Apart from economic restructuring, China faces another challenge that is more serious: to change the way in which it develops. This change comprises two aspects, the first is that China must shift the way it uses energy from the high consumption pattern to the low consumption one; the second is remediation of the land. To start with, the huge number of polluting industries should be suspended from operation; and from now on, big money should be continuously allocated to gradual repair of the severely contaminated ecosystem, so that food and water in the country could return to their safety standards.

Since one-sixth of China's farmland is polluted by heavy metals, many crops are contaminated with heavy metals like cadmium, and lead—a big topic that must be addressed in a separate essay written specifically on that purpose. This article explores only the possibility of China changing its way of energy consumption.

Government Intervention Cripples the “ Environmental Kuznets Curve”

As everyone knew, the international community had at one point eagerly hoped that China would actively adjust its energy structure, and participate in the global emissions reduction agreement. But at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, China dealt the international community a soft rebuff at the cost of deterioration in the country’s international profile. On the surface that decision was made because of China’s arrogance, yet beneath it there was another reason Beijing found difficult to admit: it could neither optimize the country’s economic structure nor brake the rapid development of energy-intensive industries.

Some people had drawn reference from the “Kuznets Curve” of economics to illustrate the relationship between per capita income and the environment, arguing that once China has passed the turning point of the “Kuznets Curve”, its environment and ecology would begin to improve.

The “Kuznets Curve” was a theory of the 1950s that economist Simon Kuznets, a Nobel laureate, used to analyze the connection between per capita level of income and the fairness of its distribution. His research indicated that, as the economy grew, income inequality would first rise then fall, showing an inverted U curve.

Based on this theory, when a country is less developed economically, its environmental pollution would be at a lesser degree; however, along with an increase in per capita income, environmental pollution would trend upward—as the economy grows, the degree of environment deterioration exacerbates; yet after the economy has developed to a certain degree, or reached a certain “inflection point” (aka “turning point”), with a further increase in per capita income, the trend of environmental pollution would be reversed, and the quality of the environment would improve gradually. This argument, called the “Environmental Kuznets Curve”, has been used by some researchers to pacify the Chinese people who suffer miserably from environmental pollution and are very anxious about it.

The fatal flaw of the “Environmental Kuznets Curve” is that it sees the pollution and improvement of environment and ecology as processes that occur naturally, and overlooks the fact that the government can actively intervene in and bring about change to them through legislative and executive means. Like I said before, the whole China, from officials to businesses, are telling lies when they do environment protection work. Even environment assessment, the first gate of environment protection, has become an important means for interest groups to be above the country. In the complicity of the interest groups, many projects that would severely damage the environment or pollute the air were launched and eventually led to environmental pollution so great an extent that even Beijing dare not face it.

Statistical data becomes a politics game of self-consolation

That Beijing dare not face the pollution issue is evident in the confusion over the statistical data on the ratio of China's energy consumption per unit of production output.

During the time when Pan Yue vigorously pushed for green GDP, China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) posted on its website that: in 2004, China used 31% of the world's coal; steel, 29%; oil, 8%; cement, 45%; and yet the GDP it generated accounted for only 4% of the world. The People's Daily admitted in the article, “An Important Goal for the Eleventh Five-year Plan: Reduce Energy Consumption Per Unit of GDP by 20%”, that: viewed from the perspective of energy efficiency, China as a country with one-fifth of the world's total population, its GDP accounted for only 4% of the world's total, but the energy consumption per unit of output was 3-4 times that of developed countries. The energy consumption per unit of GDP was seven times that of Japan, six times the United States, and 2.8 times of even India.

Since China's high consumption of energy had became a topic rejected by the international community, official stance on the matter changed considerably in recent years. According to the optimistic estimate by the Chinese authorities, for every percentage point of growth in GDP, energy consumption would need to increase by 0.8% to 1%; even if clean energy is widely in use, that figure could hardly be lower than 0.5%. But because departments [involved] are many, it is not easy for all the falsified figures to maintain unity before they reach the terminal of the National Bureau of Statistics. As a result, chaos occurred when the media cited those figures.

The following two sets of data were three months apart of each other.

The first set appeared in an article published on June 30, 2011 in Guangzhou's New Weekly, “Excessive Consumption Under an Energy Crisis: China's Energy Consumption Accounts for One-tenth of the World's Total”. According to that report, China's GDP that year made up for 8.9% of the world, while its energy consumption was 10% of the world's total. Its energy consumption ratio per unit of production output was already close to the international average. Despite this, China carried out a high degree self-reflection on its excessive energy consumption, how “noble” that was!

But three months later at the International Petrochemical Conference 2011, the second set of data was revealed: while China accounted for less than 10% of the world’s total GDP, the country's total energy consumption was already 20% that of the world. The latter figure here was close to that appeared in the World Energy Statistics Yearbook by British Petroleum (BP): In 2010, China’s energy consumption accounted for 20.3 percent of the world, surpassing the United States which accounted for 19% of the world energy consumption and became the world's largest energy consumer.

The confusion of energy consumption figures reflected only one thing: that it is almost hopeless for China to change the way it develops its economy. Not dare to face the truth that the country’s ecosystem is on the verge of collapse, Beijing, apart from consoling itself by playing game with the data on paper, sees the emissions reduction agreement as a conspiracy of the international community to limit China's development, and describes it as a form of inequality imposed on China.

China Stands to be benefited the most from Reducing Energy Consumption

The real problem, however, is that: although China’s per capita energy consumption is roughly the same as that of the world, its per capita GDP is only 50% of the world's average. The following figures, too, indicate that China must quickly change the way it develops its economy: China’s energy consumption surpasses the United States, but its total GDP is only 37% of America; currently, China’s total energy consumption is 4.7 times that of Japan, yet its total GDP is only roughly the same as that of Japan. China's energy consumption is growing at a rate faster than that of its GDP, bringing tremendous pressure on both energy production, saving and emission reduction.

The above energy consumption data referred mainly to petroleum, it did not include consumption of other resources such as coal—of the world's total coal consumption in 2010, China accounted for up to 48.2%; in the same year, China's carbon emissions was ranked first in the world, its public had already felt clearly the serious air pollution.

After October 2011, the air monitoring data released by the US embassy in China resulted in Beijing’s air quality becoming a trending topic on Weibo. I posted on Weibo the content of “The Privileges of China’s Elite Include Purified Air”, an article published on November 4 in the New York Times, and caused an uproar in the Weibo sphere. Beijing later accused the paper of misleading its readers, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested that the US embassy stop its hourly release of air quality monitoring data. After that, however, the air purifier mentioned in the article became a much sought-after product in short supply.