March 15, 2011 – Carly Fiske
It appears that China may finally be joining the environmentalist bandwagon. Recent statements by government leaders suggest the fast-developing nation is growing concerned about the continuation of economic growth in light of present environmental degradation. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, in an internet talk, announced that growth rate goals for the country would be reduced from 7.5% to 7%, in large part due to environmental issues. It seems the Chinese government is coming to terms with the fact that unchecked economic development is often coupled with environmental problems that sneak behind it. Environmental damage, such as resource depletion, threatens to stop economic progress altogether, so it’s no surprise that China is starting to get their act together.
While uninhibited economic growth seemed an infallible goal to the China of ten years ago, a more complicated reality is now coming to light. In an online discussion, Mr. Wen expressed concerns that social and environmental stability are to be lost if economic growth continues at its current pace. He describes the issues of rapid growth as leading to “production capacity gluts and deepening pressure on the environment and resources” causing “unsustainable” development. While China’s economic numbers have looked promising in recent years, the future may be bleak if resources become exhausted. He also shows concern that growing public unrest will disrupt growth if pollution problems are not addressed.
The statements by the Prime Minister indicate a changing paradigm in China that is moving towards careful economic and ecological decisions. Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian makes even stronger assertions about the need for changes in China’s environmental goals. He believes that economic long-term growth goals in China can only be achieved if resource utilization becomes more efficient. He is eager for environmental protection to be a key aspect of the Five Year Plan (2011-2015) which is to be debated during the annual session of the National People’s Congress. This would be a clear transition from the old economic model of excessive consumption and input, to a new model of sustainable growth.
Environmental growth was intended to increase the quality of life for Chinese people, but left unchecked has harmed the health and well-being of many citizens. A great number of citizens, just like in other industrialized nations, suffer from adverse affects of pollution and other environmental harms. In fact, China is now considered to have the most polluted waterways and air in the world. As the largest consumer of cars and vans, CO2 emissions are a major issue for the health of the environment and citizens. China has more premature deaths due to air quality than anywhere else in the world. But human health isn’t the only issue; China emits more greenhouse gases than any other country, with 6.5 billion metric tons of CO2 a year. These statistics are no surprise due to the size of China’s population, but it’s important to consider the impact that unchecked growth will have if these trends continue.
There are other less visible examples of the health issues caused by the growth of factories and other symptoms of industrialization in China. Just this January, a report from China’s state-run news agency revealed that 200 children in eastern China who lived near battery factories had elevated lead levels, despite laws restricted factories from proximity to residential areas. Unfortunately, this single case is probably one of many, but happens to have received the most media attention. Experts believe that numerous similar cases of industrial poisoning exist throughout China that are not investigated. These kinds of problems are present in many industrialized countries, but to China they are new, widespread, and growing problems.
China is definitely not alone in these kinds of mistakes. The U.S. has encountered a similar struggle to maintain a sustainable balance between economic development and environmental impact. But as the largest and fastest growing industrialized nation and biggest exporter in the world, China is perhaps the most significant actor in environmental decisions today. China is to be making plans for its future that will affect the world. Although economic growth is their aim, leaders in China would truly benefit if they remember to make environmental protection a key part of that plan.