In Beijing recently, environmental activist Wen Bo pointed out that if we are to save our planet, China is where we should be looking to act. Yet as he and others pointed out, there is no environmental movement to speak of there and funds spent to help stimulate action on climate change are small relative to those spent elsewhere. This despite greater openness from the Beijing government around environmental activism and their public recognition of the challenges the country faces.
A recent report from the Netherlands Environment Assessment Agency showed that the hefty increase in emissions from fast-developing parts of the world like China and India “completely nullified CO2 emission reductions in the industrialized world.”
The numbers are startling. According to a McKinsey Global Institute, by 2030 Chinese cities are expected to add more than 350 million people – more than the total population of the United States – swelling to a total urban population of more than a billion.
This will mean massive investments in housing, transportation, water and energy systems. Imagine all the additional consumers, many of whom will for the first time be buying air conditioners, refrigerators, cars, washing machines and the like. Then there will be the new hospitals, the school, universities, transport systems for new towns, expansion of the existing transports to accommodate urban sprawl. Finally, there are the apartment buildings and offices. All this will mean huge further consumption and demand on energy sources – 80 percent of which are coal today.
Already, 16 of the World’s most polluted cities are in China while desertification in some parts and flooding in others have taken their toll. The World Bank concludes that air and water pollution is costing China about 5.8 percent of its $4.9 trillion GDP in direct damage. This includes impact on crops of acid rain, medical bills, lost work from illness, money spent on disaster relief following floods and the implied costs of resource depletion.
With health costs escalating, that figure will increase, giving rise to some grim prognoses that growth itself will be undermined.
Recognizing this, Pan Yue, deputy head of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, the country’s environmental watchdog ministry (SEPA), has called pollution “the bottleneck constraining economic growth in China”.