14 Nov 2013: Analysis

China at Crossroads: Balancing
The Economy and Environment

After three decades of unbridled economic growth and mounting ecological problems, China and its new leadership face a key challenge: cleaning up the dirty air, polluted water, and tainted food supplies that are fueling widespread discontent among the country’s burgeoning middle class.

by r. edward grumbine

Thirty-five years ago, a landmark plenum of China's Communist Party famously initiated the structural reforms that boosted the country's economy into export-led overdrive, transformed China into a world power, and spawned a daunting array of environmental challenges.

Now, as another key plenum ended this week in Beijing, China's new President, Xi Jinping, and Prime Minister Li Keqiang find their country at a critical crossroads. The economy has slowed, and China is confronting
Third Plenum Communist Party
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Police stand guard as the Communist Party plenum takes place behind closed doors.
the cumulative consequences of its three-decade focus on economic expansion with little attention paid to mounting ecological and social costs.

The just-completed Third Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party — the strategy session that accompanies China's once-a-decade leadership transition — may one day be seen as a turning point that marked China's shift away from unbridled economic growth toward a more balanced and sustainable form of development. But given the traditionally broad pronouncements favored by the party in its concluding report, it will take a while before the impact of China's reforms emerges and it becomes clear whether these reforms will do anything significant to tackle the country's severe environmental problems — from foul air, to badly polluted water supplies, to tainted food.

One thing is certain: China's leadership is now feeling intensifying public pressure to do something about the environment. A growing number of China's 1.35 billion people — especially those in the rapidly expanding
Urban residents are left to wonder whether more 'airpocalypses' will define China in the 21st century.
middle class — are fed up with government inaction on environmental issues. Last January, citizen outrage over Beijing's hazardous air quality forced the central government to act, and since then it has taken steps to shutter coal plants in major cities and reduce the number of new cars allowed to be registered in Beijing and other metropolitan areas.

This summer, the Ministry of Environmental Protection released results of air quality studies from 74 cities showing that these urban areas had harmful levels of pollution. Several weeks ago the city of Harbin, population 11 million, was literally shut down as dense pollution reduced visibility to a few meters. Transportation halted, schools closed, and residents of China's mega-cities were left to wonder whether more of these "airpocalypses" would define China in the 21st century.

The Third Party Plenum report highlights the main areas where reforms, "unprecedented in both scale and degree," are necessary. But specifics are lacking and one must parse the party's opaque prose for clues as to what is really being offered in the environmental sphere. The summary acknowledges general support for "ecological civilization" and party leaders have made it clear that they intend to rein in heavily polluting industries and coal-fired power plants. The party vowed to take strong steps to halt the rapid loss of arable land to urbanization, promising enhanced legal protection for farmers.
Can the leadership balance economic growth with the need to heal the country’s battered environment?

Many of these reforms have been mentioned before, however, and it remains to be seen if they are enacted. Nevertheless, two things are certain: Unlike 1978, when all that mattered was the economy, today economic, ecological, and social reforms jostle for attention. And the plenum summary makes it very clear that Xi and Li expect major results by 2020. The question is, can the leadership set a multifaceted agenda that balances economic growth with the need to heal the country's battered environment?

China's environmental problems will certainly not disappear soon. Although the country has spent more money than any nation on land and water restoration, only about 11 percent of China's forests have healthy ecological functioning. The Chinese Academy of Sciences reports that 43 percent of surface water is too polluted to use, and 57 percent of urban groundwater — the primary source of drinking water for hundreds of millions of people — is also polluted, according to a 2013 Ministry of Environmental Protection study. Soil pollution is so extensive that the government considers data about it to be a state secret.

Food self-sufficiency, a cultural tradition in China, no longer holds as demand swamps supply; the country will import record amounts of grain in 2013-2014. Total energy demand in China continues to skyrocket. Coal — the source of much of the country's air pollution — remains critical; over the next two decades, use is projected to rise by 70 percent from current levels.

All these issues are linked to China's ongoing urban transformation. In the next 17 years, an estimated 300 to 400 million people are projected to move from rural areas into cities. But there are no functional national-level
Beijing commerce district
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
Citizen outrage last year over Beijing's poor air quality pressured the government to act.
regulations to guide the largest urban expansion in world history. China's mushrooming cities provide the clearest example of how ecological and social systems are connected.

Any one of these stressors would challenge the most nimble government. The fact that China's food, energy, water, and urbanization debts are coming due simultaneously creates huge challenges for the country's new leadership. There is, however, a path forward, and Xi and Li have already taken the first steps down it by making strong statements in support of environmental and social reforms. Like the U.S., China's political system thrives not on revolution but on incremental change. The Third Plenum summary is an example of the leadership sending signals about what reforms it expects from ministries and local governments. In China, however, there is often a gap between what central leaders want and what local governments deliver. Now that the plenum is over, the leadership must push for more specific mandates and create incentives for their implementation.

The Communist Party is not going to suddenly ditch decades of faith in GDP growth. Economic reform will still be priority number one. What to watch for will be how new economic policies are aligned with social and environmental reforms. For example, Xi and Li have already decided to increase funding to fight ecosystem degradation. What is also needed is a commitment to employ science to monitor the results of these efforts. Stronger implementation of China's environmental protection statutes is also essential, and the recent rise in public interest pollution litigation is promising. In addition, the government must replace quantity-oriented environmental campaign targets with those emphasizing healthy ecosystems.

The Third Plenum promises a "unified" land market to address the huge losses of farmland to urbanization through unbridled real estate development. With about half of municipalities' current revenue dependent on land sales that often involve large-scale corruption and little compensation for local farmers, economic reform of land transfers will occur. While details are lacking, reforms should feature new property taxes
Solving China's problems 'requires an approach that integrates ecological and social planning,' according to one expert.
and municipal bonds that will provide increased fiscal support to local governments to help wean them off profits gained from paving over arable land.

So far in China, the government has never allowed market pricing of energy and water. But as part of the Third Plenum's market efficiency directive, look for changes in energy pricing policy to come soon. What is needed? Tying price reform to new rules that promulgate incentives for government officials who meet energy and water delivery efficiency targets and strengthen implementation of already existing green urban building codes. China must also embrace a paradigm shift in water policy from a focus on engineering solutions, such as massive canal and dam projects, to an ecosystem-based approach that encourages coordination between government institutions.

Few would deny that China over the last decade has made great strides in addressing environmental and social problems. But shot through all this history is the troubling reality that China's closed command-and-control decision making system lacks most of the characteristics that experts identify as key to making progress on reforms that must go far beyond mere economic adjustments: open information exchange, government transparency, institutional coordination, and public and private sector

MORE FROM YALE e360

Photo Essay: Focusing a Lens on
China's Environmental Challenges

Gallagher China photo essay
In a Yale Environment 360 photo essay, Beijing-based photojournalist Sean Gallagher chronicles China's widespread water and air pollution, the battle against the desertification that has spread across the country's northern regions, and the threats to the nation's biodiversity. READ MORE.
participation. As Xu Jianchu, director of the East Asia office of the World Agroforestry Center, makes clear, "Solving China's 21st century problems requires an approach that integrates ecological and social planning." To date, China has largely failed to do this.

China has already proven that it can build a powerhouse economy and pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Now comes another huge challenge — constructing an adaptive state under 21st century conditions of dwindling resources, greater social inequality, and climate uncertainty. The tasks are daunting: China must reboot its economy, revamp environmental policies to reverse decades of decline, and rekindle its social contract to citizens in the face of unprecedented urbanization.

There may be too much on China's plate for the new leadership to make immediate progress, but given the history of Communist Party successes the question is not whether change will occur soon but whether it will occur soon enough. Even before the Third Plenum, Xi and Li had given the Chinese people something more important than plenum pronouncements: With their invocation earlier this year of the "Chinese Dream," they have created great expectations that the party will finally solve pollution problems, control corruption, and inject more equality into society. It is now time for the leadership to set about accomplishing these tasks.



POSTED ON 14 Nov 2013 IN Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Pollution & Health Science & Technology Urbanization Water Water Asia North America 

COMMENTS


China is reaching out to countless Western experts for advice on the needed transformation: from Al Gore to Amory Lovins to the author of this piece. They are actively seeking the best ideas; they definitely do not have a resistance to ideas "not invented here."

I am part of one of these efforts (www.ciwg.net) which came out of an environmental conference in May, the "World Culture Forum" in Hangzhou. We are pushing the supergrid as the most important part of a solution to China's pollution problems. If China picks up this mantle, they will lead the world to a new energy economy that makes it economically far more feasible to integrate high levels of non-dispatchable renewables together into a reliable system...we can only hope!
Posted by Roger Faulkner on 25 Nov 2013


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


r. edward grumbineABOUT THE AUTHOR
R. Edward Grumbine is a senior international scientist in the Key Lab of Biodiversity and Biogeography at Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Kunming, Yunnan, China.

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


The Case for a Moratorium
On Tar Sands Development

Ecologist Wendy Palen was one of a group of scientists who recently called for a moratorium on new development of Alberta’s tar sands. In a Yale Environment 360 interview, she talks about why Canada and the U.S. need to reconsider the tar sands as part of a long-term energy policy.
READ MORE

The Soil Pollution Crisis in China:
A Cleanup Presents Daunting Challenge


READ MORE

In China’s Heartland, A Toxic Trail
Leads from Factories to Fields to Food


READ MORE

China’s Dirty Pollution Secret:
The Boom Poisoned Its Soil and Crops


READ MORE

Peak Coal: Why the Industry’s
Dominance May Soon Be Over

The coal industry has achieved stunning growth in the last decade, largely due to increased demand in China. But big changes in China’s economy and its policies are expected to put an end to coal’s big boom.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Analysis


How Norway and Russia Made
A Cod Fishery Live and Thrive

by john waldman
The prime cod fishing grounds of North America have been depleted or wiped out by overfishing and poor management. But in Arctic waters, Norway and Russia are working cooperatively to sustain a highly productive — and profitable — northern cod fishery.
READ MORE

Can Carbon Capture Technology
Be Part of the Climate Solution?

by david biello
Some scientists and analysts are touting carbon capture and storage as a necessary tool for avoiding catastrophic climate change. But critics of the technology regard it as simply another way of perpetuating a reliance on fossil fuels.
READ MORE

Mideast Water Wars: In Iraq,
A Battle for Control of Water

by fred pearce
Conflicts over water have long haunted the Middle East. Yet in the current fighting in Iraq, the major dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are seen not just as strategic targets but as powerful weapons of war.
READ MORE

Peak Coal: Why the Industry’s
Dominance May Soon Be Over

by fred pearce
The coal industry has achieved stunning growth in the last decade, largely due to increased demand in China. But big changes in China’s economy and its policies are expected to put an end to coal’s big boom.
READ MORE

Obama’s New Emission Rules:
Will They Survive Challenges?

by michael b. gerrard
The sweeping nature of President Obama’s proposed regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants is likely to open his initiative to serious legal challenges. To date, however, the courts have given the federal government wide latitude in regulating CO2 under the Clean Air Act.
READ MORE

On the Road to Green Energy,
Germany Detours on Dirty Coal

by fred pearce
While Germany continues to expand solar and wind power, the government’s decision to phase out nuclear energy means it must now rely heavily on the dirtiest form of coal, lignite, to generate electricity. The result is that after two decades of progress, the country’s CO2 emissions are rising.
READ MORE

Why Wave Power Has Lagged
Far Behind as Energy Source

by dave levitan
Researchers have long contended that power from ocean waves could make a major contribution as a renewable energy source. But a host of challenges, including the difficulty of designing a device to capture the energy of waves, have stymied efforts to generate electricity from the sea.
READ MORE

UN Panel Looks to Renewables
As the Key to Stabilizing Climate

by fred pearce
In its latest report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes a strong case for a sharp increase in low-carbon energy production, especially solar and wind, and provides hope that this transformation can occur in time to hold off the worst impacts of global warming.
READ MORE

Will Increased Food Production
Devour Tropical Forest Lands?

by william laurance
As global population soars, efforts to boost food production will inevitably be focused on the world’s tropical regions. Can this agricultural transformation be achieved without destroying the remaining tropical forests of Africa, South America, and Asia?
READ MORE

New Satellite Boosts Research
On Global Rainfall and Climate

by nicola jones
Although it may seem simple, measuring rainfall worldwide has proven to be a difficult job for scientists. But a recently launched satellite is set to change that, providing data that could help in understanding whether global rainfall really is increasing as the planet warms.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter

CONNECT

Twitter: YaleE360
e360 on Facebook
Donate to e360
View mobile site
Bookmark
Share e360
Subscribe to our newsletter
Subscribe to our feed:
rss


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 PHOTO GALLERY

“Peter
Photographer Peter Essick documents the swift changes wrought by global warming in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung places.
View the gallery.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

Warriors of Qiugang
The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video that chronicles the story of a Chinese village’s fight against a polluting chemical plant, was nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Watch the video.


header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado River Video
In a Yale Environment 360 video, photographer Pete McBride documents how increasing water demands have transformed the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the arid Southwest. Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale