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Growing Pains: Saving China Environment

Decades of largely unregulated development have degraded China’s environment and raised concerns about the sustainability of the country’s economic boom.

According to United Nations figures, China has six of the world’s 10 most polluted cities. A report issued by the World Health Organization last year says that about 74 percent of the country’s population lives in areas where air quality does not meet standards set by several international treaties and the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development.

Beijing’s heavy reliance on coal has led to increased sulphur-dioxide emissions that do not meet international standards. The resulting acid rain affects about 30 percent of China. Consequently, the World Bank estimates that damage to natural resources and cleanup efforts are costing the country the equivalent of nearly eight percent of its gross domestic product annually.

Some analysts point out that part of the problem is China’s inefficient use of energy. According to the World Bank, China consumes more than seven times as much fuel as the United States and nearly 12 times as much as Japan to produce each dollar of gross domestic product.

Growth Versus Pollution

Andres Liebenthal, Environment and Social Development Coordinator at the World Bank’s Beijing office, says China will have to devote more resources to environmental programs if it wants its economy to continue to grow at its current annual rate of more than eight percent.

“The country is growing. The car fleet is growing. Energy consumption is increasing," says Mr. Liebenthal. "The amount of garbage generated by the average person is increasing. The pressures on the remaining water sources, forest resources, land resources are also increasing. So for development to be sustainable, it is necessary to devote more effort and more investment to environmental protection. And they’re doing that. But whether in the long-term that is enough, only time will tell. They’re heading in the right direction.”

Water Contamination

The most immediate problem facing China is water pollution. About 70 percent of the country’s lakes and rivers are heavily polluted with industrial waste and untreated sewage. One of the country’s most serious environmental accidents occurred last December, when a chemical plant explosion in northeastern China dumped tons of benzene into the Songhua River, polluting drinking water for millions of people and threatening Russia’s environment downstream. And some analysts warn that the northern part of the country now faces water shortages as a result of development, dwindling water resources and desertification.

Exporting the Problem

Others argue that Beijing recognizes the devastating effects of rapid development on the nation’s environment. But they say that in addressing these issues, China is exporting its environmental problems to the rest of the world.

For example, the Beijing government declared a ban on tree cutting after flooding of the Yangtze River in 1998 claimed more than 16-thousand lives.

Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute, a non-profit environmental advocacy group in Washington, says that while this was a wise move because it recognized that trees control flooding, it led to increased demand for imported timber.

“As a result, half of all the logs that are exported from tropical and sub-tropical developing countries today go to China to fill the enormous gap there. It’s sort of exporting deforestation. And in an increasingly integrated global economy, that’s one of the things we have to worry about, " says Lester Brown.

Last year, China consumed 26 percent of the world’s steel, 32 percent of its rice and 47 percent of its cement. According to the Earth Policy Institute, China has replaced the United States as the world’s leading consumer of basic commodities such as grain, coal and steel.

Daniel Esty, Director of Yale University’s Center for Environmental Law and Policy, says the ripple effects from China’s increasing demand for imported natural resources are already evident. He adds, “It’s a country that has a very substantial rate of economic growth, and a population whose expectations and material desires are rapidly escalating. All of this will mean more demand. In some respects, that could be economically very positive for the world. But in other respects, it’s going to put a strain on natural resources.”

A Sustainable Future

Many experts agree that Beijing will have to modify its version of capitalism in ways that will further its economic growth without causing additional damage to China’s environment or the world’s. Last October, Chinese leaders opened discussions on shifting the country’s pattern of growth to a more sustainable and less resource-intensive model.

China has become the world leader in solar energy, using solar collectors to power more than 35 million homes. And while coal remains a major source of pollution, the country has begun phasing out the use of coal for industrial and domestic applications in favor of cleaner, natural gas. Recently, it introduced strict legislation that forces factories to observe clean air standards or be shut down. But most experts agree that the new regulations are not being observed or implemented across the country. For that, they say, China needs to devote more resources and manpower to its environmental protection agencies.

As part of its preparations to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing has launched what it calls a “Green Olympics” campaign to encourage the use of biodegradable materials in building new sports venues for that event. A good start, many experts say, along the road to environmental recovery.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.