The United States is the world's largest polluter. It emits one-quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions. However, China is expected to surpass that total by 2009, more than a decade earlier than predicted. China's environmental problems are getting more international attention lately, especially with the approach of the 2008 Olympics.
China's economy is growing by more than 10 percent a year. But this booming industrial success has come at great cost. Chinese cities are now among the world's most polluted. Acid rain falls on one third of its land. And, despite having some of the world's largest water reserves, two-thirds of China's cities have less water than they need because of overuse, pollution and bad management.
The crisis stems, in part, from a decentralized government that values economic growth over environmental protection, according to Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank.
In its publication, Foreign Affairs, she writes that local officials are autonomous and have no economic or political incentives to do the right thing. "You have fines that are set too low. Factories simply would rather pollute and pay fines that actually put into place pollution prevention technologies that are more costly up front."
Economy says local leaders are more likely to put environmental safeguards in place when pollution problems begin to hurt economic growth. "[If] they don't have enough water to run their factories, that's the kind of thing that can be a wakeup call for a local official. If in fact you see that all your crops are polluted and spoiled then you need to do something about the water pollution."
Coal is the engine that powers China's economy. This dirtiest of all fossil fuels supplies two-thirds of the country's energy needs. While Beijing has set targets to reduce its emissions, they largely go unmet. And, as a developing country, it is under no obligation to conform to targets under the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations global treaty on climate change.
China has become a reluctant player in the world climate debate. And, Elizabeth Economy says, unless Washington changes its own global warming policies, it will have little credibility or leverage to push Beijing forward. "If you look in the past at what has brought China to the table, on ozone depletion for example, you had to have a strong international consensus and we don't have that right now." She adds that, "until those circumstances are right, I think China is going to do as little as possible."
She also sees little progress toward fulfilling Beijing's promise of a green Olympics in 2008. "We have doctors now saying if you have got respiratory problems, stay home. The Chinese have now said we are not going to be able to provide clean water to everybody in Beijing, just to the Olympic Village."
Elizabeth Economy says China cannot go green without political reform. The loudest voice for that cause comes from non-governmental organizations, which have grown from a handful ten years ago to many thousands today. These groups are both tolerated by Beijing and feared as a potential source for civil unrest.
Economy says she believes change will come through grassroots activism, local elections, " and people who are pushing for electoral reform."
Economy notes that there is some agreement within government agencies and the Chinese Communist party that reforms must take place. What is lacking, she says, are leaders with the vision to make changes in how business is done. When that happens, she says, China, and the rest of the world, will breathe a bit easier.