Friday, March 11, 2005

A Green China?

How is it, ask the cynics in Beijing, that the Chinese government can pass some of the most beautiful laws in the world yet end up with one of the ugliest environments?
Jonathan Watts, reporting from Beijing for Great Britain's Manchester Guardian, is not all that optimistic that China's recently passed landmark renewable energy law will yield its intended goals.
The renewable energy law, which was approved by the standing committee of the National People's Congress on February 28, is - on paper at least - an impressively ambitious attempt to tackle some of the planet's worst problems of acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions and waste. Its central pledge is that China - the world's second biggest producer of carbon dioxide after the United States - will increase its use of renewables, such as solar, wind, biomass, tidal and hydropower, to 10% of its total energy supply by 2010.
China, with some of the world's worst pollution (urban air is so bad that respiratory problems have become the leading cause of death), has compelling reasons to go green. And it does seem that environmental awareness is increasing in China. On my trip last year, I noticed billboards sprouting everywhere touting a green China and urging Chinese people to protect the environment. Of course, signs and billboards do not a cleaner environment make, but they do indicate at least some intention of the government to educate and mobilize its citizens.

What may stop such positive rhetoric and well-intentioned, even revolutionary regulations from having their intended affect is the same problem that affects so many other aspects of Chinese society: the lack of a strong rule of law that can overcome local power structures. Watt pinpoints this nicely:
...the law looks certain to run into the same wall of provincial non-cooperation that has stymied numerous other fine-sounding central government policies.

As in many countries, the problem is compounded by the weakness of the environment agency relative to economic and industrial ministries. China's state environmental planning agency is under no illusions about its clout. Earlier this year, it revealed that barely a third of the 586 plans for new power plants had been submitted to the agency for environmental assessments as stipulated by government guidelines.
There are signs for optimism, however.
To its credit, the agency has fought back with a surprisingly forceful campaign to halt the 20 most wasteful and environmentally risky projects. The prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has given strong backing to such moves and the government has committed itself to introduce "green-weighted GDP" figures, which would deduct environmental costs from output figures.
In Watt's formulation, it's too early to feel optimistic, given the huge obstacles that China's environmentalists face, both the magnitude of the existing environmental crisis and the entrenched strength of their opposition, the provincial powerbrokers and businessmen looking to line their pockets by building "public works" projects unhindered by regulations and environmental niceties. "It is just as possible that these fine sounding policies will go the same ugly way as so many of their predecessors," Watt writes. Probably true. But personally I'm going with optimism. The Chinese government should be applauded for their ambitious response to a very real global crisis. First you have to admit there's a problem, after all. Unlike our current President, who from his rapacious environmental policies probably figures that the Second Coming will take care of all the resulting messiness just fine...

You can read the complete article here...

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