BEIJING, China — China’s top leadership has declared a “war on pollution” to combat the widespread environmental problems that have accompanied its robust economic growth. Li Keqiang, the current Chinese Premier and number two leader, emphasized how China must re-calibrate the “model of inefficient and blind development” that focuses on exports and investments at the yearly National People’s Congress.
Li acknowledged that structural changes to the economy would slow economic growth but still vowed the country would maintain a 7.5% gross domestic product growth target.
China’s current economic model stems from Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the late 1970s. The Chinese leadership during that time diffused power to the local provinces to encourage rural development. This model jump-started China’s economy was followed by many similar reforms, and eventually lifted over 100 million people out of poverty.
However, this growth miracle did not come free. The decentralization of authority has made environmental standards difficult to monitor. Air and water pollution have plagued China for decades.
During January 2013, Beijing’s air quality reached 40 times the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO). Additionally, the severity of air pollution in Harbin reduced visibility to less than 50 meters. The stories of these two cities represents the norm for China, as less than 1% of its 500 largest cities meet the WHO’s air quality standards.
Water pollution poses an equally severe problem. 90% of underground water in cities and 70% of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted. Industries along China’s rivers have contributed a lot to the water pollution. For instance, a plant explosion in 2005 along the Songhua River leaked 100 tons of toxins into the water. In the Huangpu River near Shanghai, reporters discovered 16,000 dead pigs floating along in March 2013.
Unfortunately, China’s consumption indicates the environmental degradation will continue. Energy consumption in the country has risen 130% between 2000 and 2010 and China is currently the world’s largest coal producer. Coal provides nearly 70% of China’s energy needs and China is projected to produce 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide between 1990 and 2050. That is as much as the entire world produced between the start of the Industrial Revolution and 1970.
Keqiang’s declaration marks an encouraging step in the right direction.
While China’s economic reforms have helped millions in poverty, they have fundamentally altered China’s landscape and harmed the Chinese people’s quality of life. To reverse this trend, China may have to lower its economic growth targets in order to structurally correct its economy while effectively monitoring the environmental standards of the local provinces and forcing the wayward districts to improve.
A commitment to an environmental reform strategy will prove difficult to maintain. While the Chinese leadership under Keqiang and President Xi Jingping have laid out a bolder reform agenda than previous leaders, lowering growth standards to achieve them will not be easy. Since January, the government has pledged to spend $275 billion on cleaning the air and has required 15,000 factories to publicly report real-time figures on air emissions and water discharges.
However, China will have to make a much deeper commitment than this to correct the environmental damage high growth has brought. China thrives on its high-powered economy and without robust economic growth; Xi and Li may experience increased social unrest during their rule. How the current Chinese leadership handles the balance between continued economic growth and environmental management may define their legacy for generations to come.
Sources: Guardian, Council on Foreign Relations, Economist
Photo: Fox News