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Society, Politics & Law

Economy v environment

Updated Friday, 28th March 2008

Maggie Smith weighs up the impacts of China's rapid and fuel-intensive development.

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Polluted river in Beijing Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

The last quarter of a century has seen a boom in the economy of China. The rate of economic growth has probably been the fastest seen in history. And with it there have been benefits to its population such as rising income levels, and increased availability of consumer products, for instance, and increasing prosperity.

However there are also less desirable consequences of the rapid economic growth. The expansion of heavy industry and urbanisation has required huge amounts of energy - almost all of which has been fuelled by coal and oil. This has led to rising levels of emission of carbon dioxide gases contributing to global warming; rising sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions creating acid rain; and rising particulate emissions leading to serious air pollution in many Chinese cities.

The effects of these increased emissions are not only felt within China's boundaries, but also further afield in neighbouring countries such as South Korea and Japan, and even more widely - right up to a global level.

Added to this is the massive growth of heavy manufacturing industries, with attendant problems of waste disposal and pollution; the huge expansion of urban areas creating pressures on natural landscapes and habitats and on ground- and surface-water supplies; and a rapidly growing transport network and rising car use adding to the existing air pollution.

So what can be done? There is no model to follow: no country in history so far has managed to become a major industrial power without causing environmental damage.

And do the figures produced sometimes create misleading impressions? When total output is considered, China has recently become the world's biggest producer of carbon dioxide. However, when the figures are looked at relative to the population of each country, China falls down the listing – the amount of carbon dioxide produced per person in China is well below that produced per person in UK, the USA and many European countries, for example.

Slowing down economic growth may seem to be an obvious answer to the environmental problems, but the political philosophy being followed is one of fast growth. Slowing down the growth might create social unrest in a population that has tasted economic prosperity, might alienate the business sector, and could create a challenge to the current political rule. It is not even clear that the momentum of economic growth can be slowed.

The government has recognised that the environment needs to be protected. For instance, targets have been set for reducing emissions; there is legislation to control polluting industry, and initiatives have been set up to promote renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro-power. However - so far - these measures have not resulted in effective or widespread development of sustainable practices. The 2008 Olympic Games have put a spotlight on environmental issues. Environmental controls have been increased in the country's biggest cities in an effort to make them ‘cleaner' in the run-up to the Games.

There are no easy, quick or cheap answers to China's environmental problems. But nor can the 'blame' for the problems be levelled solely at China. Many of the products of the manufacturing industry that feeds China's economic growth are exported to meet consumer demand in other nations. Finding the way to a sustainable future for China's environment requires urgent social, political and economic rethinking within the country; but increasingly clearly, it's becoming apparent that China's environmental problems are not just a national issue but a global one too.





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