We all know that China is the second largest economy in the world and destined to become the World's largest economy within the next 30 years. We all know that China is leading the world on the construction front - building the tallest buildings, quickly and in some cases, efficiently. We’re all aware of China’s growing influence outside of its own shores, not just in the developing economies of Africa and the Americas, but also in the developed economies of Western Europe. In Spain, for example, tapas bars are increasingly being owned and run by Chinese immigrants, with Chinese dishes creeping on to the menu. Greece is most likely very grateful for Chinese investment, particularly on construction projects. Even Switzerland has a growing Chinese presence.
But what’s the impact of this breakneck economic growth on China’s environment? Pretty devastating is the obvious answer. Notwithstanding Beijing’s efforts to divert investment towards renewable and (more controversially) nuclear energy, coal-fired power stations remain ubiquitous throughout China, often burning coal that is unwashed and therefore not only highly heat inefficient, but also highly polluting. Cars clog the streets where previously bicycles roamed (relatively) freely. China’s skies are filling up with aeroplanes and everyone in China (who can afford it) owns luxury electricity items.
Economic growth is not only detrimental to China’s environment. It's also impacting on Chinese economic growth. Health problems caused by air and water pollution are pushing up the cost of caring for the ill. Reductions in crop yields and fish stocks due to environmental degradation, as well as the corrosion of equipment and buildings, are impeding the success of China’s economic reform programme.
Air and water-born pollution also affects China’s neighbours, predominantly going eastwards towards Japan and Korea. To the north, the poisoning of the Songhua river in north-east China in 2005 contaminated Russia’s Amur River with benzene (although this hasn't stopped the two countries just signing a US$400 billion gas deal!).
So what is to be done? Can the international community put pressure on China to “clean up its act”. Yes it can and (at times) it does, not least because China’s environmental problems are increasingly becoming the world’s environmental problems. But there’s also a perception amongst some scholars and internet users (or “netizens”) inside China that Western criticism of China’s environmental problems is grossly hypocrabitical. For example, they argue that no-one criticised Britain during the Industrial Revolution for its astronomically high-levels of pollution. In the modern era, they note that the US manages to avoid Western European chastisement on environmental issues. They also argue that Western companies are often very keen to set up in China not only because of low labour costs but also because of less stringent regulations on pollution in comparison to their home countries. In this context, the taking of the moral highground on China’s environment may not always be advisable.