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China: Boom or bust?

by Archives November 6, 2007

China’s economy is booming – and as the economy grows, so too does the standard of living for millions of Chinese. Since the economic reforms undertaken by the Communist government in 1978, their economy has been growing at an astonishing pace. What are the consequences of this rapid economic growth on the environment, both for China and the rest of the world?
Northern China is an example of just how unfortunate and dire these consequences can be. The Gobi Desert, which already occupies over 30 per cent of China’s territory, is expanding annually at an alarming rate of 950 square miles per year. Studies have shown that the emissions and pollutants generated by the Chinese economy have played a large role in this expansion.
Like desertification, glacial retreat is also a real and growing threat to millions of Chinese living in the north.
Fed by the Himalayas retreating glaciers, two of China’s largest rivers are projected to shrink rapidly along with the country’s snow-pack. The Yangtze and the Yellow rivers supply drinking water to hundreds of millions of Chinese, and those who rely on this fresh water are increasingly coming under threat as a result of climate change and pollution.
China has over 20 per cent of the world’s population, but only seven per cent of the planet’s fresh water resources. When this figure is considered alongside the country’s shrinking water supply, and the fact that a vast amount of their underground water sources and rivers are rapidly becoming contaminated by pollution, it makes you wonder how long it will be before China’s economy and the environment will collapse under the pressure.
Without a secure and readily available supply of water, China will be unable to maintain not only their torrent pace of economic growth, but also their current population.
One of the contributing factors is that while on paper, Chinese environmental laws appear to be both numerous and severe, their actual application on a local level proves to be extremely difficult.
China’s Communist government, a centralized bureaucracy, is highly inefficient. Enforcement of central government policy is often ineffective, and laws are often ignored altogether.
What’s unfortunate for millions of Chinese is that because there is little incentive or perceived consequence for companies, factories, and even government officials not conforming to domestic laws on the environment, there is little possibility of change or improvement any time soon. This does not bode well for China’s population of 1.3 billion.
Another concerning issue, and one which is often overlooked, is the likely consequence of China’s environmental destruction for those outside its geographic borders.
A recent study of pollutants in California suggests that the porportion of air pollution in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco derive from the emissions of Chinese coal fired power plants and other heavy industries may reach as high as 25 per cent. Furthermore, other studies have suggested that rising soil contaminants in San Fernando Valley farms are a direct result of the air pollution generated by the booming Chinese economy.
If no real progress on the environment is made it is likely that the entire planet will begin to feel the full environmental effects and costs of China’s economic growth.
As another five million cars are added to China’s roads every year, the question the West and many Chinese need to be asking is this: When does the environmental cost of economic progress begin to necessitate a change in policy and approach taken by governments and industry?
The time for change is now, and unless a series of effective policy reforms and environmentally sound approaches are adopted in China, their economic miracle will fade – rapidly – into an economic and environmental nightmare. It’s up to the rest of the world – specifically the West – to convince China to clean up their act.

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