The Chinese government has a history of not agreeing to environmental standards issues by international governing bodies like the United Nations. This has been no more apparent than during the last 10 years of intense industrial growth in the country. With no internal standards for pollution control, air quality in northern China has become the worst in the civilized world. Many farmers are using wastewater from industrial plants to grow wheat which is sold to manufacturers to be distributed in major centers like Shanghai. These same farmers will not eat the very wheat they grow and produce local wheat using only well water.
The major problem is that there are no specific laws in China as to what can and can’t be done. This means that individual local governments are left to decide if a corporation is acting in the best interest of the community. Chinese environmental laws work on the principles of “polluter pays” which are based on the idea of synergy between all things – a basic tenant of Chinese philosophy. These principles make the corporations found responsible for China pollution responsible for cleaning it up. The problem with this system is that large corporations have been able to intimidate local government officials and avoid dealing with the pollution problem in their districts.
Fortunately, in the last several months a large change has swept across China. In April, a gathering of 100 city provincial officials, business leaders and NGO reps came together to talk about transparency and the public disclosure of China pollution data. This would have been something unheard of even five years ago. China’s leading environmental activist and recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Ma Jun, organized the meeting. While no major policies were put into place at the meeting – just having this type of gathering showed how important environmental issues have become in the country.
China’s government is finally stepping up and acknowledging the environmental toll that the past 30 years of rapid industrialization has caused. But in a typical Chinese fashion, they are doing it in terms of financial costs. China put its environmental damage at $230 billion in 2010. Researchers that compiled that number also said it is wholly inaccurate because they did not have a full set of data to work with – so the damage could be much greater.
Xiong Yan, chairman of the China Beijing Environment Exchange and China Beijing Equity Exchange, has praised the latest actions by the Chinese government that reduce the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, compared with the levels of 2005. But he cautions that this will require fundamental changes to the way in which laws are written and punishments are handled.
The Chinese government responded this June with a proclamation that egregious polluters could face harsh reprimands including the death penalty. The actual language stated that there would be “harsher punishments,” a tightening of “lax and superficial enforcement” and “in the most serious cases the death penalty could be handed down.” And, as we have seen in the past, China does not backpedal on the death penalty issue.
The biggest question that we have is whether or not this is just political smoke being blown at the Chinese citizens and the rest of the world to appease the voices of decent. What do you think? Will China actually join the fight to save the planet, or will they try to continue their manufacturing dominance?