For China's Environment, a Climate Suitable for Change


Non-governmental Organizations, or NGOs, have emerged as more effective voices for change in recent years, analysts say. According to Economy, there "are probably more environmental NGOs than any other type," though they do face challenges from government regulations on registration, fundraising, and membership numbers.

China's first registered NGO was formed in 1994, and when the groups started, "they were very limited in what they could do," focusing primarily on education efforts, Wang said.

Recently, an "incredible diversity" of NGOs have been established in China, Wang said, "and a number have become very sophisticated in the way they advocate."

Some Chinese groups are making a difference, Turner said, like The Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, a Beijing-based organization that provides legal advocacy and aid in cases against industries that pollute, and as a consequence damage human health or livelihood.

"There is a lot more political space for NGOs" she said, "and people are protesting. The Chinese people have been told they have a right to a clean environment. It's inspiring to see the public demanding things from the government."

Thousands of protests take place each year in response to pollution and its effects on health and economic livelihood, particularly in rural areas, Economy said. Though there aren't exact statistics of how many protests actually take place, or how many people participate, she said she has noticed an encouraging trend in activism shifting to the urban centers.

"Urban protests could have a much more profound impact on the policy-making process," she said.

Though she doesn't think the phrase "going green" is imbued in the general consciousness in China yet, Economy said "it's entirely in their trajectory to develop a green consciousness." In urban areas, where environmental education begins at a very young age, there is a market for things associated with a green consciousness, like organic produce and energy-efficient appliances.

Lately, Watts, who lives in China, has also seen an optimistic sign: occasional blue skies over the city.

"Other countries have shown that you can be extraordinarily polluted during your development cycle but then you can clean up, " Watts said. "It's going to be more difficult for China to do it … but there are already some encouraging signs."

There are still some clouds, however. As some things improve, new problems arise, Watts said. Polluting industries are moving inland, away from the more environmentally-conscious, developed coastal areas.

For Wang, China's environmental problems have highlighted another issue: pollution is driven by demand outside of China, from multinational corporations and consumers in other countries, like the United States.

"We're seeing an internationalization of these issues," he said, "we all have something to do about this."

The question is, Watts said, is "what happens when you start to consume too much? That's the bigger worry. In the short-term, it's pollution."

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