For China's Environment, a Climate Suitable for Change

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WATCH The Conversation: Explaining China's Pollution Problem

When all eyes turned to Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, the headlines were just as much about the gray skies over the city as gold medals.

The smog in Beijing and other Chinese cities is a visible manifestation of a larger pollution problem, one that costs the country between 8 and 12 percent of GDP and thousands of lives each year, analysts estimate. And it's not just affecting the air -- all of China's resources are threatened by pollution, leaving the nation in a state of environmental crisis, "one the world has become aware of," Alex Wang, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Environmental Law Program in China, said.

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The global leader in carbon emissions, China faces both the problems of an advanced, industrialized country -- like the air pollution from increased automobile use -- and those of a developing country -- like soil erosion. One of the greatest domestic environmental threats is the scarcity of clean, safe drinking water, observers said.

"While a lot of attention is paid to air pollution, really the water problem is the wall that is going to stop everything," Jennifer Turner, Director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said.

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Chinese officials themselves estimate "that 50 percent of the water should not be drunk, and between a third and a quarter of that should not be used for anything," even industrial uses, Turner said. Still, the polluted water cointinues to be used, contaminating soil, preventing crops from growing, and poisoning the public.

The Ministry of Water Resources in China has said "700 million people drink contaminated water every day, and 100 million people drink water that's so contaminated it makes people sick," Elizabeth Economy, the Council on Foreign Relations C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies and author of "The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China's Future," said.

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Jonathan Watts, the Asia Environment correspondent for The Guardian and author of "When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save the World -- or Destroy it," said pollution has an extreme impact on health.

"The World Bank estimates that 460,000 people die prematurely every year in China" due to pollution, Watts said. "Air pollution causes respiratory disease, but the real health risk is water pollution, and what it does to the stomach."

Cancer is another concern; Watt described "cancer villages," or clusters of the disease "around big, dirty industrial plants."

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China Response to Pollution Improving, But Not Enough

The health costs of pollution "are really disproportionately borne by the poor people in society," Wang said. "It's really a justice issue."

Richard Fuller, the president of the Blacksmith Institute, a not-for-profit organization that works in the world's most polluted places to help local agencies and governments stop pollution problems and clean up contaminated sites, said toxins that seep into the water supply and the air are "a public health risk of substance."

According to the Blacksmith Institute's annual report, pollution affects over 100 million peoples' lives around the world, a figure that "puts pollution in the same category of HIV, TB and malaria," Fuller said.

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The Blacksmith Institute had ranked two Chinese cities among the world's top 10 polluted areas in 2007: Linfen, where unregulated industries based on local coal have produced the worst air quality in China, and Tianying, where lead processing plants contaminate the air and soil. While the Institute no longer compiles such lists, Fuller said "there is a lot of work going on internally in China" to clean up polluted areas.

"When you look at some of the stats, they're doing a pretty terrific job," Fuller said. "Air pollution has certainly improved dramatically. In the last 12 months [the focus has shifted] to the cleanup of polluted soil, which causes a lot of health problems."

For Watts, it's important to examine China's environmental problems in a geographic and historical perspective, and to consider how the nation is "trying to reinvent itself."

"China's environmental problems are far worse" than many assume," Watts said, but the country "is doing more to try and solve them than people give them credit for."

In the 11th Five-Year Plan for 2006-2011, China "for the first time set several environmental targets as the highest priority," Wang said, like reducing energy intensity by 20 percent and slashing pollution levels.

Studies released by government ministries in recent years, like the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Water Resources indicate there is a growing consciousness on the part of Chinese officials of the problem of pollution, which is "hugely important," Economy said.

On average China spends about 1.3 percent of GDP on environmental protection, she said, though scientists estimate that figure is not enough by half to keep the pollution problem from getting worse, let alone improve. Though it has grown in recent years, The Ministry of Environmental Protection still only has about 300 full time staff employees, compared with the 8 to 9 thousand employed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Economy said.

Chosing Between Economy and Environment

"Structurally addressing China's environmental challenge is largely a problem of resources and governance," Economy said. "On the investment side of things, they depend a lot on localities -- the power is really decentralized."

Since the late 1970s, China has had the environmental law framework that touches on almost all aspects of environmental protection, Wang said.

"The problem with the current framework is that a lot of the laws are too vague, don't set up specific requirements, or the enforcement is not strict," he said.

The primary enforcement of environmental laws and regulations is at the local level, but leaders face pressures to increase economic growth, sometimes at the expense of environmental protection. The factories that could bring jobs and wealth to communities may be very polluting, sometimes forcing leaders to decide between bolstering the economy or protecting the environment.

"The incentive structure for local officials is still largely to grow the economy at the expense of the environment," Economy said. "Some good things are happening, but it's still overwhelmed by the imperative of economic growth."

Wang said the system can be strengthened by adding "a component of central enforcement as well as giving more authority to the citizens" and allowing them to bring lawsuits on environmental grievances.

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."