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Environmental problems in China not to be forgotten --especially by China

David Dollar's picture

A view of Beijing's traffic gridlock from my office.
These days, the news in Beijing is of course all about the Sichuan earthquake: threats from ‘quake lakes’, the mammoth relief and recovery effort, and the many, many human stories of survival, loss and compassion. Inevitably, though, attention will turn back to China’s other environmental problems – the ones that are related to the country’s rapid growth and its emergence as the world’s second largest energy user.

This week there was another day when my kids’ international school here canceled all outdoor activities because of the unhealthy level of air pollution.  From my office I have a nice view of the third ring road and Beijing traffic – fueled by 1,000 new cars per day – as well as the air pollution which these cars cause.  In the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly, journalist James Fallows has an excellent article looking at environmental challenges in China.  What’s different from other media coverage in the West is that he takes a frank look at the problems, but also recognizes that there is hope (full disclosure: I was interviewed for that article).  China is starting to clean up at an earlier stage of development than previous industrializers. “Like England, the United States, Japan, and others before it, China is passing through the environmental-disaster stage of industrialization and beginning to clean up,” Fallows writes. “The difference is that those countries waited until they were rich before they started the process. China is still full of poor people, but for reasons of scale and impact, it cannot postpone cleaning up.”

Supporting these environmental efforts is the main work of the World Bank in China now (take a look at a presentation -pdf- I made last November on this topic, including quite a bit of data on environment and info about the Bank's work; or read/listen to/view other features illustrating what the Bank's done and is trying to do in China). This week, we announced three new projects that we hope will make a big difference to China’s more efficient use of energy and its drive to reduce harmful emissions from power plants.

The largest of the three projects helps Chinese banks to lend to industrial enterprises to become more energy efficient. This could grow into a very profitable business for the banks with the added benefit of reducing the energy demand from industry. Another project will eliminate sulphur dioxide emissions at four big power stations in Shandong and help the province monitor its overall emissions.  Shandong emits more SO2 than any other province and has an ambitious target to reduce this within five years.  The third project helps small and medium cities in the Northern province of Liaoning to develop co-generation of heat and power, which is more energy efficient.

These are just some of the ways China is tackling its huge environmental challenges. Take a look at Fallows’s article to learn about more.

Comments

Submitted by Irene on
Previously, in my mind, i strongly believe US is the biggest energy-consuming country. From your article, the outcome shocked me as my motherland also plays such a "heavy" role in the energy consuming. Luckily, the government has started the clean-up, it would be great and beneficial for the rest of world, as well as the chinese people.

Submitted by JHC on
There is hope, indeed. But it demands significant changes, perhaps dramatic at the local level, in both policies and attitudes of the Chinese. The August 2008 issue of the magazine Scientific American has an article, "China's Children of Smoke," that highlights this point in a place of south-central China. Tongliang is a city of 100'000 inhabitants in the Chongqing municipality (ca. 60 km, as the crow flies, from the now famous Chongqing city proper). A few years ago it closed its only coal-burning power plant, which filled a supply gap of hydro-electrical power to the city during winter. More than 4000 tons of coal with high sulfur content were burned per month there, and the plant's exhaust gases and ash covered the city in winter. Quite remarkably for China, the population had been keeping pressure on the local officials to close the plant, even with silent protests by some women. The plant was shut down in May 2004. The research of Federica Perera and Deliang Tang, from Columbia University in New York, shows in children born in 2002 higher incidence of delayed development measured by the preschool Gesell test, smaller head circumference, and higher concentration in blood cells of DNA adducts (i.e., fused pollutant-DNA compounds able to disrupt the replication of genetic information during cell division) than in children born in 2005 -- see figure http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=children-of-smoke-developmental-delays here), The molecular-epidemiology implications for the pollutant bio-markers investigated (whose blood concentration correlated closely with the smaller head size and lower test scores of the 2002 children) are, of course, very important. But it is also important the RAPID reduction of developmental differences once the pollutant source was shut down. Tongliang was a good site to examine this since it does not have large factories or notable sources of pollution besides gasoline-powdered vehicles, so the health benefits of stopping the coal plant pollution could be immediately isolated.

Submitted by D. Dollar on
Thanks for this example and the associated research. It illustrates two important points: (1) often one or two obvious measures can improve air quality significantly and (2) the health benefits of improved air are immediate. I also recently received this interesting article by John Garnaut at the Sydney Morning Herald about some of the innovative technologies that Chinese firms are developing to reduce different types of emissions: http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/light-in-the-fog/2008/07/18/1216163157053.html

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