Call for a green China: permanent improvement, with room for more

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Children perform during "Call for Green China" – a unique cultural tour to raise awareness about pressing environmental issues in China and possible solutions.
The old people in the park are saying that this was the best April in 20-plus years in terms of air quality here in Beijing. There has been permanent improvement based on some of the changes made for the Olympics: some factories relocated to less populous areas, restrictions on private car use, improved public transportation as an alternative.

Other factors are more long term – the sandstorms common when I lived here in 1986 are largely gone, owing to successful re-greening efforts west of here. There was a frenzied pace of construction as modern Beijing was being built, which has naturally slowed down – construction dust was a key part of air pollution here.

There is more room for improvement, but the progress was notable during a lovely April. One key issue going forward will be to continue to control private vehicle use.

A positive sign here is that the government has not let the gas price fall as world price of oil dropped. It was a shock for me to see $2/gallon gas when I visited the U.S. last month. Back in Beijing I checked at the pump, and 97 octane goes for $3.30/gallon. When world oil prices were very high, China did not allow the full brunt of the rise to filter through to domestic prices, a policy the World Bank criticized at the time. Now that world price has fallen, China has introduced a substantial gasoline tax to keep the retail price at a relatively high level. This high price is affecting peoples’ choices about whether to purchase a car, what type, and how to use it (for daily commuting or for weekends/leisure).

My impression is that the policies that are leading to less air and water pollution in China have broad popular support. This week the Ministry of Environment, the World Bank, and the Norwegian embassy are sponsoring a unique cultural tour to raise awareness about pressing environmental issues in China and possible solutions. The idea is that in each of four cities there will be a policy workshop in the afternoon debating issues, followed by a cultural event in the evening for entertainment and awareness-raising. The cultural program, "Call for Green China," is an improved version of one in Beijing in March 2007.

Part of the evening goes to the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra playing the "Yellow River Concerto," accompanied visually by John Liu's film about the environmental devastation on the Loess Plateau – which contributed to silting of the Yellow River and the sandstorms that used to plague Beijing and much of Northern China. The second half of the film documents the successful communal effort to re-green the plateau through restoration programs and changes in unsustainable agricultural practices (supported by a series of World Bank projects).

The other part of the cultural program is a shortened, Chinese-version of the Henrik Ibsen play, "An Enemy of the People." Written over 100 years ago, about issues in Norway, it has great resonance in the developing world today. The doctor in a small city discovers that the tannery is putting dangerous pollutants into the water that are a threat to public health. But dealing with the problem in a frontal manner will hurt the town’s tourist business as a popular spa, costing income and jobs. The doctor fails to garner popular support for clean-up and instead becomes the "enemy of the people."

The program was already presented in Shanghai on May 14, Nanjing on May 15 and Wuhan on May 18. The last presentation will happen in Changsha on May 20. Full details can be found at the program's webpage. The whole orchestra and cast have been traveling by train from city to city (to reduce the carbon footprint!). For those of you who cannot be there to enjoy the show, we will produce and post a DVD version.


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