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

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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.


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