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Cultural Devolution

Cross over San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, head north for half an hour, and you'll reach Mount Tamalpais State Park, home to redwood groves and, a little ways up, panoramic views of the bay. As it turns out, though, the park is also home to large amounts of pollution from Asia--dust, sulfur, trace metals--blowing in from across the Pacific. "We call it the persistent Asian plume," says Steven Cliff, an atmospheric scientist currently working with the California Air Resources Board. On some days, one-third of the state's background air pollution can be traced to Asia, and researchers are now looking into whether the plume could be disrupting cloud formation and rainfall in water-starved California.

It's a reminder that China's pollution problems aren't just taking a devastating toll on China--they're also affecting the rest of the world. Acid rain partly caused by Chinese sulfur emissions pours down on Japan and South Korea. Eighty percent of the East China Sea, one of the world's largest fisheries, has become toxic, due to sewage dumps from the mainland. And China, which is building coal plants at a shocking rate of two per week, is now the world's largest source of greenhouse gases, emitting 14 percent more carbon dioxide than the United States in 2007.

And, so, the international community is worried. At U.N. conferences, officials keep pushing the country to take stronger action on climate change. Europe and Japan have helped fund clean-energy projects in China, largely through the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism. In the United States, it's become common to hear politicians say that Beijing needs to be strong-armed into action. "If we do not act [on global warming]," Virginia Senator John Warner said recently, "China and India will hide behind America's skirts of inaction and take no steps of their own." Warner's cap-and-trade bill, which would limit U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions, even had a provision to slap carbon tariffs on Chinese imports if the country didn't take steps to tackle its emissions.

These ideas aren't without merit. But they also miss a key point: China's central government is well aware that its blackened rivers and sunless skies are a problem, not just because they're sparking riots and social unrest, but because out-of-control environmental degradation is imperiling the country's economic growth. Lately, Beijing has issued a slew of bold--at least on paper--environmental regulations. But the laws are doing little good because the central government can barely enforce them in its own provinces. This structural problem will remain the key to China's environmental dilemma, and, as countries attempt to push Beijing toward a cleaner future, they'll discover that the capital is the least of their troubles.

Even if the Chinese government does spruce up Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympics, the environmental situation in China remains horrifying. Toxic discharge from factories is turning rivers bright red or even black. Water shortages and rampant desertification are threatening to force tens of millions off their land. Sixteen of the 20 dirtiest cities in the world are in China. And, while few would begrudge China the right to follow in the West's footsteps and pollute in the service of getting richer, studies have found that contamination in the air and water now costs China up to 10 percent of GDP each year, destroying crops and forests and sending hundreds of thousands to the hospital with respiratory diseases or worse. A recent World Bank study estimated that pollution causes some 750,000 premature deaths in China each year. Even scarier for the Communist Party is the prospect of social turmoil: In 2006, China saw 60,000 pollution-related "incidents," a number of them violent.

For those reasons, the Chinese central government has started taking environmental regulation much more seriously. In 2006, the country's eleventh Five-Year Plan called for a 20 percent economy-wide increase in energy efficiency, while a 2005 law requires 15 percent of the country's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020; as a result, China now has one of the largest wind-power markets in the world. Its fuel-economy targets for vehicles--43 miles per gallon by 2009--are far stricter than those in the United States, and SUVs are subject to a heavy excise tax. Most recently, the government promoted its environmental agency to a ministry-level position. Although China could certainly be doing more, says Jennifer Turner, who directs the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center, "when you look at the environmental laws, there's actually been a remarkable spirit of progressiveness."

The main obstacle is not Beijing's refusal to take green issues seriously. It's that the central government has essentially lost the ability to control its provinces and regulate its markets. Since the 1980s, after Deng Xiaoping declared that "To get rich is glorious," China has granted its provinces a large measure of autonomy to pursue that goal. State-owned enterprises have been sold off, markets deregulated, and local officials given wide leeway to stimulate their regional economies. Today, provincial officials rely on tax revenue (or even bribes) from local companies, and they sometimes own or have a personal stake in the businesses they oversee. But the same decentralized set-up that helped produce China's extraordinary economic growth has now made it difficult for Beijing to enforce rules issued from on high.

In the United States, state and federal agencies work together to enforce environmental laws. In China, however, provincial officials tend to focus on protecting their industries, and local regulatory agencies are on the payroll of the provinces, rather than the national government. Local officials determine matters like how emissions credits are doled out, often without clear rules from above. Many of the regulatory agencies, meanwhile, are bare-bones operations, especially inland. "You might have only three regulators for an area the size of Idaho," says Charles McElwee, an environmental lawyer based in Shanghai. "There could be factories going up that they're not even aware of." (All told, China's national environmental ministry has a few hundred employees, compared with more than 18,000 for the U.S. EPA.) As a result, green laws are rarely followed. One recent survey of 509 cities, for instance, found that 77 percent of sewage went untreated, as polluters simply ignored China's clean-water laws.

Beijing is aware of this local lawlessness, but has had little success handling it. "China used to send in swat teams from the central government," says Barbara Finamore, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) China program. "I've seen these campaigns going on for twenty years-- they'll come in, shut down some factories, and, when they leave, they'll open up again." More recently, though, Beijing has begun tying performance evaluations for local officials to how well they meet their energy conservation goals. And, under a new green-finance effort, bank loans are being linked to environmental performance.

Still, even these attempts to rein in the provinces aren't enough. So, at the same time, Beijing is grudgingly permitting China's burgeoning green NGO movement to play a role. After all, part of what allows environmental rules to work in the United States is the fact that green groups can monitor polluters for violations of the law and either publicize the problem or file lawsuits. Since the early '90s, China has slowly begun giving green nonprofits, both domestic and international, a freer hand to expose polluting companies and put pressure on local regulatory agencies. After an illegal battery dump in a fishery in An Hui Province, Green An Hui, a small Chinese nonprofit with seed-money from U.S.-based Pacific Environment, drew press attention to the event, shaming local officials into disposing of the waste properly. But NGOs in China can only do so much: China's donation laws hamper their ability to raise money; and there are still unspoken limits on how freely they can speak out. "It's fine to criticize a hydropower dam on the basis of its ecological impact," says Wen Bo, a prominent green activist. "But you can't say particular officials were corrupted--then you would be in trouble."

Even so, the international community would be wise to follow the lead of these nonprofits. Right now, governments spend a lot of time imploring Beijing to take steps to curb its pollution. They might get further, however, by helping the central government implement the laws it's already passed. Finamore points out, for instance, that if China enforced all the building codes it has on the books, it could cut its energy use dramatically. NRDC is training Chinese building inspectors, who often don't understand the codes, and helping set up independent certifiers to act as watchdogs. But too many international green groups, Wen notes, avoid this hands-on approach, instead staying in Beijing, writing papers and trying to influence national policy. Nor have governments really stepped in on a local level, either. In 2005, Beijing invited officials from California to persuade Jiangsu's provincial government that it could save money by conserving energy rather than by building new coal-fired plants. Since then, other provinces have expressed interest in similar partnerships, yet Congress has given such efforts only sporadic attention.

Offering technical advice on, say, energy efficiency may sound perversely trivial in the face of the runaway destruction of the Chinese landscape. But, for now, steps like these may be the best remedy China could receive for its ailing environment--at least until the Chinese public begins demanding greener growth and even more robust protection.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor of The New Republic.