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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

China's Environment Gets Lost in the Haze

Air Date: Week of June 26, 1998

President Clinton is in China this week, meeting with Chinese leaders, and environmental concerns are high on the agenda. With its one point two billion people, and rapid industrialization, China has the ability to thwart international environmental efforts, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. China also has dire domestic ecological issues to contend with from polluted cities to factories that dump toxic waste into rivers, development gobbling up agricultural land, and large areas in the north sinking as farmers draw down the water table. To discuss the current state of China's environment we turned to Daniel Esty. He's director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University, and the author of "Sustaining the Asia Pacific Miracle: Environmental Protection and Economic Integration." Professor Esty visits China often, where, he tells Laura Knoy, it's become increasingly difficult to breathe the air.

Transcript

KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy.
President Clinton is in China this week, meeting with Chinese leaders, and environmental concerns are high on their agenda. With its one point two billion people, and rapid industrialization, China has the ability to thwart international environmental efforts, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. China also has dire domestic ecological issues to contend with. The nation is home to 5 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world. Its factories dump toxic waste into rivers, development is gobbling up precious agricultural land, and large areas in the northern part of the country are literally sinking, as thirsty people and desperate farmers draw down the water table to dangerously low levels. To discuss the current state of China's environment we turned to Daniel Esty. He's director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University. And he's the author of Sustaining the Asia Pacific Miracle: Environmental Protection and Economic Integration. Professor Esty visits China often, where he says it's become increasingly difficult to breathe the air.

ESTY: The pollution problems in China hit you in the face the moment you step off the airplane, and you can't escape them in any major city in China. The air is thick with particulates, that is, dust. It is also very difficult to see. You have smog problems. And I think you see the Chinese people facing very serious consequences, and anyone who goes as a tourist faces it as well. In fact, I frequently have heard people joke about the time they spend in Beijing causing something called The Beijing Cough, which is just one example of the respiratory problems that almost anyone who visits, and certainly everyone who lives in Beijing, suffers from.

KNOY: And is that just in Beijing, Professor Esty, or is that the case in other parts of China?

ESTY: Well, it's the case in all of China's major cities and increasingly in its smaller cities, as well. Chinese authorities admitted that in recent years twenty six percent of all deaths in China have been as a result of respiratory distress.

KNOY: All the predictions I've seen say that the Chinese are more and more getting off their bikes and into cars.

ESTY: Well, the same trend is true everywhere in the world, and the mobility provided by a car is an important part of the kind of aspirations that people have all over the world for development. And I think those that argue, somehow, that we're going to encourage the Chinese not to have cars are misplaced in their vision of the future, and, frankly, it's very hard to justify on moral grounds as well.

KNOY: What about the water pollution?

ESTY: Water pollution is a little bit harder to see because you don't necessarily come face to face with polluted water that you then are asked to drink. Certainly as a tourist you stay in hotels where the water is drinkable. But, in many villages, the water supplies are contaminated, and people are at a constant risk of quite serious digestive tract diseases, some of which can even be fatal.

KNOY: What caused things to get so bad?

ESTY: There has been a priority in China, for some number of years, on economic growth with little attention to the environmental consequences of this very fast rate of economic development. For example, when a developer, particularly one from the United States or Europe, comes with a proposal to build into a project some pollution control equipment and pollution control devices, frequently the Chinese authorities ask that those devices be taken out of the project, be stripped away. And, quite frankly, it's not just Beijing. In many cases now it's provincial authorities who are competing with each other to be the centerpiece for the next bit of economic growth without much focus on the environmental effects that all of this growth is causing.

KNOY: So, there's a competition going on between different cities and different economic zones to see who can get ahead the fastest?

ESTY: Absolutely right. We call it, in the academic world, "a race to the bottom" because in effect what each of these cities or municipal areas is doing is offering to be the most degraded environment, and therefore the cheapest place to operate, without any focus on what those pollution consequences might be.

KNOY: Professor Esty, you mentioned serious air and water pollution, twenty-six percent of the population dying of respiratory diseases, dirty water making people sick constantly. Is this causing any sort of environmental movement in China?

ESTY: It's very interesting to see the environmental movement beginning to spring up in China. Of course, the Chinese authorities are very nervous about this. In fact, they've been very hesitant about allowing environmental groups to become organized for fear this could become a rallying point for broader issues like the advancement of democracy.

KNOY: So the Chinese government has to approve these groups before they can do anything?

ESTY: Yes, that's one of the challenges in operating in China is that it is impossible to organize without at least some official support, that is to say, some approval from the government. Environmental education, for example, is generally accepted and thought to be a good thing. But, environmental advocacy or challenging of local environmental and pollution decisions would not be the kind of activity that the government accepts.

KNOY: What does that say to you, then, about the future of any strong environmental movement in China?

ESTY: It's very hard to sustain good environmental programs absent and underlying democracy. It turns out that the constant attention given to environmental problems by non-governmental organizations is a critical element of ensuring that the hard issues that have to be faced are constantly reexamined.

KNOY: Do you expect, Professor Esty, that any of these environmental issues will be on the agenda when President Clinton meets with Chinese leaders?

ESTY: I think it's very clear that a number of environmental issues will be on President Clinton's agenda. There is clearly an opportunity to build bridges between the United States and China on the environmental front. The U.S. has advanced pollution control technologies that would be of great value to the Chinese in addressing their water pollution problems, in taking on some of the air pollution issues they face, particularly, for example, in the power generating sector and in helping the Chinese to address their toxic pollution control issues. And I think there is also likely to be some discussion about climate change. The honest truth is, as everyone who looks at climate change knows, you cannot solve the problem if you don't have China pulling with you. So, finding a way to bring China on board the Kyoto Protocol, or some revised version of it, is a critical policy goal for the Clinton Administration.

KNOY: Daniel Esty is Director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University, and he's the author of Sustaining the Asia Pacific Miracle: Environmental Protection and Economic Integration. Professor Esty, thanks for joining us.

ESTY: Thank you for having me.

 

 

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