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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Visitor From China

Air Date: Week of

When Chinese President Jiang Zemin sat down a few days ago to talk with U.S. President Bill Clinton, the state of China’s environment was high on their agenda. China’s growing population and rising standard of living have created a huge demand for more energy. Steve Curwood speaks with Michael McElroy who is a professor of atmospheric science at Harvard University and chairs Harvard’s Committee on Environment China Project about China's energy consumption and its effects on global climate policy.


CURWOOD: When Chinese President Jiang Zemin recently sat down to talk with President Clinton, the state of China's environment was high on the agenda. China's growing population and rising standard of living have created a huge demand for more energy. By 2020, the country's coal consumption is expected to double, possibly triple. That means dramatic increases and emissions responsible for climate change. Congress has said it won't approve a global warming treaty unless developing countries like China agree to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. Given those conditions, Professor Michael McElroy, who co-chairs Harvard University's China Project, says China's involvement is crucial in the upcoming climate change treaty talks.

McELROY: The question is, what does that mean? To be involved, in my opinion, does not mean that they accept the same schedule that we accept as developed countries. However, being involved means that they must accept that they also have responsibility, and then it's a matter of negotiating how that responsibility should be discharged.

CURWOOD: Now, Professor McElroy, does China see CO2 emissions as a vital issue for them?

McELROY: I would say in the scheme of things, China's hierarchy of issues that are important, I guess I would list number one, security. I mean, China's concerned, the government is concerned with making sure that a country doesn't simply collapse into chaos. And in order to have that security, China's concerned with maintaining economic growth. In order to fuel that economic growth you need to have an energy supply, so energy supply is very important. But then China is also surprisingly concerned about the environment. In fact, it has on the books a very good set of environmental laws.

CURWOOD: But are they enforced?

McELROY: Well, there's a story which I like to tell from personal experience. A few years ago I went to visit the city of Chunching, and Chunching is a large city, it's a city of a population of about 15 or 20 million people. And I was escorted by a senior official from the Chinese Environmental Protection Agency from Beijing. And he'd been telling me about their environmental laws, and I was very impressed with how good their environmental laws were. So I asked if I could see the local power plant, and he said no problem. So he brought me along to show me this power plant. And it was like a scene from hell; I'd never imagined anything like it in my life.

CURWOOD: You mean black smoke coming out of the top?

McELROY: I stood back half a mile away, up the hill, beside an apartment building, looking down on trainloads of coal trucking in at one end and empty trains leaving the other end, with smokestacks burning black, yellow smoke. So when I got back in the car to go back to the hotel, I turned to my host and I said, "Professor Wong, does this place violate the Clean Air Act?" And he looked at me with a quizzical smile and he said, "Of course." I said, "Well, what did you do?" And he said, "Well, we fined them. But they don't have any money." I said, "Well, what are you supposed to do if they don't have any money?" He said, "We're supposed to close them down." I said, "Well, but they're still operating." He said, "If we close them down, the city of Chunching has no electricity." So then you realize they have the laws, but it's very difficult to enforce in that particular case. Incidentally, I might say, though, that there's a change taking place in China. They have now taken steps to punish certain environmental offenses under the criminal code rather than the civil code. And that's pretty aggressive. And I'm convinced that they're very serious about that.

CURWOOD: In terms of taking businesses to China to help with their energy situation, some have suggested that companies like GE and Westinghouse, who are eager to start building more nuclear plants, should be allowed to do that in China. Should the US encourage this?

McELROY: I believe that we should definitely be involved in all aspects of the energy infrastructure development in China, including specifically nuclear. Because China is going to develop nuclear power, not on a very rapid time scale. I mean, with current Chinese plans it's unlikely that nuclear power will account for more than a few percent of their electricity generation, even 2 or 3 decades from now. It's going to be a slow process given the rapid growth that they need in order to satisfy the energy demands of their economy. But I think it's extremely important that the United States be involved in that process. It's going to happen, and if it's going to happen with unsafe nuclear power supplied by the former Soviet Union or places such as that, we deprive ourselves of a market. We also deprive ourselves of an opportunity to influence how it is going to go. Having said that, I also appreciate that the Chinese have to be responsible about the use of nuclear technology and exporting it to potential places where it could be abused.

CURWOOD: China's very concerned about its own internal security.


CURWOOD: There's been growing unrest throughout the country about some of the environmental degradation, hasn't there? Sooner or later, isn't this going to cause instability in the population there?

McELROY: I think that a broad spectrum of the Chinese people are very concerned about environment and regard it as a very important thing. I had an interesting experience a few years ago. I spent some time with a person who'd been one of the student leaders at Tiananmen, and he's very seriously involved in the whole human rights movement. And he told me that in his opinion, the environment was a problem for his country at least as serious as the problem of human rights. And having visited China and seen it, I believe that. So I think the government's committed to doing something about it, but it's a difficult task.

CURWOOD: It sounds like they're stuck. If they move to fight pollution, they shut plants down that they need, they'll cost people jobs. And if they don't, they're going to face social instability from the other side.

McELROY: The way I would see it is, China in some sense is having a second industrial revolution. And the first industrial revolution, our industrial revolution, ran its course for what? Not 250 years. So relatively slowly. And we learned about the problems rather late in the game. We learned about the problems of air pollution only when people started to die in Denorek, Pennsylvania, and in London in the early 1950s. But what is really alarming is you have the sense that China is repeating our industrial revolution step by step by step: burning coal, then trying to clean up the particulates. Then worrying about acid rain, and then beginning to worry about other issues related to the, you know, the industrialization. But at the same time taking every single step that we did. The challenge for China, which I hope it steps up to, is to do it in a different way.

CURWOOD: Well, Professor McElroy, thank you very much for taking this time with us.

McELROY: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Michael McElroy is Professor of Environmental Studies at Harvard University and Chairman of the Department of the Earth and Planetary Sciences.



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