Environmental Policy in China: Can China Address Air Pollution and Climate Change? Is There Environmental Awareness in China?

Thanks to Prof. Yuri M. Galenovich, I’m sharing a summary on:

“Can China Address Air Pollution and Climate Change?” (by MICHAEL B. MCELROY) and “Is There Environmental Awareness in China?” (by KAREN THORNBER).[1]

and some of the ideas on the topic.

Michael B. Mcelroy gives accurate description of the problem:

Fundamentals of human-induced climate change are well-known: emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) associated with combustion of fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — is primarily responsible for this problem. China is the single largest national source. At the same time, China is faced with an even more immediate problem: air pollution that threatens the health of population of China and neighboring countries. The problems are inextricably linked. Dealing with the issue of climate change will ultimately require a sea change in China’s energy economy, a shift from the current reliance on fossil fuels to less hazardous options such as wind, solar, nuclear, and hydro.

I would not agree with the author about nuclear power energy as risks and damages in the long term are far too great to be a substitution for coal, oil and natural gas. To compare the options and alternatives efficiently, fair and free market price that includes social costs is needed.

If China can successfully navigate this transition, air quality can be restored to its earlier pristine level. But accomplishing this transition will not be easy. The priority must be to limit CO2 emissions, the most important of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that play a central role in regulating emission of infrared heat radiation from the earth to space.

Another important thing about measuring and reducing technogenic carbon dioxide emissions is that it is a result and a marker for hydrocarbon fossil fuel combustion — major source of air pollution in general.

A key development affecting plans to address the climate issue took place in Beijing on November 11, 2014, in advance of the Paris meeting. Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama pledged to limit future emissions of GHGs from their two countries.

China is currently the world’s largest national source of GHGs, surpassing the United States for this position since 2006. President Xi’s commitment was that China’s emissions should peak by 2030, if not earlier, and that non-fossil sources should account by that time for as much as 20 percent of China’s total primary energy consumption.

To place this in context, coal accounted for 73 percent of China’s primary energy consumption in 2012. President Obama’s pledge was that the United States would emit 26 to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. Both commitments were ambitious, challenging other countries to come up with comparable plans as they prepared for Paris. As indicated in a fact sheet released by the White House, “Xi’s commitment would require China to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 GW [gigawatts] of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emissions generating capacity by 2030 — more than all of the coal-fired plants that exist in China today and close to the total current electricity generating capacity in the United States.”

These call for a cap on coal consumption at 4.2 billion tons, natural gas to account for 10 percent of total primary energy supply, nuclear power capacity to rise to 58 GW with an additional 30 GW under construction, hydro capacity to increase to 350 GW, investments in wind systems to reach 200 GW, solar PV (photovoltaic) to increase to 100 GW, and non-fossil sources to account for 15 percent of total primary energy consumption — all of this was to be achieved by 2020. Assuming that these ambitious objectives can be realized, prospects for China to meet Xi’s stated longer-term objective would appear to be reasonable.

If the impact, targets and commitments are quantified, and all of those related to hydrocarbon fuels combustion can be easily quantified in carbon dioxide equivalent, they can be digitalized and placed into universal digital ecosystem.

As indicated earlier, China has important reasons beyond climate change concerns to cut back on its use of fossil fuels. China needs to address the problems posed by episodes of serious air pollution threatening the health of its population.

Sources of this air pollution may be classified as either direct or indirect. Smoke emitted by burning low-grade, untreated coal provides an example of the former. In addition to the suite of carbon compounds formed as a result of incomplete combustion, множество referred to collectively as soot, smoke can incorporate a variety of toxic gases including sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (Knox), and carbon monoxide (CO).

The origin is usually obvious. It can be observed directly as it emerges from the smoke stacks of factories and power plants, the chimneys of coal-heated residences, or the exhaust of passing cars and trucks. The solution is also usually obvious. The problem can be addressed by taking steps to eliminate the source. Often, though, an extreme-pollution event may be required to trigger action.

Fuel combustion is the source. And the point of regulation might well be the market deal of to sell and buy fuels. Eliminating the source is simple and obvious but not the most economically efficient solution. Limiting the source and turning the right to pollute into the resource, the factor of production is.

More than four thousand people died in an air-pollution episode involving direct emissions in London, England, in 1952, some simply falling down dead in the streets. The disaster was triggered by the accumulation of direct emissions in the atmosphere, a circumstance that resulted from an unusual meteorological condition, an inversion of temperature as a function of altitude.

This led to an unusually stable environment that inhibited dispersal of smoke and noxious fumes from the city’s factories and homes over a period of four days between December 4 and December 8.

The political response was immediate. Parliament banned the use of soft coal in the city, and legislation was extended subsequently to prohibit burning coal in all homes in cities throughout the United Kingdom.

China is now confronting the impact not only of pollutants similar to those that caused the problems in London, but also the effect of products formed indirectly through secondary reactions in the atmosphere. Addressing this issue is correspondingly more difficult.

China’s wake-up call took place in January 2013. Attention focused initially on the accumulation of small particles (under 2.5 micrometers in diameter, referred to collectively as PM25, or haze) in the atmosphere.

Concerns were prompted at the outset by dissemination through social media of measurements of PM25 from an instrument on the roof of the US embassy in Beijing. The data suggested that concentrations of PM25 were significantly higher in China than levels reported by official government sources.

The problem was so severe that it was impossible in some cases to discern the identity of nearby objects directly across a street. More serious than the implications for visibility, however, was the impact this toxic mix could have on human health.

The particulate matter involved is so small that it can penetrate deep into human lungs and enter the bloodstream, resulting in serious, even life-threatening, cardiovascular and respiratory problems for exposed populations and vulnerable individuals.

The situation that developed in 2013 was exacerbated by a meteorological inversion that covered a large portion of eastern China for much of January, a larger-scale and more persistent version of the conditions responsible for the disaster experienced sixty years earlier in London. The public response was immediate, prompting the central government to take aggressive steps to address the issue with a new Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (APPCAP).

The governments in general tend to protect the interests of polluters but some of them including Chinese Government only to the point where negative social reaction becomes strong enough to outweigh. Primitive and faulty mechanism to balance social costs through government interventions that bear enormous transaction costs is almost universal, and no government would readily substitute it with peer-to-peer settlement paradigm. The other point is that in this specific sphere there are no entities, either governmental, business, or non-governmental, that one can trust.

Air pollution, including fine-dust, PM2.5 pollution is also a hazardous cross-border issue, where neighboring countries should have a say.

The number of cities in China in which PM25 would be measured more than doubled, with results reported in real time on government websites. The credibility of the central government is seriously invested in the need to mitigate this high-profile problem. For the general public, it clearly ranks higher than the threat of climate change.

Paradoxically, Chinese-style pollution could have a positive impact on climate. A fraction of the fine particles included in this pollution is relatively bright-colored. In addition, they have the potential to increase the concentration of the nucleating agents responsible for the formation of clouds: more cloud-forming particles lead to more reflective clouds.

The net effect could be enhanced reflection of sunlight, offsetting to some extent the additional heat retained as a consequence of the increase in the concentration of GHGs.

That’s exactly the argument put forward by Russian coal lobby, which is financially and morally supported by Russian government agencies, business associations and Western European governments, by Russian WWF Climate Program, to propose building more powerful coal fired plants so the bright particles could reflect the sunlight.

To return to the question posed in the title to this essay — can China successfully address the air-pollution and climate-change problems it faces — the author conclusion and the answer is yes. But it won’t be easy.

The more administrative and technical measures are applied, and the less market and peer-to-peer solutions are used the costlier achieving the targets shall be.

Karen Thornber also gives positive answer to the question: “Is There Environmental Awareness in China?”

THE SIMPLE ANSWER to this question is yes, environmental consciousness is quite strong in China, and it has grown significantly in the past decade. Most notably, the nation’s ever more educated and wealthy urban population is demanding a better quality of life for themselves and their children.

However, the prospects for mitigation of environmental issues in China do not look so certain to this author.

Air pollution and climate change are again at the top of the list.

Particularly concerning to Chinese of all classes is air pollution, which is becoming more and more disruptive and at times is so severe that cities are brought to a standstill, with airports and highways closed. Slowing if not reversing climate change is also a priority.

Objectively catastrophic pollution, Internet, movies and literature have contributed greatly to the growth of environmental awareness.

Recent reports rank China a dismal ninety-first in the world in Internet speed, while the government restricts access to numerous segments of the Internet. Yet social media — especially Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and Weixin (WeChat) — have greatly facilitated discussion and debate in China on environmental crises.

Literature also has contributed to rising environmental consciousness and activism. Creative writers such as worldwide sensation Yan Lianke ruthlessly satirize the seeming obsession of Chinese authorities with economic growth and wealth at all costs.

Especially noteworthy in this respect is Yan Lianke’s recent novel Explosion Chronicles (Zhalie zhi), which describes the transformation of Explosion from a small mountain hamlet into a megacity. This novel exposes and sharply critiques the relentless drive for economic dominance that has severely compromised human health, scarred China’s landscapes, and contributed to devastating pollution and global warming.

Film has had an even greater impact in strengthening Chinese environmental awareness. Former China Central Television journalist Chai Jing’s self-financed documentary film Under the Dome (Qiongding zhi xia), a penetrating if not entirely accurate expose of air pollution in China along the lines of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), was viewed more than 150 million times within three days of its release in 2015. At first, Under the Dome escaped censorship. China’s Minister of Environmental Protection Chen Jining initially praised the film, drawing parallels with Rachel Carson’s monumental book Silent Spring (1962).

Chinese officials likely promoted Chai Jing’s film because it focuses on the China National Petroleum Company, a target of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, and because, as has been reported in the press, the government viewed the film as a way to use public opinion to its advantage for promoting tougher measures for combating pollution.

Yet within a week of its release, after it had been viewed more than 300 million times, Under the Dome was ordered removed from Chinese websites.

Despite such censorship, popular environmental consciousness probably has never been greater in China than it is today. The Chinese people are talking about environmental challenges and protesting environmental destruction more than ever before, while Chinese writers, film directors, visual artists, and other creative producers are addressing environmental degradation on a seemingly unprecedented scale.

Furthermore, as historian Prasenjit Duara has noted, China’s government is committed to environmental education, mandating it in the nation’s public schools since 2003. To be sure, environmental courses are not always taken seriously because the material covered is not on the college entrance examinations, but this curriculum does introduce Chinese children to some of the challenges they are inheriting.

Moreover, the struggles of grassroots environmentalists, often inspired by China’s writers and artists, have met with some success. For instance, former president Hu Jintao in 2007 advocated that “ecological civilization” replace economic development as the nation’s core focus, and in 2008 the State Environmental Protection Agency gained full ministerial status, with local environmental protection branches set up across the country.

However, Hu Jintao has been an ideological descendant to Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang, unlike Xi Jinping, who has been following Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping ideology with values much different from “ecological civilization”. While grassroot environmental consciousness in China provides grounds for transformation to peer-peer decentralized and market approaches, environmental policy mainly depends upon dominant ideology of the Communist Party group in power.

The roots of environmental consciousness in the ancient Chinese philosophy are little known, and seem to contradict the impression of China seeking to conquer the nature.

But what about earlier environmental consciousness in China? Chinese for millennia have engaged in ecologically unsustainable practices, everything from massive deforestation to sizable hydro-engineering projects (such as canals, irrigation systems, and dams), terracing ever steeper slopes, and developing technologies that increasingly allowed communities to shape their environments. But throughout China’s history, concern for the environment has accompanied ecological destruction.

Nascent environmental consciousness in China dates to well before the ancient philosopher Mencius (372–289 BCE), who famously declared: “If nets of fine mesh do not enter pools and ponds, there will be more fish and turtles than we can consume. If axes enter the hills and forests only at the proper times, there will be more wood than we can use.”

To give an earlier example, Guan Zhong, a prime minister during the Eastern Zhou dynasty more than two thousand years ago, cautioned Chinese “not to raise too many cattle on the grassland, lest it fail to recover from over exploitation; and not to plant crops too close together, otherwise the fertility of the soil would be insufficient.”

And the Huainanzi, an essay collection of similar vintage, declares that those who prospered were careful not to deforest, overhunt, overfish, or otherwise abuse the environment. For its part, radical environmental sentiment in China dates at least to the eighth-century writer Han Yu, who decried people who destroyed nature by plowing, felling, drilling, digging, and building; he argued provocatively that reducing the human population would benefit both heaven and earth.

The communist and industrialization slogans have been so much different: “We cannot wait for the Nature to do us favors, our task it to grasp them ourselves!”.

Some creative texts — including poems in China’s first poetry anthology — even go so far as to celebrate human destruction of nature. One such poem declares that heaven created a state in the very place that people had uprooted all the oak trees and cleared the pines and cypresses. Indeed, razing the land for agriculture was an important marker of becoming civilized; peoples the early Chinese perceived as barbarians called attention to their deforesting prowess as proof of their own progress.

To be sure, much early Chinese writing and painting does not question human treatment of the environment. Instead it celebrates the beauties of nature and provides an often distorted, idealistic view of people as intimately connected to the natural world.

But in many parts of China, the consequences of so doing could be fatal. A Ming dynasty poet four centuries ago wrote:

“It’s easy to exhaust the pines and bamboos, and the grasses and weeds don’t grow enough …

When we traveled through the mountains last month, the trees on the mountains appeared to pile up together, but now that we’ve come down from the mountains, we see afar they’re sharp and bare.

The farmers have nothing to use as fuel, so they set on fire the axles of their water carts”.

This text is based on a landscape (the lower Yangzi River region) that had been subjected to millennia of human transformation and, during the seventeenth century, was consistently unable to meet human demands.

A century later, Wang Taiyue’s poem “Laments of the Copper Hills” describes mines that have been exhausted and forests that are no more, warning of the consequences of continued human destruction of nature:

“The mining paths go deeper and deeper every day . What once was just a morning’s work, now takes at least ten days.

The lumber too has grown increasingly scarce, the woodlands resemble clean-shaven heads. For the first time they regret that all this logging, day after day has left them without the firewood they need.

So fertile are the hills and seas that it seems ridiculous to ask whether they flourish only when protected by disaster. But if people take everything, if they have no restraint, then they will exhaust heaven and earth”.

Read literally, the poem’s concern extends beyond the woodlands to the biosphere more generally. It depicts not a flourishing environment, nor even one whose damaged areas are relatively contained, but instead a world threatened by a growing human population with ever increasing demands.

The poem acknowledges that calling for caution might appear absurd, given how fertile much of the natural world remains, but it stresses that people have the capacity to wreak irreparable harm and warns that they will be left with nothing if current behaviors continue unabated.

Similar concerns were voiced in the following centuries, as Chinese authorities sanctioned, and often explicitly ordered, vast destruction of the country’s landscapes. Official rhetoric surrounding the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was striking in its overt antagonism toward nature.

As is well known, the Chinese Communist Party launched a literal “war on nature” to “defeat nature,” declaring that “shock troops” were to reclaim grasslands and that wilderness was to be opened to plant grains.

Great Chinese Famine was “collateral damage”, the price, the social cost Chinese people have paid for this “environmental policy”.

After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Chinese leaders no longer spoke so explicitly of a war on nature and in fact issued propaganda posters urging people to “green the motherland,” “plant trees and make green,” and “cherish greening and treasure old and famous trees.” But they believed ecological protection to be incompatible with economic growth and did little to safeguard the nation’s environment.

China’s unchecked industrialization under Deng Xiaoping and subsequent leaders has resulted in some of the world’s most polluted air, water, and land. China’s sustained economic growth in the past few decades has radically improved living standards for millions, but the environmental costs have been staggeringly high.

The unique characteristic of social costs is that we have to pay them anyway, and the longer we wait the higher is the price.

Matthew E. Kahn and Siqi Zheng provide statistics: in 2012, 57 percent of the groundwater in 198 Chinese cities was officially rated “bad” or “extremely bad,” and more than 30 percent of China’s rivers were labeled “polluted” or “seriously polluted.”

Similarly, in early 2013, smog in northern China measured more than forty times greater than what the World Health Organization has deemed healthy; only 1 percent of China’s urban population lives in cities that meet the air quality standards of the European Union. China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Even as China’s central government signs international environmental agreements in a bid to achieve global legitimacy and, ultimately, leadership, problems persist at the municipal and provincial levels, where local officials often ignore regulations from Beijing because of their ties to local industrialists.

As frequently is noted, increasing wealth remains for many the top priority, in China and globally. So, the juggling act continues, with China’s long-term environmental prognosis uncertain but with the environmental consciousness of its people unlikely to diminish anytime soon.

Scientists and the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research have done a great job. To make some personal conclusions would point out the following:

- We cannot wait for the governments or other middlemen to do us favors, our task it to grasp them ourselves! We should strive for p2p settlement of environmental, social costs’ issues,

- Social costs are still to be paid in full, and the transaction-base model is the most efficient solution,

- “We live in a world where everyone is lying about everything, with even ordinary teens on Instagram agonizing over how best to project a lifestyle they don’t actually have. People get different search results for the same query. Everything requires trust; at the same time nothing deserves it” (Ed Snowden). Social costs settlement requires “trustless” ecosystem.

- Thanks to public and programmable blockchain the technology and solution are now available for practical implementation. If only we could dodge middlemen interventions.

[1] THE CHINA QUESTIONS. CRITICAL INSIGHTS INTO A RISING POWER. Edited by Jennifer Rudolph, Michael Szonyi in Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England 2018.Copyright © 2018 by the President and Fellows of Harvard

978–0–674–97940–6 (cloth : alk. paper) 978–0–674–98333–5 (EPUB) 978–0–674–98334–2 (MOBI) 978–0–674–98270–3 (PDF)

The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:

Names: Rudolph, Jennifer M., editor. | Szonyi, Michael, editor. | Fairbank Center for East Asian Research. Title: The China questions : critical insights into a rising power / edited by Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi.