President Obama and Xi Jinping (image credit: The White House)

Environmental Protection in China: Past and Present

by Ian Matthew Miller and George Yin

On November 12, 2014, President Obama and Xi issued a joint announcement declaring their commitment to join forces to fight climate change. The United States would aim to reduce its carbon emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level by 2025, and to make best efforts to reduce its emissions by 28%. China would seek to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and make best efforts to peak early, and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.

Domestically, we also observe the Chinese government putting increasing emphasis on environmental protection. In 2008, the Hu-Wen administration created the Ministry of Environmental Protection. In 2014, the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, passed stricter environmental laws that allow for consecutive daily fines for repeated offenders and make reporting of environmental damages easier. Just a few months ago, the State Council General Office issued a circular that would enforce local government compliance with the new environmental laws.

The Chinese administration’s recent turn towards strengthening environmental protection may seem surprising to some. China has historically been opposed to the global scheme of carbon emissions reduction. In 2009, the Copenhagen conference on climate change collapsed because of Chinese (and other developing countries’) opposition to diverting resources from development to building more green and sustainable economies. Analysts have argued that China’s Confucian roots helped spur policies that often promoted man’s use of nature, hindering the development of a conservation ethos.

In fact, Confucian thought contains ethics promoting both conservation and development. Mencius, the second great Confucian thinker, argued that conservation was vital to people’s’ livelihood; he wrote “If you allow hatchets and axes to be used in the woods only in proper season, there will be more lumber than the people can use” (Mencius 1a.3). In the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) Dynasties, families made woodland conservation central to their Confucian ethics. They argued that to properly venerate their ancestors — a core tenet of Confucianism — it was key to protect the woodlands surrounding their graves. These grave groves persisted long enough to become the core of the state’s “ecology forests” in the 1950s and 60s. Yet the conservation ethic has historically come up against another core Confucian mission: to provide for people’s livelihoods.

Indeed, in their opposition to elements of recent climate accords, China has repeatedly brought up the need to grow its economy and provide for its people. Balancing human needs and environmental protection has been a challenging endeavor for China throughout its history, even before the advent of industrialization. The Chinese people’s management of the Yellow River in history highlights the challenge well. Like the creeping threat of climate change, the Yellow River conservancy posed short- and medium-term economic benefits against the long-term threat of environmental disaster.


Ma Yuan — The Yellow River Bursts its Banks (image credit: Wikipedia)

Since early history, farmers have cleared forests to plant seasonal crops, making the land susceptible to topsoil erosion. As farmland expanded, more and more soil flowed into the river systems. By the year 1 BCE, what had simply been called “the River” was increasingly known as the “Yellow River” because it carried so much yellow-brown sediment — as much as 60% of its flow.

All this sediment built up along the riverbed, gradually raising it above surrounding terrain. As water tends to flow downhill, the Yellow River began to change its course to flow into land without as much sediment deposits. To prevent the river from changing course and inundating productive farmland, government engineers built dikes. But if these dikes decreased the frequency of flooding, they increased the severity of floods large enough to breach the dikes.

More importantly, they did not solve the underlying problem that led to river flooding — the accumulation of silt along the river course, ultimately caused by agriculture. Given that the alternative was to deprive farmers of their livelihoods — and the state of its taxes — government after government chose to chose to ignore the underlying problems caused by development and build the dikes higher. The result: major changes of river-course in 11, 1048, 1194, 1494, 1855 and 1938, each inundating huge swaths of farmland, and precipitating waves of political and demographic crises.

Refugees from Yellow River Flooding, 1938 (image credit Alex Shih, Wikipedia)

Like global warming, Yellow River flooding was caused by the accumulation of local problems (air pollution; topsoil erosion) into crises of the entire hydrological system (destabilizing global climate and precipitation; flooding of the entire river-course). Like air pollution, topsoil erosion was a side effect of economic production (burning fossil fuels for power; clearing land for farming). And like modern politicians, ancient statesmen were left with a difficult decision — to restrict economic activity in order to limit stress on the system, or to allow economic growth and deal with the increased threat of natural disasters. Imperial China had the advantage of having unified the entire Yellow River basin under a single government. Yet time and again, they chose to expand production and pray for the best.

The idea of balancing human needs and environmental conservation is not foreign to Chinese culture. Yet it is telling that one of China’s greatest cultural heroes was Yu the Great (大禹) — an engineer who introduced flood control to China and founded its first dynasty, the Xia 夏. Since then, from the Yellow River conservancy to the burning of fossil fuels, Chinese leaders have chosen to grow people’s livelihoods at the risk of environmental disaster. Starting December 1st, world leaders been met in Lima for the Twentieth conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Although a commitment was reached on December 14th, for the first time holding all countries to cutting emissions, China (and other developing countries) continue to oppose being held to the same standards as developed countries. The need for environmental protection continues to be balanced against the imperative for economic development.

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