Red China Turns Green

By Clifford Coonan,

A power plant Hefei, Anhui province spews fumes but China has a new green agenda. Image source: Reuters

CHINA: Three decades of economic growth have played havoc with China’s environment, but its new five-year plan is designed to put that right.

IT’S PROBABLY THE greenest five-year plan in China’s history. The blueprint document aims to reduce the blind rush for economic growth at any cost and to introduce greater consideration for environmental concerns and better use of natural resources.

China’s annual parliament, the National People’s Congress, gave enthusiastic backing to the 12th five-year plan, which appears to confirm – on paper at least – the Chinese government’s realisation that three decades of rapid economic growth have played havoc with the country’s environment.

China now appears to be prepared to accept lower economic growth rates in exchange for a more sustainable brand of expansion. This ties in with the government’s long-term, and oft-stated, goal of moving away from being a cheap manufacturing site towards being something more innovative and higher up the value chain in areas such as software and IT.

“In the next five years, and for some time in China’s economic development, we must focus on transforming the mode of economic development,” Premier Wen Jiabao told a news conference at the close of the annual parliament.

“We must fully exploit this opportunity to adjust the economy’s structure and address the long-standing problems in China’s economy – of a lack of balance, poor co-ordination and unsustainability – so economic development is adapted to our population, environment and resources,” he said.

There is international pressure on China now to switch to a more sustainable path of development, combined with the economic pressures from rising natural resource costs.

China’s annual GDP growth targets for the coming five years will stand at an average of 7 per cent, a departure from the previous aim of 8 per cent. The country’s annual growth rate ran at 11.2 per cent over the previous five-year plan, prompting fears the economy would overheat. So environmental protection ties in with efforts to cool the economy.

At the same time, the government needs to keep up a high momentum of economic expansion and is committed to greater urbanisation. “We will actively respond to climate change. We will strengthen resource conservation and management, intensify the protection of farmland and the environment, strengthen ecological development and systems to prevent and mitigate natural disasters and comprehensively build our capacity for sustainable development,” Wen said.

Among the targets are increasing the proportion of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 11.4 per cent, and reducing the amount of energy consumed per unit of GDP by 16 per cent.

Beijing plans an 8 to 10 per cent reduction in the release of major pollutants, an increase of 600 million cubic metres in forest stock, with coverage increased to 21.66 per cent. “We will substantially improve water conservancy facilities, make progress in better-controlling important tributaries of large rivers as well as lakes and small and medium-sized rivers, and significantly improve agricultural irrigation, the efficiency of water resources use and resistance to flooding,” said Wen.

Deputy environmental protection minister Zhang Lijun said China would continue to lower emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, major pollutants from coal burning.

“In some regions, emissions of traditional water and air pollutants remain higher than the environment can accommodate,” Zhang said. “Meanwhile, the country is faced with new challenges from soil pollution, hazardous waste and electronic waste. Such pollution poses even greater threats to human health.”

However, he noted that coal consumption was expected to keep rising in the next five years. Coal remains the country’s prime energy source, accounting for up to 70 per cent of the energy mix. Last year, China used 3.25 billion tons of standard coal equivalent.

Zhang also said controlling the emission of nitrogen oxides, found in car exhausts, would be tough. This is largely a political problem. Owning a car is still the dream of most Chinese and, while the government has introduced various schemes to reduce the number of cars on the road, it is too risky politically to try to control people’s car consumption. Zhang has suggested controlling the number of cars in the country’s biggest cities, and imposing a cap on the discharge of nitrogen oxides in the power and cement industries.

Wang Xi, director of the environmental law research centre at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University, said the government, companies and broader society had all made an effort on environmental protection due to climate change.

“During the period of the last five-year plan, we set several emission targets and we can see that these have been reached,” said Wang. “In the forthcoming period of the 12th five-year plan, we will continue to see energy savings plans and reductions in emissions, while we will add some new emission targets related to the global climate change issue.”

However, the congratulatory tone of much of what has been written about China’s approach to the environment in recent years belies the fact that the country is still suffering from dire environmental problems: the air in the country’s major cities is badly polluted, its rivers are dying and desertification is becoming a serious problem.

Environmental group Greenpeace broadly welcomes the plan but says it does not go far enough. “Over the next five years, even though government pressure on local authorities and industries should continue, Greenpeace believes it is important to introduce a variety of market mechanisms and incentives to mobilise local government and business, and move China onto a more sustainable path of development. These measures should include reforming energy prices and subsidies, implementing an environmental tax, and expanding carbon emissions trading – all of which will go a long way towards reforming China’s development model, and reducing its energy intensity,” the group said.

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