On the cusp of development and disaster

On the cusp of development and disaster

 Likewise, the concomitant fallout of its industrial growth - environmental degradation - has shattered all precedents. It is a cost that the Chinese are having to pay for the economic juggernaut that the authoritarian regime in Beijing unleashed. The booming Chinese economy may have brought millions out of poverty and made the country the world’s factory. But the consequent environmental damage has been so stark and severe that it poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese people but also an international challenge which may well be extremely difficult to undo.

It is not clear whether the ruling Communist Party or the international order will be able to rein in the development monster. A report of an American think tank, Council on Foreign Relations, says that the Chinese economy, which grew ten-fold since 1978 at breakneck speed, led to “widespread” environmental degradation. According to CFR’s specialist on China’s environment, Elizabeth Economy, the “spectacular economic growth…brought with it skyrocketing pollution and a dramatic depletion of natural resources”.

It also brought in its wake significant public health problems, mass migration, economic losses and social unrest -- consequences of a failure to effectively integrate environment considerations into development efforts. Beijing is identified as one of the 13 most polluted cities in the world and it is often shrouded in a thick, throat-stinging haze that is the byproduct of heavy industry, coal-burning electricity plants and over 3.5 million cars that clog its roads. Last year, a United Nations report on global pollution patterns said that smog blocks 10 to 25 per cent of the sunlight that should be reaching Beijing’s streets. Natural light in the southern city of Guangzhou has been dimmed by 20 per cent since the 1970s because of the presence of soot and dust in the atmosphere.

Premature deaths

A recent World Bank report identified China as the world’s third largest consumer of coal and oil that have caused “severe urban air pollution” that has a significant impact throughout the region. China is also the world’s second largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that doubled between 1996 and 2006. While the United States continues to be the largest polluter, at least in terms of GHG, China will soon surpass America in the years to come, if its development machines fail to improve energy efficiency, apply renewable energy and clean coal technologies which are essential for urgent sustainable development. One human consequence of the unchecked GHG emission is that every year air pollution in China causes as many as 400,000 premature deaths and 75 million asthma attacks, a 2007 study by Jennifer Turner and Linden Ellis of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars has concluded.

Yet, China is no longer pretending that it is a backward country whose need for economic growth relieves it of obligations to control emissions. At the UN meeting on climate change, Chinese president Hu Jintao pledged to reduce the rate of growth in carbon dioxide emissions between now and 2020 by a “notable margin”. But will China be prepared to sacrifice on growth  when the country’s greatest achievement is also its biggest burden?

A similar situation may perhaps unfold in India which is on the high-road to economic growth. It is in this context that India needs to take some urgent lessons from the development model the Chinese adopted in the late ‘70s. While growth has been achieved on the crest of the successes of its service, and not its manufacturing sector, policymakers in New Delhi might like to believe that India’s contribution to domestic and global environmental problem would never surpass that of China. India’s needs for energy is indication enough that it may yet put the growth-first philosophy before a model that allows for steady and sustainable development. If this were to be, both China and India could mess up the global ecological balance.

Ecological bomb

*   Beijing is among 13 most polluted cities in the world.
*   3.5 million cars clog its roads.
*   Smog blocks 10 to 25 per cent sunlight reaching its streets.
*   Natural light in the southern city of Guangzhou dimmed by 20 per cent since the 1970s because of soot and dust in atmosphere.
*   Due to Green House Gas emissions, every year air pollution in China causes as many as 400,000 premature deaths and 75 million asthma attacks