China & The Environment

First in the world in population, coal consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions, China is big in every way. Over the past few decades China transformed itself into the world’s factory, growing at breakneck speed. The burgeoning economy lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty; China’s economy is second only to the USA’s. The price of progress, this column will argue, is equally large and will have consequences for decades to come.

Continuous economic growth powered by coal consumption is transforming China. Farmland is transformed into urban and industrial zones, water is polluted with heavy metals, the air is made thick with record levels of smog. As a result, one study finds that 500 million individuals in China’s industrial north lose five years of life on average. Another finds 2010 economic losses equal to 2.5% of China’s GDP (twice as much as in 2004), and a Lancet article estimates 1.2 million premature deaths attributable to pollution in 2010 alone.

Rising incomes generally go hand in hand with increased environmental awareness, and China is reaching a tipping point for at least two reasons. In December 2013 the government published reasons why China’s dirty air is actually beneficial:

*It makes people more united, more sober, more equal, more humorous and better informed.

*Further, smog is making Chinese people equal since it affected the lungs of both rich and poor (which touches on China’s income inequality, another powder keg in China).

The statement reads more like an appeal to identify and unite against a common enemy, which can also be read as a plea by the Communist Party to shift blame for the pollution its economic growth policies promote.

The second reason is that China’s government now requires 15,000 Chinese firms to make real-time public disclosures on the number and amount of pollutants they pump into the air and water. The very fact that the disclosures are public implies that China is empowering its citizens with data. Local public officials are now put in a very awkward position because they can no longer turn a blind eye whenever factories place profit over environment and cut costs by unloading pig carcasses into rivers or contaminating agricultural land with heavy metals. Instead, they are accountable to the people. Which, by extension, sounds a lot like democracy.

In short, China’s environmental problems could very well tear China’s political fabric apart. People clamoring for a better life no longer want just money; they want a better standard of living. Encouraging bottom-up approaches to hold local officials accountable for pollution set could set a precedent for other bottom-up approaches such as transparency. The same approach also suggests that there must be viable alternative candidates to take their place should they fail, something hard to achieve in a one party system.

In short, China’s environmental destruction both past and present could very well provide a catalyst for uniting China’s citizens around an open political system that allows people to hold their government accountable for things like environment and a better standard of living. That would be a remarkable thing to behold, especially if it catapults China into another first: the world’s largest democracy.

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