Chinese Economic Expansion and Increased Air Pollution
In recent years, China has been experiencing unprecedented economic growth. Chinese prosperity has had negative side-effects, including extreme environmental pollution (Wong, 2014). What researchers call “ambient particulate matter pollution” was the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths in China, contributing to 1.2 million deaths in 2010. Construction, industrial waste and greenhouse gasses are the major contributors to an epidemic that is creating a public outcry for government intervention. The Chinese government and other stakeholders have asserted that air pollution is decreasing and that the main culprits are not large industrial corporations. They point to strict regulations that they claim have been rigidly enforced. However, many foreign governments, environmental groups and activists around the world dispute this assertion. A growing number of Chinese also believe their government is not doing enough to curb environmental pollution. In 2012, the government announced a “war on pollution.” However, the slow reaction to a decades old crisis is a reflection of the power struggle within a government torn between those who believe in economic growth at all costs, and those who believe that these costs are becoming too high. At the heart of the controversy is a complex question: Is the Chinese government properly regulating industry to reduce and control pollution, or are they more focused on stimulating and developing economic growth?
The scientific research is conclusive. According to recent studies, China is the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide. The air quality level in Chinese cities has reached levels that make it dangerous to go outside. Additionally, a recent study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences established that air pollution and other forms of pollution were being caused by economic growth. (Luo et al, 2014). During 1978-2012, the economy has increased more than 140%. The Chinese economy is booming, and the average standard of living is improving. However, life expectancy in North China has been reduced by 5.5 years (Broderick, 2014). China’s pollution can be seen as a byproduct of positive economic growth. Despite the scientific evidence, the proponents of relaxed industrial pollution regulations argue that the U.S. polluted the world for over 150 years, and now that it is an established economy, Americans want other developing countries to follow rules that they never had to conform to themselves. They also point out that the majority of NGO’s, ecological organizations and activists are based in affluent developed countries (Wheeler, 2010).
These effects were experienced in the U.S. during its industrialization in the late 19th century, and continued into the 20th century. Starting in the 1960’s, the U.S. Congress passed a series of Clean Air Acts. This legislation enforced strict regulations on industry and improved air quality, but many regions of the U.S. continue to struggle with pollution. This is over 150 years after the U.S. first experienced the negative effects of industrialization. China is undergoing the same process today. The proponents of economic growth at any cost point to these facts in justifying the decision to allow industrial expansion to continue relatively unregulated. The argument is a simple one: If the U.S., the E.U., and other developing countries were able to grow their economics without the limitations of regulation, why should China have to play by a different set of rules. There should be a fair and level playing field. China should be allowed the same development path without handicaps. Moreover, they argue that the U.S. wants to deliberately impede Chinese growth because its rapid development is a competitive threat. The U.S. is scared of Chinese economic dominance and wants to use ecological climate change politics to suppress Chinese growth. (Wheeler, 2010).
The amount of environmental pollution can be directly correlated and with economic growth (GDP) according to a very predictable statistical curve. (Harbaugh, Levinson & Wilson, 2012). This relationship between the expansion of the economy and the deteriorating of the environment is called Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) and explains the phenomenon existing in China. Chinese industrialists and Communist Party members can point to this economic theory as justification for the unregulated industrial pollution. As economics grow, they pollute, and there is nothing you can do about it. To them, smog is smell of money. Many believe if you regulate industry, it will lower output and cost jobs. However, their opponents argue that this curve is based on old technology, and is an inaccurate portrayal of modern industrialization. Activists like Greenpeace and Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, believe that with new technology, industrial development can be ecologically friendly. The conclusion of a large body of scientific research is clear: As a counties economic output increases, the amount of environmental pollution also increases. Pro-industry leaders in China do not dispute the link between economic growth and increased pollution (Harbaugh, 2012).
However, the debate is not just scientific. Global climate change activists and the many Chinese people suffering from polluted air assert that pollution is a public health issue. It is a governmental responsibility to monitor and control pollution. (Zhu, Sarkis & Lai, 2010). This raises the question of the role of government in encouraging and stimulating economic growth, and at the same time, regulating and possibly limiting industry. It is not just economic. It is also a public health debate (Gore, 2014).
Air quality and public health was hotly debated when China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. There was criticism that China was in no position to host the Olympics because of the air pollution and its potential effect on the athletes and spectators. The Olympic Games did not experience major problems related to pollution. However, despite the spectacular success of the games, media coverage focused on the issue and worldwide public perception was negative. (Brownell,2008).
After the Olympics, and the public outcry over continued smog issues, the Chinese government promised it would regulate industrial pollution. The Chinese government has been slow to address the issue or implement effective regulations. The Chinese people are exhausted at the slow response of the government. The sluggish reaction has created doubt and mistrust in the political system and its leaders. As a result, air pollution has become politicized and continues to be a hotly contested issue (Luo et al., 2014). When it comes to the speed at which environmental regulations are implemented, the environmentalists want immediate action. The pro-industry leaders believe slow and calculated steps are required to ensure the strong Chinese economy is not forced into another recession. They also point to the 150 years it took the U.S. to get their environmental affairs in order.
Moreover, it does not take scientists to observe the deterioration of air quality in China. There was a three month smog haze that lingered over China for three months. It affected large areas of China and created a public outcry for the government to drastically improve air quality. The haze influenced the climate, human health and created a national controversy. The pro-industry proponents suggested that climate and weather was responsible for the haze. They refused to directly link it to industrial output. They also pointed the finger at America, arguing that this is nothing new, strange atmospheric incidents happen. The U.S. also experienced the same pollution problem forty years ago. It got so bad, the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. Pro-environment activists would assert that this was the beginning of the end of relaxed and ineffective pollution regulation. The incident instigated a public debate on environmental issues and led the creation of new anti-pollution laws and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the U.S. at the time, governmental industrial regulation was criticized for its negative effect on economic growth. According to leading economists, these laws reduced pollution but also encouraged a more advanced and sustainable economy. (Shao, Tang, Zhang & Li, 2006).
The Chinese government has been slow to respond to the controversy. Before 2013, the Chinese government was largely silent about pollution, focusing on the positives of the economic growth. Industrial activity had lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. Environmentalists would argue that these leaders also lifted themselves into the upper class, getting rich off of industrial pollution. Many governmental officials had direct ties to industry. Others encouraged ambitious industrialists and local officials for fast economic growth in their jurisdictions. There were rumors of bribes and kick-backs. This set up a system of questionable incentives. Local officials often interfered with the environmental inspectors, protecting polluters from investigations and penalties. Some governmental officials were directly involved in the corruption while others protected family members and friends. Above all, the environmentalists assert, these stakeholders favored economic growth over a clean environment, enriching themselves in the process.
The GDP, per capita income, educational levels and standard of living were all rising. To regulate industry would mean confronting the most powerful and entrenched interests in China's economy and the Communist Party. However, in December 2013, it released a blueprint for a “war on pollution” that focused on reducing pollution and addressing climate change. It also listed objectives to be achieved by 2020. It now publishes figures for the air quality in China's major cities and also required 15,000 of the largest factories to report emission and waste water-discharge data. The Chinese Parliament now has extensive regulatory powers to monitor and punish corporate polluters. After decades of denying the issue even existed, the government has become more proactive.
The internal conflict on pollution, economic growth and industrial regulations within the Chinese government is not discussed openly. Environmentalists do not trust the Chinese government. They believe the legislation does not necessarily ensure the implementing of effective anti-pollution policies and regulations. The Chinese government is tolerating environmental protests. In a country that regards protests as a threat to national security, this is a sign that the two groups may be close to important compromises. This is sign the Chinese government is being more responsive and transparent. The government has permitted official media reports on the level of air pollution. However, environmentalists are still skeptical, waiting for enforceable regulations addressing the root causes of the pollution. There are other signs of reconciliation between environmentalists and pro-industry leaders. Recently, more than a hundred Chinese industrialists joined green activists and environmental lawyers to push for more environmental legislation. Environmentalists concede that pollution reforms may cause economic growth to slow temporarily, but the long-term effects of a healthier population, a cleaner environment, and a more sustainable economy will pay off in the long run.
In conclusion, the controversy over pollution in China is really about many complex issues, involving economics, politics, science and public health. There is little doubt that the explosive economic growth of China is responsible for the extreme pollution. However, pro-industry proponents do not want to stifle economic progress. They believe the U.S. had an unfair advantage by not being shackled by environmental concerns throughout much of its economic development. Their main argument is that if the government focuses on protecting the environment at the expense of the economy, the economy will suffer and so will the Chinese people. Environmentalists believe this archaic thinking. You can have a robust economy and protect the environment. They argue that, in fact, you must protect the environment or the economy will not be sustainable. Essentially, the catastrophic effects of pollution and global warming will ensure that there is no economy, and possibly no planet. The government has started making concessions but it is still early days, and environmentalists remain skeptical. The people in power are aligned with powerful business interests. Time will only tell how this controversy will ultimately be resolved.
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