At the tail end of my round-the-world trip in 2007/08, I was lucky enough to have visited Beijing while the city was host to the Olympic Games. What an incredible experience! Olympics aside, I visited some of Beijing’s must-see sights including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace and The Great Wall. The Olympic Games though – wow. The “Bird’s Nest” stadium had an incredible atmosphere and I also cheered on Team GB at two hockey games – though we lost both :(.
It wasn’t until I got home (having been away for a year with virtually no TV, don’t forget) that I heard about all the scandal surrounding the Chinese hosts. A pretty little girl singing at the opening ceremony was actually a dubbed stand-in because the real singer had bad teeth. Some of the fireworks were computer generated. The city’s slums had been baricaded so that visitors couldn’t see the “real” China. China gets a bit of a bad rep. In my latest blog post for Our Green Earth I discuss China’s attitude towards green politics and their impact on the environment.
[Edit 3rd December 2010: Sadly, Our Green Earth no longer exists but the owner has very kindly handed back copyright of my articles to me. Here, for your reading pleasure, is Green China…]
Green China – Its Impact on the Environment
Despite there being, allegedly, “ten million bicycles in Beijing”, China is one of the world’s biggest producers of greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. Since the once introverted communist government adopted the mantra “to spend is patriotic” (1), factory exports have increased astronomically and Chinese citizens now find themselves with greater freedom of choice and increased spending power.
More Pound For Your Yuan
An article I recently read in The Times newspaper reported that Chinese visitors to London – Britain now being an “approved destination” – spend an average of £780 across the capital’s three main shopping streets (Oxford St, Regent St and Bond St) in the duration of a typical length holiday – an increase of 21% on the year before (1).
However, let’s not be fooled into thinking that all Chinese people are getting richer and that the economic boom has been entirely good for the country as a whole. An increasing gross domestic product (GDP) brings with it an increasing responsibility to the people and to the environment. China is now the world’s fastest growing economy, yet this growth has created environmental problems that China has oft been accused of ignoring and knowingly exacerbating.
China’s Giant Carbon Footprint
According to the Chinese division of Greenpeace, in 2007 China was responsible for 38% of the world’s total coal output. This huge consumption of fossil fuels, which are used to generate 70% of China’s electricity, combined with the increase in car use, not only contributes to the ultimate extinction of these non-renewable resources, but has also resulted in a carbon footprint to the tune of more than 6 billion tons of CO2 per year. This in turn has led to shocking statistics such as the fact that 400,000 people die prematurely in China every year as a result of diseases related to air pollution, and of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 16 of these are in China (2).
Something In The Water
It’s not just the air that suffers from serious pollution in China. Intensive farming and inadequate irrigation has meant that now, 85% of China’s waterways are suffering from eutrophication due to agricultural run-off. This renders the water unsafe to drink, depletes fish stocks essential to local fishing economies and reduces biodiversity. More than 90 million people in China do not have access to potable water, and 40% of those who do, do not have water that meets basic health and hygiene guidelines (2).
China has earned its critics when it has made claims in the past to accept the responsibility that they have for the environment. When the air quality of the capital city of Beijing was improved in the run up to the 2008 Olympic Games for example, many thought that this was a token effort to simply look good on the world’s stage. However, recent reports suggest that the Chinese government really is starting to look towards making amends for the past and are beginning to realise their role in the environmental play.
Copenhagen Carbon Intensity Pledge
Ahead of the climate summit in Copenhagen to be held in December 2009, China has already led the way by pledging to reduce its carbon intensity by 40-45% by 2020. Carbon intensity is the amount of carbon released per unit of currency of economic activity – in other words, the amount of carbon released per dollar (or yuan, in China’s case!) earned. The statistically savvy will spot that given the rapid rate of economic growth, this does not in fact mean that China will reduce its overall carbon emissions. If China adheres to their plan, they will actually be releasing up to 108% more carbon than they do now, but they will slow the rate of growth of carbon emissions (3).
Looking On The Bright Side
Looking on the bright side, this equates to a saving of more than 4 gigatons of carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere to wreak even greater havoc with the ozone layer if carbon emissions continued to match GDP growth .
Sceptics may scoff at these so-called targets, but China is certainly more active in reducing their ecological footprint than they have been historically. To cite some examples, the public transport system in China is slowly but surely developing and is helping to reduce carbon emissions from personal vehicle use (2). Unsustainable logging is also being challenged by foreign governments and companies alike – leading the way is the hardware retailer B&Q who has recently pledged not to sell wood products in China that come from unsustainable or illegal sources (2).
Perhaps the greatest change that China has made in recent times is their increasing openness to the experience of other countries. Collaborations between Western and Chinese academic institutions, for example, have increased the quantity and quality of scientific research, notably research looking at the scope for renewable energy use in China.
Research teams from Harvard and Beijing have suggested that wind-generated electricity has the potential to reduce China’s coal use by up to 23% (4), and China’s biggest electricity provider, Huaneng Group, have also been in talks with Australian research organisations to develop carbon-capture technology to reduce the impact of coal-fired power stations (5). Political relations between East and West are gradually improving and the influence of the more ecologically aware organisations will certainly prove a great benefit not only to China, but to the world at large.
- Leitch, L and Fletcher, H, Chinese big spenders have London’s luxury goods in their sights, The Times, 28th November 2009
- Greenpeace, The low-down on China’s environment
- Watts, J, China means business with first-ever carbon emissions targets, The Guardian, 27th November 2009,
- McElroy, MB, Lu, X, Nielsen, CP and Wang, Y, Potential for wind-generated electricity in China, Science 325: 1378 – 1380, 2009
- Fenn, J, China grapples with a burning question, Science 325: 1646, 2009