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China and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released August 2007)

 
  by Ethan Goffman  

Review

Key Citations

Resources

Glossary

Editor
 
Conclusion

Contents

Although the Kyoto Treaty exempts China, as a developing nation, from capping greenhouse emissions, a development path absent strong environmental awareness is no longer viable. Neither China nor the planet can reproduce the twentieth century industrial route, in which development takes precedence until a certain amount of affluence is achieved. According to the Worldwatch Institute: "Global ecosystems and resources are simply not sufficient to sustain the current economies of the industrial West and at the same time bring more than 2 billion people into the global middle class through the same resource-intensive development model pioneered by North America and Europe" (Flavin & Gardner, 4). This is true not only because of global climate change, but also due to biodiversity loss and an increasing water shortage.

stadium
Beijing's energy efficient Olympic Stadium
Energy and food resources, too, are not infinite. Although past predictions of doom have proven false due to substitutability and technological advance, avoiding resource exhaustion requires forethought and care. And, at the national and subnational level, China, with its huge population and rapid industrialization, has already subjected itself to tremendous environmental stress. At least one projection shows, "that China cannot meet the targets of the current urbanization strategy while continuing current energy and resource consumption for industrialization and modernization" (Shen et al, 289).

In many ways, China has come to realize its environmental overshoot, and has taken at least some steps toward a new path to sustainability. And it seems fruitless to replicate the mistakes of the past when better practices have already been developed. Flavin and Gardner explain that "the idea of 'leapfrogging' western countries appears far more practical than it did a few years ago. China, for example, has become the world leader in producing essential new technologies-super-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs as well as solar water heaters, which have been installed on 35 million buildings" (21).

The efforts so far are piecemeal. Yet a new awareness seems to have arrived in China, exemplified by Deputy Minister of the Environment Pan Yue, who has given unprecedented, candid interviews with Western news sources (Lorenz). How this plays itself out in the wider Chinese government, what new environmental policies are passed, and how they are implemented, will determine whether China can indeed move onto a new sustainability path. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing will be one test case as to how much China can transform itself and display a new, environmentally friendly Beijing before the eyes of the world. The increase in respiratory illness due to pollution is a major concern for athletes attending these games. So China will do everything possible to curtail pollution, to make these Olympics as green as possible. For instance, the government will shut down coal-burning factories and greatly curtail traffic before the games (ABC).

Yet critics believe that such reforms are superficial. Recent problems with contaminated exports of pet food, toothpaste, fish and other goods continue a pattern of lack of health and safety standards and cover-up by the Chinese government (Barboza). Further evidence that China still lacks the transparency needed for an aggressive environmental policy comes in its recent request that the World Bank censor a report that pollution kills 750,000 Chinese each year (McGregorin). Perhaps this is merely a diversion on the circuitous route to a deeper transformation? Such a transformation is crucial to China's future, to fulfilling its desire to become a truly sustainable society and a global leader.

© 2007, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals

References

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