Mahatma Gandhi once said that if China and India were to aspire to a western-style consumer culture, their citizens would quickly strip the earth bare like locusts.
Today, China’s state-owned energy and mining giants scour the world for the raw materials needed to power the workshop of the world and feed the growing appetite of its aspiring masses. As well as being the world’s biggest producer of everything from microwave ovens to jelly beans, the country has just overtaken the US as the largest producer of greenhouse gases. While millions of its citizens have been lifted out of poverty, its dirty and wasteful growth model has left large swathes of the country devastated and unable to support even basic ecologies.
Water scarcity, particularly in the arid north, is exacerbated by the indiscriminate discharge of industrial and municipal wastewater. The burden falls disproportionately on poor rural citizens, up to 500m of whom do not have access to piped water. More than half of China’s municipal wastewater is discharged without any treatment whatsoever, with about 30bn tonnes of raw sewage pumped into lakes, rivers and the sea last year.
Another 24bn tonnes of industrial wastewater was dumped by power plants and factories, many of them producing goods for multinational companies attracted to the country because of lower costs associated partly with lax environmental standards.
Worsening water shortages and the contamination of underground reservoirs mean that more than 10 per cent of the country’s crops are poisoned with heavy metals and other pollutants, posing a health hazard even to those who avoid drinking toxic water.
But the most serious threat to human health comes from the shocking levels of air pollution, the result of the country’s reliance on coal for 70 per cent of its energy needs and the desire of many urban residents to own their own car.
The World Bank estimates 750,000 people die prematurely every year in China from pollution, primarily air pollution in large cities. Nearly 60 per cent of China’s urban population live in cities with air pollution levels at least twice the average US standard and five times the level recommended by the World Health Organisation.
The problem is not China’s environmental laws, many of which are copied in their entirety from European legislation and are some of the best in the world. The fault lies in a lack of enforcement at all levels of an authoritarian Communist party that abandoned its ideological roots long ago and today relies heavily on economic growth for its legitimacy.
The government neglected the environmental and health implications of rapid economic growth until recently, in part because of a morbid fear that any economic downturn could cause the masses to question one-party rule.
But in recent years the severity of pollution has itself led to protests and in some cases violent crackdowns, putting the government in the difficult position of having to discern where the greatest threat to its legitimacy lies.
The result has been a profusion of bland slogans that have come to stand for sustainable development and a greener approach to growth. Some concrete efforts have been made to address environmental issues and media and political campaigns are increasing in scope and frequency.
But the agency responsible for enforcement, the State Environmental Protection Agency, remains woefully under-resourced and its staff in the provinces are often in the pocket of local officials who rely on polluting industries for tax revenues and often their own business interests.
While paying lip service to improving the environment, the government’s instinctive reaction is still to cover up and deny the scale of the problem. This year, the World Bank was pressured into removing almost a third of a joint report entitled Cost of Pollution in ChinaThe economic costs of toxic growth are huge but hard to calculate. The World Bank report estimates the health costs of pollution at about 6 per cent of gross domestic product in 2003, or Rm781bn, but that does not include clean-up costs or the future costs to industry of current unsustainable development.
SEPA says a record Rm257bn, or 1.23 per cent of GDP, was spent in 2006 on environment-related projects, but that includes spending on public parks and planting trees, as well as the installation of basic sewage treatment and emission-reduction equipment.
Having decimated much of its own environment through economic growth at all costs, the Chinese government has introduced some policies in recent years that essentially export the problem abroad.
A ban on commercial logging in some parts of China has fuelled demand for rapacious and often illegal exploitation of timber in south-east Asian nations such as Burma and Indonesia. Meanwhile, the search for raw materials in Africa and Asia is not hindered by concerns for the local environment.