Environmental awareness is rising in China, but the problems remain hard to crack, says Paul French, China editor

Environmental awareness is rising in China, but the problems remain hard to crack, says Paul French, China editor

If I’ve been asked one question more than any other this year it is whether or not China is serious about the environment. Visiting delegations of businessmen, politicians and globe-trotting environmentalists all want to know whether Beijing is really serious about the environment or whether China’s leaders are just window-dressing for the international media.

Read most newspapers (outside China) and you’ll get the impression that the green glass in China is half empty. For every story that points out the progress Beijing is making there is another revealing an environmental tragedy and predicting ruin.

Most commentary on China’s environment includes the phrase “moving towards” – China is moving towards pollution controls, moving towards cracking down on polluting factories, moving towards a domestic carbon trading system. Sometimes, amid media reports, the rosy pronouncements of state officials and the exuberant optimism of many in business it is hard to tell the wood from the trees. So I decided, as the year rolls to an end, to consult a couple of veteran China watchers who specialise in the environment.

Both Isabel Hilton, a former BBC correspondent in China and now the force behind the bilingual China Dialogue website, and Jonathan Watts, the Guardian’s long-standing Asia environment correspondent, seem to agree that while 2009 was not the year China went green it was the year the outside world appreciated that China was doing more than it is often credited for.

Hilton says: “China has the political advantage of having fulfilled its commitments and behaved as a responsible global player in 2009.”

Watts adds that, after setting some ambitious targets on renewables and emission cuts in its last five-year plan, Beijing is getting pretty close to those goals.

The government’s five-year plan is everything in China. Watts has seen this work itself out in the major push for solar power and in premier Hu Jintao’s speech to the UN summit on climate change about establishing carbon targets, which are admittedly intensity-related rather than absolute. Hilton sees the five-year plan as essential. “If carbon intensity targets were to be written into the next plan, they would take on a new political force,” she says. “The open question remains how much China is prepared to commit to in the near future and how to ensure that it is enough for the planet.”

Push from the top

Watts, based in Beijing, believes that one crucial aspect of 2009 was that the push to do more on the environment began filtering down the political chain from officials in Beijing to the local cadres who in the past have often been obstacles to change.

Watts says senior leaders are buying into the environment (and points out that this year the national people’s congress did pass its first climate act) and local officials and non-governmental organisations lower down the rungs are too. But “in between there is a lack of embracing with gusto which needs to be addressed”.

Perhaps the answer is money? Watts also notes that 2009 was the year when Chinese business realised it could make money out of the environment – China is already the world’s leading producer of solar panels.

So if China’s leadership, political class and businesspeople went green this year what about the ordinary Chinese man or woman on the street? It certainly seems that initiatives such as the plastic bag ban and various recycling schemes have been widely supported. NGOs report plenty of young people signing up to volunteer* and Watts notes particularly the emergence of green clubs at many universities around the country – these can vary from campus clean-up groups to campaigning organisations. Watts says: “NGOs still can’t really campaign in a way they can in the west, but there is more political space around the environment question than, say, human rights.”

So perhaps 2009 will go down as the year China “got” green? Maybe, but it doesn’t mean that everyone will wake up in January to a new green China. Watts warns that we should be prepared for China to emerge as a “green superpower at the same time as it will remain a black superpower”. He says most of the environmental initiatives have occurred in or near the more prosperous cities of the eastern coast but that this has meant that those cities have often merely pushed the problem inland – and shoving your garbage upcountry to an inland and poorer city isn’t really solving the problem.

* Listen to Ethical Corporation’s podcast: Green activism in China – Why the naysayers are wrong about Chinese youth

China  green energy 

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