[Marxism] Chinese economic growth and global ecology

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 16 07:03:03 MDT 2004

Chronicle of Higher Education, June 18, 2004
2 Pictures of China's Resources, Both Grim


Virtually every discussion of global environmental issues eventually 
gets around to China. There, the challenges of sustaining economic 
growth, assuring the health and well-being of almost a quarter of the 
world's population, and reversing years of environmental degradation 
seem almost unimaginably complex. And because China is a major 
contributor to environmental problems that transcend national borders, 
such as the accumulation of greenhouse gases and the loss of 
biodiversity, it must be an active participant in finding solutions.

Two new books come at the country's challenges from quite different 
angles, but, taken together, they reinforce the view that as China 
strives to modernize, more than its own economic and environmental 
health is at stake.

In his alarming -- some would say alarmist -- The End of Oil: On the 
Edge of a Perilous New World, published in May by Houghton Mifflin, the 
writer Paul Roberts describes what effect China's emergence as a fully 
developed economy and its desire to achieve "energy security" would have 
on the global energy system and the battle against human-triggered 
climate change.

As his title suggests, Roberts focuses on transnational issues. He 
argues that within 30 years we will have used up most of the easily 
available oil and that no country in the world has taken any serious 
steps to prepare for that. But his discussion of China reflects his 
larger concerns. "Today, China is the second leading emitter of carbon 
dioxide, right behind the United States -- despite the fact that China's 
per-capita CO2 emissions are just one-eighth of those of the United 
States," he writes. "Given China's current energy trends, it should 
occupy first place before the end of the decade. Between now and 2030, 
China's CO2 emissions will increase as much as those of the entire rest 
of the industrialized world."

But "what is truly alarming," he adds, "is that, despite all the new 
growth in power usage and in construction of power plants, China's 
per-capita consumption of electricity is still less than a tenth of the 
average for industrialized countries. What this suggests is not only 
that China still suffers from chronic energy poverty but that, once 
China starts to lift itself out of that poverty and approach a Western 
level of energy use, its energy needs will exceed the capacity of any 
global system that currently exists."

Roberts points out that "China is building new power plants at a 
staggering rate," but that it is pushing its efforts to catch up with 
the West "in the worst possible way: through coal."

China cannot afford clean-energy technologies, he adds. Instead, 
"Beijing is relying largely on the same obsolete coal-fired technology 
that plagues the West. Indeed, many of China's existing coal-fired 
plants are so ancient that they lack emissions-control technology and 
waste most of the energy they generate. The result is a power sector 
that is horribly polluting and so inefficient that, to meet the nation's 
rising energy demand, it has been forced to build new plants faster than 
if it used a more efficient power technology, like gas -- thus 
committing China to burn even more coal and emit even more emissions."

Roberts uses China to point out how difficult it will be to sustain our 
current energy economy or to supplant it with a more sustainable one as 
more and more of the world moves toward Western levels of consumption. 
He is not optimistic. "Energy security, always a critical mission for 
any nation, will steadily acquire greater urgency and priority," he 
writes. "As it does, international tensions and the risk of conflict 
will rise, and these growing threats will make it increasingly difficult 
for governments to focus on longer-term challenges, such as climate or 
alternative fuels -- challenges that are in themselves critical to 
energy security, yet which, paradoxically, will be seen as distractions 
from the campaign to keep energy flowing. This is the ultimate dilemma 
of energy security in the modern energy system. The more obvious it 
becomes that an oil-dominated energy economy is inherently insecure, the 
harder it becomes to move on to something else."

While Roberts is interested in the effects of China's growth on the 
world energy system, Elizabeth C. Economy, a senior fellow and director 
of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, examines the 
historical, political, cultural, and bureaucratic issues that will 
affect China's ability to meet the needs of its people and its environment.

In The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future, 
published in May by the Cornell University Press, she writes, "The 
environmental challenges China faces today result not from decades but 
from centuries of abuse of the country's natural resources. Nation 
building, war, and economic development have all exerted unrelenting 
pressure on land, water, and forest resources over the country's 
history. ... Through the centuries, in turn, exploitation of the 
environment contributed to the cycles of war, famine, and natural 
disasters that plagued China and hastened the disintegration of one 
dynasty after the next."

That legacy, Economy adds, no longer affects only China. "Resolution of 
the world's most pressing global environmental challenges, such as 
climate change, ozone depletion, and biodiversity loss, requires the 
full commitment and cooperation of China, one of the world's largest 
contributors to these environmental problems."

She also writes that the government's failure to redress environmental 
problems has already provoked social and political unrest and could 
threaten China's long-term stability -- with unpredictable but 
undoubtedly negative consequences for world trade and the security of 
East Asia.

Economy paints a grim picture of the state of China's environment:

"With one-quarter of the world's population, centuries of grand-scale 
campaigns to transform the natural environment for man's benefit, 
intensive and unfettered economic development, and, most recently, its 
entry into the global economy, China has laid waste to its resources. 
The results are evident everywhere. Water scarcity is an increasingly 
prevalent problem. Over one-quarter of China's land is now desert. China 
has lost twice as much forested land over the centuries as it now 
possesses. And air quality in many major cities ranks among the worst in 
the world."

Those problems have economic consequences, she adds, in terms of "crop 
loss, missed days of work from respiratory diseases, and factory 
shutdowns from lack of water."

Economy acknowledges that since Mao Zedong's death, China has developed 
"a far more institutionalized system of governance, with a codified 
system of laws," but adds that it is by no means certain that that step 
will lead to improvements. "Even as laws are passed, administrative 
decrees issued, and regulations set, the politics of resource use 
conspire to undermine environmental efforts; and the lack of a strong 
legal infrastructure has enhanced opportunities for corruption and 
resulted in a systemic crisis for environmental-protection enforcement."

She says that continued economic growth in China would produce more 
environmental challenges, but such growth could also lead to greater 
investment in environmental protection. Were that to happen, she says, 
Chinese leaders could come to view such protection as a source of 
political strength rather than as an economic and political liability.

Alternatively, she writes, inertia could set in. "The Chinese economy 
continues to grow, but greater economic wealth translates only 
sporadically into enhanced environmental protection," and the country's 
air and water quality continue to deteriorate.

And, she adds, if China's economy does not continue to grow, leaders 
will push even harder for economic development to preserve social and 
political stability, "at the expense of the environment."

In short, Economy concludes that China's environment has paid "a 
terrible price" as the country has turned from a nation in poverty to an 
economic power. It is possible, but by no means certain, she says, that 
it will be able to repair the damage or even to slow the degradation.

As Economy suggests, China is not the first country, nor will it be the 
last, that has confronted the dilemma of how to modernize while 
protecting its natural resources and environmental health. "But what 
sets China apart from the United States of a century ago, and from other 
countries currently at the same level of economic development," she 
says, "is the scale of the environmental degradation it confronts and 
the magnitude of the social, political, and economic challenges this 
degradation has engendered. No other country confronts the gargantuan 
task of meeting the needs of almost a quarter of the world's population 
on a land mass roughly the size of that of the United States."

If Roberts is correct, what also sets China's task apart is that it and 
many other countries will be striving to achieve Western levels of 
consumption and income at a time when the source of energy that has made 
such consumption and such wealth possible is drying up.

Over the next few decades, conflicting pressures, competing ideologies, 
and incompatible goals will all come together at a time when the 
oil-based energy system will be stretched thin, perhaps stretched beyond 
its capacity to support the basic services that have become a matter of 
course in the West and the Holy Grail for much of the rest of the world.

Malcolm G. Scully is The Chronicle's editor at large


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