August afternoons in Shanghai, ambling down Nanjing Road with posh boutiques blasting chilled air through open doors into the sultry street, one might imagine that energy is free in China. At less than 5c per KWH, it is certainly cheap (10c in India and the US). But the real costs are hidden, though, increasingly, not very well. Most visitors to China are struck by its urban air pollution. A pall of sulphrous smoke hangs over towns and cities and even wafts through the countryside into neighboring countries. One new coal-fired power plant opens each week. Respiratory illnesses are common. In 2006, China surpassed the US to become the leading producer of green house emissions in the world.
This is not breaking news. Much has been written about China's environmental crisis in recent years: vanishing forests, encroaching desert, depleting ground water, acid rain, toxic chemicals in polluted rivers, etc. China has clearly prioritized economic growth over environmental health. But a part of the problem is inherent in the drivers of its economic growth -- China has become the industrial heartland of the world. The developed countries have, in effect, shifted their factories and pollution to China (this is one outsourcing no politician in the US complains about). As a result, as consumers, all of us are now a party to China's environmental crisis. Each time we buy a plastic toy, a blender, or an iPod, we send a puff of sulphrous smoke into China's air. And some of it is coming back to haunt us in our own backyards!
A decent survey of China's environmental malaise by Jacques Leslie recently appeared in Mother Jones:
... China has become not just the world's manufacturer but also its despoiler, on a scale as monumental as its economic expansion. Chinese ecosystems were already dreadfully compromised before the Communist Party took power in 1949, but Mao managed to accelerate their destruction. With one stroke he launched the "backyard furnace" campaign, in which some 90 million peasants became grassroots steel smelters; to fuel the furnaces, villagers cut down a 10th of China's trees in a few months. The steel ultimately proved unusable. With another stroke, Mao perpetrated the "Kill the Four Pests" campaign, inducing the mass slaughter of millions of sparrows and a subsequent explosion in the locust population. The destruction of forests led to erosion and the spread of deserts, and the locust resurgence prompted a collapse of the nation's grain crop. The result was history's greatest famine, in which 30 to 50 million Chinese died. [Photo: Beijing air]
Yet the Mao era's ecological devastation pales next to that of China's current industrialization. A fourth of the country is now desert. More than three-fourths of its forests have disappeared. Acid rain falls on a third of China's landmass, tainting soil, water, and food. Excessive use of groundwater has caused land to sink in at least 96 Chinese cities, producing an estimated $12.9 billion in economic losses in Shanghai alone. Each year, uncontrollable underground fires, sometimes triggered by lightning and mining accidents, consume 200 million tons of coal, contributing massively to global warming. A miasma of lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other elements of coal-burning and car exhaust hovers over most Chinese cities; of the world's 20 most polluted cities, 16 are Chinese.