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: