China is waking up to its looming environmental crisis.
In the first week of 2008, Greenpeace and sohu.com asked Chinese netizens to vote for the top 10 environmental stories in 2007. More than 10,000 people cast votes and topping the list was "rising consciousness among the Chinese public to have a say in environmental affairs".
The news concerned was the public opposition to a billion-dollar chemical factory in Xiamen, a beautiful seaside city in the southern province of Fujian. Worried about the environmental and health impacts of the chemical plant, thousands of local residents opposed to the project last June. Their opposition has forced the Xiamen government to carry out environmental impact assessment and hold a public hearing, and finally decided to relocate the factory.
Some hailed the drama in Xiamen as a victory for the environment and the public. For the more than 100,000 Xiamen residents living within 5 km of the selected site of the chemical plant, the relocation must have come as a relief. But underlying China's environmental awakening is the tragic fact that a growing number of people are now literally living with deadly pollution or in the fear of an environmental disaster.
Two years ago, a committee set up by the National People's Congress concluded that China's environmental situation was chu mu jing xin - "whatever meets the eye is shocking". This is probably the strongest words one can say of the environmental crisis. Top Chinese officials often are careful in choosing words, and when they use strong words, the situation must be truly worrying.
From the voices in the street to the words of Chinese top officials, environmental awareness is gaining momentum. But the question is whether the positive force gathered from change in attitude and behavior can manage to reverse the current trend of environmental deterioration?
What needs to be done to cure China's environmental ills? Let me illustrate with another major environmental news story of 2007. While Xiamen residents took to the streets in protest, one of the largest fresh water lakes in China, Taihu Lake in Jiangsu province, was experiencing its worst-ever blue-green algae outbreak, which polluted 80 percent of the water supply in the nearby city of Wuxi. The outbreak was caused by years of unchecked industrial pollution and increased use of chemical fertilizers, and triggered by warmer weather due to climate change.
Can China bring its industrial pollution under control? Can the central government impose its well-intended environmental regulations on local officials? Can China stop its addiction to chemical agriculture? Can China power its economic growth with clean and renewable energy, rather than with coal and other fossil fuels, which emit climate-killing greenhouse gases?
None of this is a small task, especially if one considers the size of China and the fact that it is still a developing country. But if China fails to address these issues, the consequences will be even more shocking than today.
Apart from the scale of the problem, there is the time factor as well. It takes a long time to clean up pollution. The Chinese government has invested billions to clean up the Huaihe River with limited success. Responding to criticisms, Zhou Shengxian, the head of the State Environmental Protection Administration, recently used an old Chinese saying to describe the clean up efforts: "Illness comes like a landslide but goes like reeling silk from a cocoon". And he is right. The more we pollute today, the longer it will take to clean it up.
The problems caused by river pollution are local and they can be stopped locally. It takes about one or two decades to clean up a polluted river, if the right measures are adopted. However, the pollution of the atmosphere by greenhouse gases lasts much longer, and emissions from one place immediately become part of a global problem. Scientists say that to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we need to limit global mean temperature increase to under 2 C compared to pre-industrial levels. Failure to do so means that the world may cross the tipping point of no return.
It is not my intention to begin writing for a new column in the new year with apocalyptical warnings. Like the people who voted for the top-10 news in 2007, I see hope in the fact that Chinese are increasingly concerned about the state of the environment, and in some cases, even taking actions to fight for a clean environment. Nothing can stop the dragon when it wakes up - this is an old Western clich, but this is what many feel after witnessing China's economic and political emergence in the last two decades. Let's hope China's environmental awakening will reverse the spin of history before it is too late.
New Year wishes often fall victim to inertia and inaction. We better make sure this one does not.
The author is International Executive Director of global environmental organization Greenpeace. The views expressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(China Daily February 25, 2008)