Scrub the Coun­try Clean

En­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems cost China 3.5% of GDP. It’ll cost us more, if we don’t act now

The Economic Times - - World View - Hari Pu­lakkat

The jour­nal Na­ture has this week pub­lished a com­ment on how China must con­tinue the mo­men­tum it has re­cently gen­er­ated to pro­tect its en­vi­ron­ment. Since the Chi­nese pol­icy changes have re­ceivedal­most­noat­ten­tion­inIn­dia, it is worth vis­it­ing it just once. At the end of April, China amended its En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Law, in­tro­duc­ing a se­ries of mea­sures to re­verse the se­ri­ous en­vi­ron­men­tal de­cline caused by two decades of rapid de­vel­op­ment. Among other things, it pro­vides the right to en­vi­ron­men­tal in­for­ma­tion for ev­ery­one, strict penal­ties in­clud­ing jail for of­fend­ers and a sys­tem where lo­cal of­fi­cials are eval­u­ated also on their record on pol­lu­tion in­stead of just on eco­nomic growth. It is good to bear the Chi­nese ex­pe­ri­ence in mind as In­dia pre­pares to kick-start an­other era of rapid eco­nomic growth. China had to do a ma­jor pol­icy re­ver­sal be­cause un­con­trolled growth has pushed the coun­try to­wards an en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter. Chi­nese stud­ies re­cently showed that 20% of its farm­land is con­tam­i­nated with heavy metals and pes­ti­cides. Most of its ground­wa­ter is con­tam­i­nated as well. Its deserts are ad­vanc­ing at a rapid rate, air pol­lu­tion is un­ac­cept­ably high in cities, and its forests — among the most pris­tine in the world — are un­der high pres­sure from de­vel­op­ment. China is the high­est emit­ter of car­bon diox­ide in the world. It has many vil­lages and towns that are un­liv­able due to pol­lu­tion. It was clear to Chi­nese of­fi­cials that de­vel­op­ment at any cost was not a good pol­icy. Now it is de­ter­mined to turn around its path of de­vel­op­ment. To be­gin with, it is plan­ning to rely less on coal. China con­sumes nearly half of the world’s coal. At one time, it was build­ing one ther­mal power plant a week. While this pow­ered China’s in­dus­trial growth, it also turned the coun­try — and the world — into a haz­ardous zone. Coal­burn­ing in­creased air pol­lu­tion in the coun­try. It also spewed mer­cury into the air, which fi­nally fell on the world’s oceans and re­turned to people in other con­ti­nents through the fish they ate. Mer­cury poi­son­ing is so bad for health that preg­nant women are of­ten ad­vised not to eat fish. Some Western doc­tors are sell­ing detox­i­fi­ca­tion diet plans that are sup­posed to re­move mer­cury from your bod­ies.

China did not have to go this way, but its pol­icy re­ver­sal is good news for ev­ery­one. Life will be health­ier not just for Chi­nese cit­i­zens. Global car­bon diox­ide emis­sion rates will slow down too. It is also a les­son for In­dia, whose new govern­ment has the oner­ous re­spon­si­bil­ity of pro­vid­ing en­ergy to a rapidly de­vel­op­ing econ­omy. Depend­ing on coal for power like China will lead the coun­try to a sim­i­lar dis­as­trous path. Mod­ern clean coal tech­nolo­gies can help re­duce pol­lu­tion, but they are ex­pen­sive and do not ap­pear to be worth the money in the long run. In­dia does not h av e a g o o d record of en­vi­ron­men­tal health. Its fields are sick with pes­ti­cides and heavy metals. Plas­tics poi­son ev­ery­one every­where. Our cities are among the most pol­luted in the world. Our ground wa­ter is pol­luted too, even as it de­pletes rapidly. A sen­si­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy and sound im­ple­men­ta­tion will help In­dia’s en­vi­ron­ment re­cover as we fo­cus on growth.

Mod­ern sci­ence pro­vides us with plenty of al­ter­na­tives to dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals, or ways of man­ag­ing their im­pact when no al­ter­na­tives are avail­able. The chal­lenge is to man­age pow­er­ful lob­bies, or some­times en­tire in­dus­tries as we be­gin a switch to health­ier ways of liv­ing. This switch is dif­fi­cult but not ex­pen­sive. Re­mem­ber that en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems cost China 3.5% of GDP. It will cost us even more, if we do not act now.

This col­umn looks at global sci­ence from an In­dian per­spec­tive

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