Not green, not clean

Los Angeles Times - - Op-Ed - DOYLE McMANUS doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

China is a ma­jor pol­luter that prom­ises to clean up its act some­day — af­ter it grows its econ­omy.

Last week, I was stuck in a traf­fic jam in Zhong­guan­cun, the high­tech­nol­ogy zone in north­west Bei­jing that’s sup­posed to be China’s Sil­i­con Val­ley. But right then, it looked more like the 405 on a very bad day. The air was hot, thick and dark gray with smog. Six lanes of cars, trucks and buses were at a near-stand­still in both di­rec­tions. The driver pre­dicted — ac­cu­rately — that the nine-mile drive to down­town would take an hour. I found my­self think­ing: This is the new, green China I’ve been read­ing about?

In fact, China isn’t green at all; as the Chi­nese them­selves say, re­fer­ring to the ever-present smog in their megac­i­ties, it’s gray. Air pol­lu­tion is get­ting steadily worse, and wa­ter pol­lu­tion is a ma­jor cri­sis as well. China burns more coal (by far) and emits more green­house gases than any other coun­try. It sells more au­to­mo­biles than any other coun­try too (it passed the United States last year). And all those bad num­bers are still go­ing up, be­cause China’s No. 1 goal is in­creas­ing in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion, not pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.

The coun­try’s breath­tak­ing growth has been built on heavy in­dus­try, in­fra­struc­ture con­struc­tion and amaz­ingly in­ef­fi­cient en­ergy con­sump­tion. China cre­ates about 8% of the world’s eco­nomic prod­uct, but it does so by con­sum­ing about 20% of the world’s en­ergy.

Of course, on a per capita ba­sis, China’s 1.3 bil­lion peo­ple con­sume only about one-fourth as much en­ergy as we do. But that gap is nar­row­ing; by 2020, China’s car­bon diox­ide emis­sions are ex­pected to ex­ceed Europe’s on a per capita ba­sis. In the face of those fore­casts, some Chi­nese of­fi­cials ar­gue bluntly that their coun­try’s emis­sions are no­body’s busi­ness.

“We can­not blindly ac­cept that pro­tect­ing the cli­mate is hu­man­ity’s com­mon in­ter­est; na­tional in­ter­ests should come first,” Yu Qing­tai, China’s chief cli­mate negotiator, said in a speech last month. “The coun­try has to de­velop … and if that in­creases emis­sions, I say, ‘So what?’ The peo­ple have a right to a bet­ter life.”

But wait, you ask. Hasn’t China made a “green econ­omy” its na­tional goal? Isn’t it work­ing to in­crease ef­fi­ciency and re­duce emis­sions? And isn’t its govern­ment in­vest­ing bil­lions in al­ter­na­tive en­ergy?

Yes, yes and yes. But that doesn’t make China green or clean. It makes China a ma­jor pol­luter that prom­ises to clean up its act some­day — af­ter it grows its econ­omy. If al­ter­na­tive en­ergy is go­ing to be a lu­cra­tive busi­ness, China wants to be in on it, and that’s a good thing; but in its own en­ergy diet, clean al­ter­na­tives are still a drop in the bucket.

There’s one more big fac­tor that makes im­prov­ing China’s en­vi­ron­ment dif­fi­cult: the messy re­al­i­ties of China’s au­thor­i­tar­ian bu­reau­cra­cies. Na­tional lead­ers in Bei­jing an­nounce am­bi­tious goals, but many lo­cal of­fi­cials and busi­ness own­ers ig­nore or sub­vert them, of­ten as a re­sult of per­verse in­cen­tives that re­ward in­creas­ing pro­duc­tion with­out con­sid­er­ing other costs.

In cen­tral and south­ern China, for ex­am­ple, lo­cal gov­ern­ments met Bei­jing’s de­mand for lower en­ergy con­sump­tion this year by im­pos­ing elec­tric­ity black­outs, but many fac­to­ries merely fired up diesel gen­er­a­tors to re­place the elec­tric­ity. That way the lo­cal of­fi­cials met their per­for­mance tar­gets, but more pol­lu­tion went into the air.

In the Pearl River delta, coal­burn­ing power plants in­stalled scrub­bers in their smokestacks to com­ply with govern­ment or­ders, but some didn’t bother to turn them on, be­cause that would have cost ad­di­tional money. In the north and north­west, the govern­ment or­dered hun­dreds of wind tur­bines to pro­duce clean power, but the power grid can’t han­dle their out­put. Pro­duc­tion tar­gets were met, but some tur­bines are spin­ning use­lessly in the wind.

In some parts of China, fa­vored firms get of­fi­cial sta­tus as “pro­tected busi­nesses,” im­mune from en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tion. In An­hui prov­ince in east­ern China, six en­vi­ron­men­tal in­spec­tors were fired last spring be­cause, as China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion re­ported, they were work­ing too hard: They had the ef­fron­tery to check on a tire fac­tory three times in one month. “Do­ing that to a busi­ness re­ally af­fects our devel­op­ment en­vi­ron­ment,” a lo­cal of­fi­cial ex­plained.

It’s tempt­ing to read sto­ries like that and con­clude that China is en­gaged in a gi­ant scheme of Potemkin en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, loftily telling the world it’s clean­ing up its act when it re­ally isn’t.

But the real story, China schol­ars say, is more sub­tle, and more in­ter­est­ing. China may be a oneparty state, but of­fi­cials in its cen­tral and lo­cal gov­ern­ments of­ten act at cross pur­poses — a phe­nom­e­non po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists Ken­neth Lieberthal and Michael Ok­sen­berg have dubbed “frag­mented authoritarianism.”

In Bei­jing, Pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao has de­clared en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion a top pri­or­ity, and pro­posed eval­u­at­ing bu­reau­crats’ per­for­mance on more than just pro­duc­tion. But when I vis­ited lo­cal of­fi­cials in Sichuan prov­ince last week, they said their top pri­or­i­ties were build­ing 3,000 miles of new free­way and at­tract­ing for­eign in­vest­ment to cre­ate jobs; en­ergy and the en­vi­ron­ment sounded dis­tinctly like an af­ter­thought.

So the next time some­body tells you we ought to em­u­late China’s au­thor­i­tar­ian ap­proach to en­ergy and the en­vi­ron­ment, ask them which part they mean: the am­bi­tious rhetoric, or the dis­ap­point­ing per­for­mance.

It’s nice that China has made a big com­mit­ment to clean up its act. It will be even nicer if China delivers.

Fred­eric J. Brown

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