China – Growth at Any Cost? Part II

By | October 23, 2021

People who live where it is dense with tiny particles have a greater tendency than others to develop COPD, a serious lung disease. Excess mortality has been demonstrated both during periods of particularly strong air pollution and as a result of long-term pollution. Using such results, a larger study (for the World Bank, 2007) concluded that between three hundred thousand and one million people die annually earlier than they would otherwise have done (on average 5.5 years earlier) as a result of outdoor air pollution
in China. Another three hundred thousand to half a million did the same due to indoor pollution . Recent studies have confirmed these figures.

According to PETWITHSUPPLIES, China is also struggling with water pollution , especially in the north where water shortages are greatest. The large river systems (including the Yellow River and the Yangtze) are heavily polluted. The Chinese operate with five quality classes on the water. In the north, more than half of the river systems are so polluted that people should not come into contact with the water and at least not drink it. In the south, the situation is somewhat better, but calculated across the country, 40 percent of the river systems are such that people should not have contact with the water .

So are there no bright spots in this sad picture? Yes, it is. With one important exception for greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental situation in China is actually improving. Two figures can show it: figure 1 which is about water pollution in China and figure 2 which is about air pollution.

Figure 1 shows that the water quality in the large rivers is less poor now than ten years ago. Then there were more than 60 percent of the river water that people should not come into contact with. Compared to this, the situation in 2009 is in fact a sharp improvement (see the red line in Figure 1).

5: Race between economic growth and cleansing

Also air quality gets better . Figure 2 shows four curves:

  • Particle concentration is the lowest; it goes down sharply.
  • Soot emissions, the indicator in official Chinese statistics that are closest to emissions of small particles. Soot emissions go down a bit.
  • Gross domestic product (GDP) and coal consumption , both of which are rising sharply.

The two lower curves in Figure 2 show the proportion of cities in China that do not meet a minimum standard for air quality (so-called class II). The share is falling sharply; in other words, the proportion of cities that meet the standard is rising sharply. The top two curves show that the economy (GDP) is growing strongly and that coal consumption is doing the same.

Why do the baskets look the way they do? Economic growth often drives energy consumption upwards; this is what strikes through when coal consumption rises as sharply as the economy grows. In other countries and times, one can hope for energy saving, but this is not the case in China in the years the figure shows.

What about the soot emissions? Emissions of soot should follow coal consumption and increase when coal consumption increases, because it is largely coal that causes emissions of soot. But in the ten years the figure describes, the Chinese installed treatment plants at the major power plants and industrial sources. These are treatment plants that remove more than 90 percent of soot emissions. In addition, many households in the cities gained access to gas based on coal, which is cleaner than direct use of coal in households. These measures have overshadowed the effect of increased coal consumption. The result is that soot emissions have decreased slightly.

The history of soot emissions illustrates that environmental problems both in China and elsewhere are shaped in a race between

  • economic scale (scope of economic activity) and
  • cleaning and efficiency measures.

In some periods, the scale effect can be strongest (great value creation) and the environmental problems grow. This has been the case in China for many years and has given the country the environmental problems it has today. In other periods, the cleaning measures may be most important, and the environmental problems decrease. In the case of China, the clean-up measures have contributed to soot emissions being lower than before. Nevertheless, pollution in China is higher than it could and should have been. The Chinese still use cleaning technology in an unsystematic way. The violent particle density Beijing experienced in the winter of 2013, it demonstrates.

6: More popular environmental activism

The leadership in China has for decades been very concerned with economic growth . This way of thinking has spread to the local leaders in the provinces and in the state-controlled companies. Research suggests that local leaders who prioritize environmental investments over infrastructure and new factories are worsening their chances of being promoted in the Chinese system. With such career incentives, it is understandable that the clean-up measures become unsystematic, while the coal-based economy only fluctuates upwards and upwards.

China - Growth at Any Cost 2