China – Growth at Any Cost? Part III

By | October 23, 2021

Fortunately, it may seem that something is about to happen. In the Chinese media, there is great openness about environmental problems in general and environmental scandals that, when acute discharges kill large amounts of fish and other life. Information about 459 cancer villages in China with a large frequency of cancer cases is something that the openness has revealed. Transparency has spurred both intellectual debate and the strong emergence of popular protests related to environmental scandals and environmentally harmful investments. SMS and the microblogging service Weibo have helped to spread information.

An example among many is the demonstrations in Kunming , the capital of Yunnan province, earlier in 2013. People in Yunnan protested against plans for a new oil refinery and a factory to produce Paraxylene , a possible carcinogen. Eventually, the mayor of Kunming, a city of 3.5 million, came to the site of the demonstration. For a quarter of an hour he talked to the protesters. He promised to set up his own Weibo account so people could reach him with criticism, and he denied that anyone had been arrested. Previous protests against Paraxylen factories in China (in the cities of Xiamen, Dalian and Ningbo) have led to the idea that the projects have been abandoned or relocated. The conflict in Kunming is not over yet.

It is not unexpected that China places greater emphasis on the cleaning effect as the economy grows: The underlying environmental pressure in terms of coal consumption or the number of chemical factories is greater in a country with a large economy – especially in China which is sometimes called “world factory”. In addition, it is an experience from many countries that the population places more emphasis on the cleaning effect when the income has increased slightly and basic needs have been covered.

The increased emphasis on the environment also has to do with more education and knowledge – increased knowledge makes countries richer at the same time as the inhabitants get a better background to address the environmental problems they experience. For these and other reasons, we quite often observe that environmental problems first increase and then decrease as countries become richer. This phenomenon is so common that it has been given a name of its own – the Kuznets curve (after the economist Simon Kuznets, who observed the same thing when it came to income distribution).

It is especially environmental problems that are perceived as concrete and immediate , which decrease when the income is large enough. Greenhouse gas emissions, which are shared all over the world, however, do not appear to be declining for the time being. This is also due to the fact that there is poor treatment technology for greenhouse gas emissions.

7: What are the Chinese doing, and what can we do?

Whether it is due to popular resistance or air problems that the Beijingers experienced in the winter of 2013, the Chinese authorities say that they will now do much more than before to reduce pollution. China’s State Council, which is comparable to the government as it functions in the United States, recently decided to spend NOK 17 trillion on environmental investments. This corresponds to four times the Norwegian Petroleum Fund (close to NOK 4,600 billion in Sept. 13) – a huge amount. Maybe the Chinese here are signaling a new development model where far greater consideration will be given to the natural environment? The hope is that the investments will trigger new, local measures so that emissions to air will decrease by at least 30 percent by 2018. Other plans and measures address water pollution.

For the investment to succeed, the Chinese must meet three important conditions:

  1. The willto reduce environmental problems must be real. Cf. earlier about local managers who invest in environmental technology, but who have hardly experienced that it benefits their career.
  2. The money must be invested accurately, without waste. One danger when so much money is involved is that they are invested in measures that local leaders see themselves benefiting from and sell in as environmental measures, without them being so.
  3. Simple measures that remain to be done must be sufficient . It is clear that the sharp reduction in soot emissions that results from more than 90 percent purification can only be done once. Then it gets harder.

Now some may ask themselves if we Norwegians can contribute something to the Chinese’s success. In fact, according to PRINTERHALL, Norway has had environmental cooperation with China for some years . The collaboration has, among other things, focused on measures that are beneficial to both the local environment and the climate. The latter is also in Norway’s self-interest . An underlying motive for the cooperation is that Norway can only contribute with small funds to the three points on the list above.

Through capacity building , it is possible to increase the motivation for local environmental investments. Through institution building (including building bodies for planning, collaboration and supervision) and by demonstrating tools such as cost-effectiveness analysis, it is possible to increase the accuracy of investments.

And by increasing the understanding of the interaction between the economy and the environment, it is possible to prepare the Chinese for what can be done after the simple measures have been implemented. Then it is, among other things, about using pricing in the economy to change incentives and push for the great development of society. If a few small drops from the Norwegian side can lead to 17,000 billion being spent in a better way, it may be worth the effort. Growth – at any cost? – Not necessarily, is the answer.

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