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ENVIRONMENT-CHINA: Prosperity or Pollution?

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Feb 5 2007 (IPS) - Following the release of an authoritative United Nations report that unequivocally links human activities with climate change, the rulers of the world’s most populous country are faced with the quandary of balancing prosperity against pollution.

China’s economy has been growing at a double-digit rate for the last 20 years and is now the second-largest emitter of energy-related carbon dioxide after the United States. The increased atmospheric concentration of carbon emissions that trap heat and contribute to global warming has now been confirmed with near certainty to be caused by human activity and the use of fossil fuels.

The world has just 10 years to reverse surging carbon emissions or risk runaway climate change that could make many parts of the planet uninhabitable. This stark warning came in a new report by the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in Paris last week.

Yet, even before scientists could pinpoint human activities as the main culprit behind global warming, politicians at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, were talking about the need for major emerging economies like China and India to urgently tackle their growing emissions.

With China representing one-sixth of the world’s population and with an economy growing at 10 percent a year, officials have been predicting an environmental disaster if the country is allowed to discharge as much pollution as Western countries did during their industrialisation.

China relies on coal for more than 70 percent of its energy needs, spewing out tons of pollutants. The increasing energy demands of its voracious economy have also led to the proliferation of coal-fired plants, many of them built and operated without governmental approval.


While a signatory to the U.N. Kyoto protocol mandating the reduction of greenhouse gases, China, as a developing country, is under no obligation to cut emissions during the pact’s first phase till 2012.

Chinese officials were quick to defend the country’s track record. Speaking in Davos last month, Cheng Siwei, vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, said China’s per capita emissions still remain below the world average. While the average American uses up 28 barrels of oil a year, the average Chinese consumes only 2 barrels.

“If you look at the history of emissions from 1950 to 2002, we have contributed 10 percent. How can anyone say we are responsible,” Cheng was quoted as saying.

But emissions from China and other rapidly growing economies in Asia are also increasing faster than in other countries. According to a World Bank report issued last May, China increased its greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent between 1992 and 2002, while India’s emissions grew 57 percent over the same period.

Pursuing rapid economic growth over the last 25 years, government officials paid little heed to environmental costs, making it more difficult to defend Beijing’s development polices at home than abroad. Even more irksome, the ruling Chinese communist party has pinned its legitimacy on ensuring rapid development and raising living standards for the population.

Until the U.N. panel of climate scientists said it was 90 percent sure that the rise in global temperatures over the past 50 years was caused by humans, Chinese authorities attributed adverse changes in the country’s ecology to global warming.

Last summer, officials batted charges that China’s worst drought in 50 years had been caused by the completion of the Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest dam straddling the Yangtze river. Instead, they blamed the adverse climate for the unprecedented droughts that had affected the lives of 17 million people in southwestern China.

“The abnormalities are caused by global warming and the overall change in the world’s climate,” Dong Wenjie, director of the National Weather Forecast Centre, told the media. “It has nothing to do with the completion and operation of the Three Gorges Dam.”

Now, hydrologists admit that the Yangtze’s level last year was the lowest in 140 years, raising the spectre of serious shortage of drinking water for millions of people in central and western China.

The situation is especially grim in northern China where rivers now run dry in their low reaches for much of the year. In 1997, the Yellow river, once known as ‘China’s Sorrow’ for its ability to inflict destruction with its flood-swollen waters, ran dry for 226 days.

Voices are already being heard demanding that Chinese government respond with concrete measures to the climate change threat.

“This water crisis is caused by our logging and draining of lakes, by our over-exploitation of water resources,” environmentalist Wang Yongchen said in an opinion piece published by ‘Xinjing Bao’ daily on Feb. 4.

“To blame a global environmental crisis like climate change for our own doings is to push off responsibility. We as a country, and every one of us as an individual, have their share of responsibility to fight this global trend,” she concluded.

Chinese meteorologists say global warming is affecting the country in many ways. “In the last 50 years, the margin of temperature increase in the area of China has been higher than the global average one by 0.6 to 0.8 degrees Celsius,” says Zhao Zongci, a climate researcher at the National Climate Centre under the China Meteorological Administration. “In places like northern China only elderly people now remember how cold the winters could be in the past.”

China’s rising temperatures are also blamed for the melting of glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, known as the Roof of the World.

The glaciers have been melting at an average of 131.4 sq km a year over the past three decades, according to researchers at the China Aero Geophysical Survey and Remote Sensing Centre for Land and Resources. If global warming continues unabated, they say, the glaciers would be reduced by a third by 2050.

Another alarming consequence of global warming on the plateau could be a change in the volume of water flowing into the Yangtze, the Yellow and other rivers that originate in the Tibetan mountains. Millions of people in China’s lush valleys downstream depend on these rivers for their livelihood.

The economic and social consequences of a prolonged, severe drought in China are worrying in the light of new research published last month in the journal ‘Nature’. It shows that intense climate change might have been the reason for the collapse of one of China’s most illustrious dynasties, the Tang (618-907).

A team of scientists led by Gerald Haug of Germany’s National Geosciences Research Centre believes that a severe drought and famine caused by a shift in monsoons in many regions in the 8th and 9th centuries most probably led to the extinction of entire societies like that of the Mayas in Central America and Tang dynasty China.

 
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