Is China ‘unfairly seen as an eco-villain’ Comment

16/6/2009 BBC VIEWPOINT by William BleischChina’s rapid economic expansion in recent years has been matched by its increasingly voracious appetite for energy and natural resources, says William Bleisch. But, as he explains in this week’s Green Room, the nation has sometimes
been unfairly portrayed as the world’s biggest environmental villain. ” China has also made dramatic strides in protecting the best examples of natural habitats in nature reserves and other protected areas ”

As early as 1995, Lester Brown, one of the world’s leading environmentalists, predicted that China’s increasing demand for food and other commodities would soon drive world prices to record highs. If the figures were alarming then, they have only grown more so as China’s prosperity has increased its global reach and purchasing power. Cries of alarm have come from more and more people, as China’s demand for everything from oil to hardwood timber has been blamed for global price rises. The increasing affluence of Chinese consumers and their new-found ability to
travel the world means that far more of them have the opportunity and the means to purchase tiger skins, ivory and rhinoceros horn. And as the nation’s energy and mining industries have ventured beyond the nation’s borders, they have turned out to be every bit as rapacious and unethical as western companies can be; perhaps more so, since they do not have to answer to an open press and domestic outrage.

Growing appetite.
The impacts of China’s affluence are being felt downstream as well, in the form of greenhouse gases emissions.
CO2 emissions from China are increasing faster than from any other country in the world. In 1990, it already accounted for some 10.5% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Now, according to some analyses, China has become the world’s largest emitter of climate-altering gases. The backlash has been predictable. China’s exemption from caps on greenhouse gas emissions was one of the major reasons why the US Senate unanimously rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. It was a powerful justification for the Bush administration’s stance on Kyoto. The politicians believed that US efforts would be pointless if China’s emissions continued to grow.

But are the criticisms entirely fair? First, markets and emissions must be considered relative to China’s enormous population and fairly recent emergence as a newly industrialised nation. China’s population of 1.3 billion is about four times larger than that of the US, but each Chinese citizen uses about 25% of the energy consumed by his or her
US counterpart. Even that measure is skewed, because much of that energy used in China is to manufacture goods that are then purchased by Americans, Europeans and Japanese. The current rates of emissions also hide the fact that the industrialised western nations (including Japan) have been belching out CO2 far longer than China, which only reached newly industrialised status in the 1990s.

Exotic tastes
China certainly deserves criticism for its impacts on other areas of the environment. Chinese consumers have a large and growing appetite for exotic medicines that has directly led to dozens of species in China and throughout the world becoming endangered. Its citizens are still responsible for consumption of staggering amounts of wildlife and threatened timber products, some illegally smuggled from as far away as Indonesia and Zimbabwe. In 2008, several US states moved to ban turtle trapping on public lands, and 12 more US turtle species have been proposed for the endangered species list - all because of the impact of trade to China. “ Illegal wildlife products have largely disappeared from shops and markets in much of China, as enforcement of wildlife laws has become clearer and more
effective ”

But even with regard to trade in wildlife, the story is hardly as simple as it is often portrayed. China signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) and put it into force in 1981, passing legislation soon after to back up the treaty. In many areas, the government has made dramatic strides in controlling wildlife
trade over the past 20 years, even as demand has sky-rocketed due to consumers’ new affluence. Illegal wildlife products have largely disappeared from shops and markets in much of China, as enforcement of wildlife laws has become clearer and more effective.

Gone are the days when tiger bone wine could be openly advertised, and monkeys and wild caught parrots were openly sold in markets. The tiger brand plasters found in every Chinese pharmacy contain no tiger, and the tiger and leopard skins sold to foolish westerners at many tourist traps are actually just poorly dyed dog skins. Chinese consumers seeking to stock up on threatened wildlife must now travel to neighbouring countries, where unscrupulous local dealers still feel safe offering them a multitude of products, both fake and real. China has also made dramatic strides in protecting the best examples of natural habitats in nature reserves and other protected areas. More than 15% of the nation’s land area is legally protected in thousands of nature reserves and national parks, and most national reserves now have full-time staff that carry out regular patrols.

The proposal and approval of the enormous Giant Panda Sanctuary World Heritage Natural Site in the Sichuan Qionglai Mountains is just one of the most recent examples of China’s political will and dedication to protecting world natural
heritage. This is essential, since the rapid pace of development means that natural ecosystems outside protected areas are under increasing threat from the relentless search for more land and resources. Controlling the breakneck development has proved to be difficult or impossible for many regions, but a new law on Environmental Impact Assessments, which became effective in September 2003, has been praised as a model of good legislation.
It includes provisions to increase protection for critical habitats and protected areas. There is still a major gap between policy and implementation, but it may not be long before the “Three Simultaneous Commencements” (the start of permit application, the start of the environmental impact assessment and the start of digging) becomes a thing of the past, at least in the country’s more progressive regions.

Team effort
China has made impressive efforts to rise to standards set by the international community, but the efforts have not always been good enough to stem the tide in the face of massive and growing pressures. It can be argued that none of this will mean much if China’s greenhouse gas emissions cause climate disasters to habitats and species throughout the world. But here too, China has responded to global needs. It signed the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1998 and ratified the Protocol in 2002, something that the US failed
to do. More importantly, it made emissions reduction a national policy in 2005, when the nation’s 11th Five-Year Plan (for 2006 to 2010) set a target of reducing energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20%. The EU gave itself a similar target, but has until 2020 to achieve it; US plans are less ambitious still.

Given the pattern of exaggeration and over-statement often seen in the international press, it is little wonder that strident international criticism just seems to be dismissed as sour grapes by most people in China. Is it time, as many Chinese critics argue, for westerners to back off and tend to their own houses? Perhaps. But isn’t it the responsibility of all, both producer nations and consumer nations, to work together to solve problems such as depletion of ocean
fisheries and over-exploitation of threatened species? We might hope that at least global climate change is so much of a clear and present danger that, for once, countries could put aside their differences and act together to find a workable solution, perhaps based on the seemingly fair standard of a “climate change allocation” for each person on the planet. China should respond to critics by providing clear answers detailing what is being done to solve real problems. And that is not “China-bashing”; the same could be said of every fully industrialised nation.
Global problems demand global accountability; and that creates a responsibility of each of us to point out when policy and implementation are failing, and to help each nation rise to the needs.
Dr William Bleisch is science director of the China Exploration & Research

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