In China, Environmentalism Means Two Different Things

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Another thing that has surprised me--although maybe it shouldn't, given the number of government officials and QUANGOs we've met with--has been the consistency of message we've gotten on the issues facing China.  I haven't heard a single Chinese person say they were worried about a housing bubble.  I've encountered more certainty about the government's inflation figures than I would have expected (though to be fair, also a few dissenters).  And we have heard over and over about our ban on the export of dual-use technology, from people ranging from entrepreneurs to government officials.


The consensus is that the main issues are rising labor costs, getting infrastructure built quickly enough to handle urbanization, the high tech export ban, and the environment.  And of those, the fourth is the one we have heard about most consistently; virtually every development zone, commerce ministry official, entrepreneur, NGO leader, and economist, agrees that China needs to get the pollution under control.

I won't disagree there; the pollution is epic.  When we arrived in Beijing it was a clear day with blue skies, and we wondered where all the pollution was that we'd heard about.  The next day, we found out; it was the day that people were allowed to turn the heat on.  By mid-morning, there was a growing haze; by late afternoon, we looked out of a skyscraper window to a dense fog that was beginning to obscure even nearby buildings.  The smell made me a bit nostalgic for my New York childhood, back when coal heaters and incinerators were legal; we lived on the fifteenth floor, with a clear view of the incinerator on the next building's roof, and every time I took a snootful of Beijing air, I could practically see the metal cage, the little bits of paper that hadn't quite been burned up, flapping against the sky . . . 

My lungs were not quite so nostalgic.  I've been sucking down inhaled steroids twice a day.  The day after we left for Nanning, I got a worried email from my husband, who didn't know what city I was in; the pollution index in Beijing had apparently hit 500 on a 1 to 500 scale.
This pollution has to be addressed, and I have no doubt it will--in fact, it already is, though only fitfully.  I'm now in Shanghai, where the pollution is also worse than usual.  The rumor is that this is due to the recently closed Shanghai Expo (a sort of world's fair).  During the expo, apparently, incinerating trash and various industrial processes were forbidden; now everyone's making up for lost time.  Still, over the long run, I'm quite sure that the Chinese are going to clean up their air, if for no other reason than that governments do:  as countries get richer, one of the first things they buy with their income is cleaner water, clearer skies, and less congested lungs.

But among the people we've talked to, the pollution gets wrapped together with the issue of carbon emissions:  "clean energy" and "green technology" tend to cover both the need to get rid of the particulate soup, and the need to lower carbon emissions.  The one is of prime importance to the Chinese; the other is what the Americans care about.

These are not actually very closely related. To be sure, renewables would mitigate a little of the environmental impact. And there are massive efficiency improvements to be had by, say, shutting down wildly inefficient plants, or using the heat from steel furnaces to generate a little extra electricity.  But consider some points about China:

1)  It is very large.
2)  It runs its own grid.
3)  It is growing very fast.
4)  Everyone we've spoken to either has a car, or wants one very badly.

China, which needs to ensure it has adequate peak load and base load capacity, is not going to get up to renewables as even 20% of its electricity generation any time soon, because it can't just tap power from elsewhere whenever the wind fails or demand spikes.  And even if it did make renewables 20% of its electricity generation, the incredible pace of growth would mean that overall, fossil fuel consumption would go up.  Moreover, a lot of that coal is used for heating, not electricity.

China is going to get rid of the particulates not by switching everything to windmills, but by cleaning up their fossil fuel generation, either by scrubbing their coal stacks, or by converting to oil, natural gas, or liquified coal (which can be cleaner in particulate terms, though it's not a clear improvement on carbon emissions).

Even as the Chinese shut down their dirtiest and most inefficient old plants, increasing the energy efficiency of the economy and reducing pollution, they are going to be emitting more carbon into the atmosphere.  A more efficient China in which everyone lives in 1,000 square foot apartments and drives an electric car is still a China that emits far more carbon than the United States every year.  

I'm not tut-tutting at China--I wouldn't go live in one of those old peasant huts myself in order to save the environment, and I doubt that many of even the most ardent environmentalists would either.  But the way that green energy has been discussed with us has, to my mind, implied that somehow China is going to solve the problem of carbon emissions by commanding its cities and companies to adopt cleaner energy.  Yet no one has made any very convincing case that these initiatives will substantially mitigate the effects of growth, much less offset them.

Moreover, once the pollution disappears, will the public and political will for green technology remain strong?  The central planners in Beijing are subject to political pressure from ordinary Chinese people, however indirectly.  

The air in Beijing is a very strong argument for spending a high percentage of GDP on pollution reduction.  But when Beijing is more like New York--maybe a little brown haze at the horizon, but a blue sky overhead and no rattle in your lungs--how much income will people be willing to sacrifice in order to make incrementally more expensive investments in green technology?  In the US, as the environmental movement has moved from things with obvious direct benefit--less poison in air and water--to more remote or arguable threats, like endangered species and climate change, it has found much greater political resistance to any real change.  Even in Europe, the general trend of carbon emissions before the financial crisis hit was up, not down1

Before you answer that question, consider that we've been told multiple times that the Chinese government considers 8% growth the absolute lowest level it can tolerate; fall below that, and it has trouble generating jobs for college graduates and rural migrants.  The government maintains its legitimacy because growth is high; as long as that continues, a lot of people are unwilling to rock the boat.  But if growth falls towards that magic 8% line, which will Beijing choose:  the environment, or cars and big-screen televisions for citizens who want them?

1 Except for a few outliers including Germany's closing of horrible, money-losing East German pollution factories, and Britain's conversion from coal, which it had already pretty thoroughly mined out, to natural gas, which had been discovered in the North Sea.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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