Of Chinese Droughts, Landslides, and Oil Spills, Oh My

In recent memory, China has rarely escaped a year without natural disasters and environmental woes. And this year is no exception. So far, China has had a severe drought, intense flooding, extreme summer heat, oil spill, chemical spill from a major copper miner, landslide, and another lake algae bloom--and still roughly five months to go in 2010.

Perhaps it's because of China's continental size and diverse climate that it inevitably witnesses nature wreaking havoc in any given year. It's also difficult to determine with certainty whether these episodes are occurring with increasing regularity (though they appear to be). Either way, the recent spate of issues stack up to another challenging year for China's environment and have led some to argue that the convergence of incidents could be China's own "Minamata" moment.

I am skeptical that a sudden transformation occurs. It would exact too much cost on the economy, to a level that Chinese leaders and the public can't tolerate. It would also step on the toes of too many entrenched interests all at once. And there's hardly an environmental movement brewing in China that would force the government to take more drastic measures, unlike what happened in the US and Japan. But that shouldn't obscure the fact that the Chinese government IS gravely concerned about what the past 30 years of a highly energy intensive and polluting growth model has wrought--the vast depletion and destruction of natural resources. Now, China relies on imports for almost every major commodity, from iron ore to oil, and even certain food products. And from where the Chinese leaders sit in Beijing, the next 30 years of growth looks mighty daunting if they do not take energy efficiency and the conservation of natural resources seriously. It would become literally unsustainable.

Rather than a Minamata moment, it feels more like a moment of recalibrating the balance between economic growth and sustainable development--where the scale has always tipped in favor of the former. Indeed, China is crafting its 12th Five-Year Plan that will serve as an economic blueprint for the next half decade. Signs that this will be a "greener" plan than the one that preceded it offer some hope. If so, it would require the Chinese government to tolerate more short-term pain for longer term gain. For all the talk of China's long-range foresight, the economy has been driven remarkably by a large dose of myopia and GDP fetish. In the first decade of the 21st century, China raced to displace Japan to become the #2 economy in the world. Starting in the second decade, will it race after Japan in energy efficiency and environmental profile? In short, China's success over the next ten years depends on less speed, more balance.