Last week, I attended a conference hosted by the Berkeley China Initiative and the Luce Foundation entitled “China’s Environment: What Do We Know and How Do We Know it?
” The two-day conference attracted many of the big names on China’s environment: leading Chinese journalist and environmentalist Ma Jun, Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Orville Schell of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jim Yardley of The New York Times
, to name a few. While many of the speakers addressed the two questions in the title of the conference, a presentation that stuck in my mind was by the University of Alberta’s Wenrang Jiang, who also asked, “What should we know about China’s environment?” Proposed answers to this question surfaced and resurfaced throughout the conference, but there are a few with which most attendees would likely concur.
First, and most importantly, as Westerners addressing China’s environmental crises, we need to understand that China’s government and people do not need to be told how bad their environment is: They know. What they need are the technology and technical assistance to address these problems. A particularly striking example of where technical tools are needed, raised by speaker Ye Qi of Tsinghua University and again this week at a China Environment Forum meeting in Washington, D.C., is data collection. China needs researchers, academics, and policymakers to guide the development of a strong data collection infrastructure.
Second, we must recognize that China is not a threatening environmental culprit. In fact, many Chinese environmental regulations and policies are more progressive than our own. China’s biggest challenge is developing the mechanisms to enforce these policies and regulations at the local level—another area in which assistance from abroad could be particularly fruitful. Although several laboratories recently declared that China surpassed the United States in total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions this year, China’s per capita CO2 emissions are still only one-sixth of the United States’ per capita emissions. China and India’s combined CO2 emissions account for only 10 percent of the world’s total; furthermore, according to speaker Gang He of Columbia University, 27 percent of China’s emissions are due to goods it manufactures and then exports. China’s vehicle emissions laws will meet Euro IV standards nationwide by 2010, which 90 percent of U.S.-manufactured sport utility vehicles could not pass today.
Finally, we must bear in mind the level of pollution-related suffering that occurs in China. We cannot simply impose lofty, globally beneficial programs upon a population struggling daily with unmet human needs. A presentation by Shannon May of the University of California, Berkeley, on the failure of an eco-village in China illustrated this point beautifully. May polled villagers to find out why they had not moved into a new eco-village that had been built to improve land and energy efficiency. She discovered something environmentalists had failed to note: With the 60,000 RMB required to move into the eco-village homes, villagers could instead invest in aquaculture or other industries with high returns, build a home to their own specifications, or pay for a wedding for their children. We must make sure that global goals—such as slowing climate change—that require sacrifices from certain populations also produce tangible local benefits, such as reducing toxic air pollutants.
As several attendees mentioned during the conference, China needs more yin from its Western partners—more patience, flexibility, and self reflection, particularly. Many international NGOs that have worked in China for a long time understand this, but larger bilateral programs shaped by political agendas are not always as flexible.
By CEF Program Assistant Linden Ellis.