China Must Go Green, and Soon

By Jun Wang, New America Media
Tuesday December 18, 2007

When it comes to environmental issues like global warming, America and China behave like a couple in a bad marriage, playing the blame game. But to tackle the problem of global warming, neither country can go it alone. 

UC Berkeley held a recent “marriage counseling” conference titled: “China’s Environment: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?” It brought scientists, environmentalists, journalists and venture capitalists from both sides together to come up with solutions. 

China’s air, water, energy, urban and rural spaces were discussed, as well as how its population is affected by environment-related diseases. Although it’s a cliché that “the color of water in Chinese rivers is somewhere between dark grey and black,” the fact that China adds two coal-based power plants per week is astonishing. Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley, concludes that “the cleanest cities in China are about the same as the dirtiest American city.” 

China’s environmental problems, which don’t always stay within its own borders, are terrifying to the world, especially because China has America as its role model. 

Copies of a story that ran in the January/February 2008 issue of Mother Jones magazine were circulated at the Berkeley conference. With a cover photo of a Chinese boy wearing a Nike jacket in the sunset-colored Forbidden City, as black industrial smoke wafts in the background, the story asks, “Can the world survive China’s rush to emulate the American way of life?” 

The likely answer is no. 

America apparently is not a good role model to follow. Seventy percent of the Chinese now rely on bicycles as their major means of transportation. If the Chinese one day decide to copy the classic American lifestyle—in which cars account for 90 percent of the means of transportation—then by the year 2030, China will have twice the number of cars as the rest of the world. Breathing will become a hard task to perform. 

But the Chinese seem ready to pay for the environmental damage they are causing. Research conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) shows that half the Chinese people surveyed approve of the implementation of an energy-efficiency tax, compared to 20 percent of U.S. and German residents, and 17 percent in Britain. 

Max Auffhammer, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Agriculture and Resource Economics department, says that the United States has “failed to find a way to get a global agreement,” adding that the Kyoto Protocol is seen as “weak and inefficient.” 

“We (Americans) may not provide solutions, but we can provide tools,” said Mark Henderson, who teaches in the public policy program at Mills College in Oakland. 

Architects designing community projects in China assert that they don’t aspire to have the likes of an affluent Orange County there; their plans are more eco-friendly. Harrison Fraker, dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, had people on the edge of their seats when he unveiled his proposal for an eco-site in the Chinese city of Qingdao in Shandong province on the Pacific coast. The proposal has already been approved by the city. 

“The ‘eco-block’ is resource self-sufficient,” said Fraker. In his design, the water, energy and waste could be 100 percent recycled within the community. Located in the windy coastal city of Qingdao, whose climate resembles that of the San Francisco Bay Area, half of the energy resources of the community will come from wind, 40 percent from the sun, and the other 10 percent from its own waste. 

Fraker hopes to break the division between “concrete cities” and “green countryside” and mix them up in his eco-community, where residents can grow their own food. 

But China’s environmental problems are far more complicated than just scientific issues. 

Jim Yardley, the New York Times’ Beijing correspondent whose coverage on China’s environmental issues last year won him a Pulitzer Prize, said China is trying to do it all—economic development, urbanization and a whole lot more at the same time. 

From a global viewpoint, Yardley altered the question of “Who is responsible?” to “Who is responsible for what?” He pointed out that figuring out responsibility comes down to the issue of trust. He said he’s interested to see how the most powerful and the most populous nations in the world “come together” to solve their environmental problems. 

The people of both countries, Yardley noted, deserve to breathe clean air. 


Jun Wang is a reporter and Chinese media monitor for New America Media.