Heel-draggers who hide behind US's dirty skirts

Managing the Chinese Environment
April 19, 2002

The authors of these 12 papers (already published in a 1998 China Quarterly special edition) include practitioners as well as scholars, and the academic line-up is of high quality. It includes Robert Ash on land resources, Michael Palmer on environmental law, Judith Banister on public health, Vaclav Smil on energy and resource use, Liu Changming on the south-north water transfer scheme, Mark Elvin on the imperial environmental legacy and editor Richard Edmonds, who co-authors Ash's paper and introduces the collection.

Many of the papers contain highly technical detail, but all repay careful reading, concerning as they do some of the most vital issues facing China and the world today. There is a consensus that environmental degradation in China began long before the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, but that there has been serious deterioration since then, with significant damage done by rapid economic growth since the late 1970s.

Abigail Jahiel's study of China's environmental protection agencies (EPAs) identifies the conflict of interests at local government level in China as a problem. It is all very well for the central government to pass laws and set high environmental standards, but when local government has a personal stake in small but heavily polluting and wasteful township and village enterprises, it is unlikely that EPAs will be able to enforce the law.

Although all the contributors acknowledge the seriousness of China's environmental problems, many of them find cause for optimism, and their conclusions undercut some of the more sensational claims about China's inability to feed itself and the catastrophic shortage of water in the north. On the "Can China feed itself?" thesis (the title of Lester Brown's 1995 book), Ash and Edmonds conclude that much of the "lost" arable land that is central to Brown's argument has in fact been transferred to different agricultural uses. They claim that this will have a beneficial impact on food production: afforestation will help prevent soil erosion from cultivated land, while this land may "generate significantly more calories and protein" when used for orchards, aquaculture and animal husbandry rather than for grain. Their conclusions on the likely effects of global warming on China are sober: a mixed prognostication of the benefits of more rainfall and an earlier growing season in some areas alongside increased aridity and soil erosion in others. On water, James E. Nickum argues for conservation and treatment facilities to tackle flood, drought and pollution "sub-crises" that do not amount to a general crisis.

Writing before George W. Bush renounced United States participation in joint efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, Lester Ross notes China's tendency to "hide behind" developed nations such as the US that also drag their heels in complying with the Kyoto agreement. He reminds us that the Chinese leadership has firmly stated that emission reduction will not be allowed to interfere with the attainment of developed status: the developed world owes China the right to continue as it pleases until it reaches developed levels of per-capita emissions. As China will become the major contributor to greenhouse gases at some point between 2010 and 2025, this is a less reassuring thread running through this collection.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in 20th-century Chinese history, University of Nottingham.

Managing the Chinese Environment

Editor - Richard L. Edmonds
ISBN - 0 19 829635 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 326

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