A Clearer Future
It has now been nearly five years since Chinese former premier, Li Keqiang, announced to the world that China would “resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty.” China’s aggressive stance on achieving greater sustainability is in response to what has been referred to as an “Air Apocalpyse”. More than 1.6 million people per year die in China from breathing toxic air.
The statement marked a major shift away from China’s former policy of putting economic growth before environmental sustainability. At the time, many people wondered if this lofty goal was really achievable. Impressively, China has made major advances. An example of progress: concentrates of fine particulates (sulfur and metals) in the air have been reduced by 32 percent on average in some of China’s largest cities.
As a result of its environmental improvements, Chinese citizens can expect better health and longer life spans; increases which can be counted in additional years. For instance, assuming that these environmental gains are permanent, the 20 million residents of Beijing are projected to live an estimated 3.3 years longer on account of these changes. Citizens of Shijiazhuang will receive an additional 5.3 years, and those in Baoding 4.5 years. Nationally, the average Chinese citizen may live an additional 2.4 years longer.
Benchmark the Accomplishment
These changes and improvements have occurred over the last four years. In comparison, it took the United States nearly a dozen years to achieve similar improvements in our own environment.
The Power of Goal Setting
Leading up to premier Li Keqiang’s speech, urban areas were assigned pollution reduction goals. For instance, the Beijing area was required to reduce pollution by 25 percent, and the city set aside an astounding $120 billion for that purpose.
Moving Past the Numbers
Stretch goals like these were supported by emissions measurements at the level of individual firms. For example:
• China prohibited new coal-fired power plants in the country’s most polluted regions, including the Beijing area.
• Existing plants were told to reduce their emissions. If they didn’t, the coal was replaced with natural gas.
• Large cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, restricted the number of cars on the road. The country also reduced its iron- and steel-making capacity and shut down coal mines.
The Chinese people are familiar with personal sacrifice in support of national objectives. For instance, part of the pollution abatement plans included removing coal boilers – used for winter heating – from many homes and businesses. This was done in winter, even though replacement heaters were not yet available.
No Easy Feat
China has invested heavily to achieve their environmental improvements. In fact, between 1998 and 2015, more than $350 billion have been poured into 16 separate sustainability programs which addressed challenges to more than 65% of China’s land area.
Consider what the nation has done so far:
• Reducing erosion, sedimentation, and flooding in the Yangtze and Yellow rivers
• Conserved forests in the north-east
• Desertification trends have reversed in many areas, and while mostly driven by climatic change, restoration efforts have helped.
• Reduced the impact of dust storms on the capital Beijing
• Increased agricultural productivity in China’s center and east.
• Deforestation has declined, and forest cover has exceeded 22%.
• Grasslands have expanded and regenerated.
• Agricultural productivity has increased through efficiency gains and technological advances.
• Rural households are generally better off, and hunger has largely disappeared.
China’s Commitment to Sustainability
As of now, Chinese air pollution levels still exceed their own standards and far surpass World Health Organization recommendations for what is considered safe. Much has been accomplished, and much still is left to be done. However, China is committed to addressing their vexing environmental challenges including:
• pollution of its air, water, and soils
• urban expansion
• vanishing coastal wetlands and the
• illegal wildlife trade
A huge sign of the nation’s commitment was shown when President Xi has laid out the 13th Five Year Plan which expresses his vision for a Chinese ecological civilization; a “beautiful China”.
President Xi’s broad framework for improved sustainability includes:
• Devoting “more energy and taking more concrete measures to advance the building of an ecological civilization, accelerate efforts to develop green production and ways of life, and work harder to tackle prominent environmental problems.”
• Ratcheting up Beijing’s control of environmental policy in an effort to overcome a lot of the local autonomy concerns that have hurt the implementation of similar policies in the past. This is critically important as Beijing rolls out a limited nationwide cap-and-trade program, which introduces a complex market mechanism for emissions reduction into a still largely state-directed economy.
China is poised to have a truly impressive 21st century. The nation recognizes its size and potential contribution to either environmental sustainability or ecological ruin and is making plans to lead toward greater sustainability.