It is the fashion these days to apply the overused phrase the “tipping point” to just about everything, especially when it comes to bad news for the environment. And nowhere is the pessimism greater than when it comes to China, whose spectacular economic growth and voracious appetite for natural resources is said to be leading the region and perhaps the world toward irreversible ecological catastrophe.
This story line, played out in countless media headlines over the past few years, has it backwards. China has indeed reached a tipping point on the environment–the point at which it begins to make environmental improvements.
It’s about time. China has some of the worst pollution problems in the world. Nearly two-thirds of China’s 343 major cities currently fail to meet the nation’s air quality standards. The World Health Organization reckons that seven of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in China. Pollution levels in China’s major cities are 10 to 50 times higher than the worst smoggy day in Los Angeles.
The story is much the same with water pollution. China is desperately short of potable water. Groundwater has been badly depleted, and surface water sources are equally overused. The Yellow River, for example, has run dry every year since 1985 because of diversions; in 1997, it failed to reach the ocean for 226 days. Severe water pollution has led to shutdowns of major urban water systems, such as occurred last year in the city of Harbin following a chemical spill in the Songhua River. The city of 3.8 million people was without running water for nearly a week.
These and other environmental trends are supposedly going to get worse as China continues its headlong drive to become a modern industrial nation. “China’s Next Big Boom Could Be the Foul Air,” the New York Times reported last October. Yet these predictions are already out of date. A look at the data shows that China is on the curve that other modern industrialized nations followed in the mid-20th century, whereby pollution starts to fall even as the economy continues to grow. Sulfur dioxide and particulate levels have actually fallen in Beijing and other major cities over the last decade, at the same time as the number of motor vehicles China nearly quadrupled and total energy consumption increased by one-third.
China is slowly turning the corner on the environment for the same reason the U.S. and other advanced economies reversed course a generation ago–economic growth provides the means to implement better technology to reduce pollution. China has been enacting environmental laws that resemble the landmark legislation the U.S. and Europe enacted in the 1970s, and China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) reports that spending for environmental projects is increasing about 15 percent a year. China has adopted the European Union’s automobile tailpipe standards, for example, and has even begun to emulate our Environmental Impact Review process for major construction projects.
China is working at breakneck speed to reverse its water pollution and supply problems as well. Industrial discharge of petroleum-related pollutants and heavy metals into rivers and oceans has been cut in half over the last decade. Wastewater treatment facilities are quickly being built; between 2000 and 2005, total wastewater capacity doubled. China’s reforestation program appears to be taking flight; SEPA reports that 4.8 million hectares of forestland were planted in 2004, and that forestland has been growing at slightly more than 1 percent a year over the last decade.
China today is roughly where the United States was in 1950 terms of environmental performance. In those days the U.S. still poured raw sewage and chemicals directly into rivers and lakes and the ocean, and had little along the lines of air pollution controls. Like the U.S. 50 years ago, China has a long way to go. Some of the environmental news out of China is going to get worse before it gets better. The central point remains, however, that China’s environmental news is going to start improving a lot sooner and a lot faster than people expect.
The most intriguing possibility from this story is how environmental reform might contribute to political reform and liberalization. Many of the changes in China’s environmental performance are coming in response to large public protests–and frequent riots–over pollution. The environment, often an anti-democratic force in American governance, might prove to be a tipping point toward democracy in China.
–Steven F. Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of the 2006 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, from which this article is adapted.