China and Environmental Protection: A Political Advantage

Three days ago, our host mother took us to a dinner celebrating the 15th anniversary of an appliance company she had been involved with since 1998. The company specializes in boilers and A/C, and as the dinner progressed she told us a story that closely related to the topic we had discussed in class: China and the environment.

In 1996 when the company formed, the majority of homes in China were still being heated by coal, an energy source that is cheap and abundant in China but heavy in emissions of sulfur and soot. According to our host mo, in 1998 China instituted a national ban on domestic burning of coal in major cities, forcing people to shift toward cleaner sources of energy such as oil and natural gas. (I tried to confirm this ban online and found some vague support for it on Wikipedia…but no exact date, and other sources indicated it was carried out by city governments.)

The point here is that on the environmental protection front, China clearly has the political advantage in that it has a political structure that can simply make a decree and see it be done. The role of government will also likely be closely entwined to China’s shift toward cleaner sources of energy, as evidenced by the construction of the controversial Three Gorges Dam (produces 24% of China’s total hydroelectric capacity but displaces one million people…you gain some you lose some, I guess) and domestic ownership laws for green technology multinationals. All it needs is the political will to create a legal environment supportive of environmental protection.

Unfortunately, people higher up in China’s political structure are likely to oppose environmental protection measures on the grounds that it will stifle economic growth. According to our article, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEFA) has been historically weak. Enforcement will likely be another stumbling block, as evidenced by a host of problems ranging from enforcement of smoking and traffic laws to issues with intellectual property rights.

One thing is clear though. On the green technology front, China seems to be far outpacing the US: http://www.economywatch.com/economy-business-and-finance-news/China-Green-Technology-Leader-Has-Future-Arrived-27-03.html (The article sounds reads with a slight alarmist tone and goes crazy with the hyperlinks but conveys the idea very clearly.)

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