By Andrew Muse-Fisher
On October 28th, Jeremy Wallace, a political science professor at Ohio State University, came to UC San Diego to discuss China’s urbanization and the nation’s opportunities to remedy several key issues that are threatening its continued growth. He outlined how, after years of unregulated industry and a shift from a rural to an urban-based population, China is experiencing an environmental crisis detrimental not only to the well-being of its citizens, but also to its health as a nation in the long run. The discussion pointed out that ultimately, it will be the response of the government that determines whether the quality of both the environment and the livelihoods of its citizens will improve, or if it will stagnate or worsen.
Mr. Wallace began the lecture in post-Kissinger China, the period in which the country began large-scale development focused on industrialization in order to become an economic power. This industrialization required a workforce to drive it. Luckily, China had a surplus amount of labor to be found in rural areas. During the 1980s, the number of rural migrant workers rose by 28 million; this surplus was quickly drawn into urban centers of industry where job openings needed to be filled. As such, many began to see the cities as a place with more employment opportunities, which only motivated more and more people to move out of rural areas. However, as the cities and industry grew, environmental regulations were neither common nor popular, allowing for high amounts of pollution to build up. In fact, since 1990, CO2 emissions have risen by over 5.826 billion metric tons.
Today, the environmental costs of industrialization are beginning to manifest across the country. In most cities, visibility is very limited and blue skies are difficult to find due to high levels of smog. It even causes the eyes to water and makes the air taste like chemicals. Not only does this pollution threaten the health of Chinese citizens, it may also have negative impacts on climate globally.
Although China is a party to the Kyoto protocol, its greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 286.6 percent since the agreement was signed in 1997. Despite the international community’s continued pressure on the nation to seek environmental changes and regulation, such reform does not come cheap in a slowing economy. China’s hesitance to invest in clean energy is due in part to the hit it took during the most recent recession. As a result of the global financial crisis, other countries reduced the amount of imports they received from China, cutting the country’s exports by 0.3 percent. This motivated China to move from outward international investment to the promotion of consumption within the country. In order to support this shift, China is now pulling its resources towards a stable internal economy, meaning that only a small part of its budget is available to be spent on environmental regulations.
In early 2012, China’s urban population overtook its rural population. Not only does this mean that the surplus supply of labor is all but depleted in the countryside, it also means that the cities are becoming too crowded, causing greater traffic congestion and pollution. This congestion is exacerbated by the fact that more Chinese citizens are finding themselves in need of cars. Between the density and smog of the cities, the people—especially those with low incomes—are finding more squalor than splendor in the city. Such conditions are worthy of protest, but as Mr. Wallace put it, who wants to protest in the smog? The reluctance of the Chinese people to speak out reduces the pressure on a seemingly reluctant government to remedy their current standards of living. This is not to say that the Chinese government is unaware of the pollution levels it has watched rise and left unregulated; it is holding out for innovations that will allow for the efficient reduction of CO2 emissions. However, this sort of innovation is not often created or found in rural areas, but rather, born in the cities. If the Chinese government is going to hold out for such innovation, it then must decide whether or not to continue subsidizing those living in the cities. It will certainly not be an easy decision to make. Reducing subsidies would, at least in theory, reduce the number of people in cities which could have positive environmental effects (less pollution, less congestion). However, because innovation is typically born in urban areas, reducing the subsidies might actually be detrimental as the technology needed to combat China’s environmental problems may not come to fruition.
In the short term, China will likely be tempted to promote city living in order to counter the stagnation of its economy. However, this does not allow for sustainability in most regards. Sustainability comes from smaller cities with less congestion, a healthy environment and clean energy. If China chooses in favor of the short term, then there is a small foreseeable gain to be had, but it will most likely be followed by negative impacts (some of which can already be seen). These consequences can only be avoided if China pursues the long term vitality of the country, even if that means experiencing some economic setbacks.
Photo by Ilya Haykinson