China at the Crossroads: Economy vs. Envrionment


“APEC Blue”

For people in Beijing, the host of APEC summit is definitely a good thing in terms of the weather. During the summit, a new phrase , “APEC Blue”, was generated, vividly depicting the rarity of blue sky in the city, and the effort that Chinese government has put to present its best side to the world. However, the ephemeral “APEC Blue” is in exchange for the convenience of Beijing residents. Half of the cars were off the road; more than 1,000 heavy industrial factories near the city were closed; the central heating service in Tianjian, the city adjacent to Beijing, was postponed; schools and public sectors enjoyed a week off. You could not get married, renew your passport and even withdraw money from some banks. Basically, you’d better just stay at home and watch the news of the APEC summit. During 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, similar measures were also taken to ensure the air quality.

Beijing in October, 2014                                   Beijing during APEC summit

The quick-fix measures reveal the serious environmental problems in China, especially in Beijing and the rest of the Northern China. The recent deterioration of air quality in the northern part of China rings the bell for Chinese government that this might be the turning point to balance the development of economy and environment.

Being aware of the importance of economic development, Chinese leaders put significant efforts on economic development, especially the industrial sector, during the past four decades. The real GDP of China grew 9.8% on average from 1979 to 2012. However, the “grow first, clean up later” model that China adopted lead to serious negative externalities on its environment. In order to boost the industrial advancement, China relied on the huge investment of labor, capital and natural resources. During Mao’s time, the consumption of energy in China tripled in 1950-1978, indicating the extravagant exploitation of energy. Even when China strived to increase the energy efficiency, in the late 90’s, when China achieved greatest economic growth, the rate of increase in energy demand was as high as 1.5 times that of annual economic growth. China’s energy consumption was more than three times of the world average level per dollar of GDP. In 2009, China consumed 390 tonnes of coal equivalent (tce) per $1m GDP, plummeted from 800 tce in the 1990s. Compared to the global average of 300 tce, however, this number is still too high.


Similar patterns have been utilized by developed countries before, including US, Japan and UK. Yet, with China’s extremely large population and its economy reaching a certain scale, it simply cannot afford the aggressive growth pattern relying on inefficient energy consumption. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has reckoned that the total annual damage to China’s economy from environment degradation equals to 9% of China’s GDP, which will drag down the long-term economic growth of the country. Not only have China’s environment problems eaten up its own economy, but also damage the global environment. The large amount of coal burned in China contributes to severe carbon-dioxide emissions. As the chart below shows, China’s emissions of CO2 surpassed that of American in 2006 and is still on an upward trend. Therefore, it is the high time for Chinese government to ponder the balance of economic growth and environment protection. Just as the environment minister Zhou Shengxian once said, “If development turns healthy people into unhealthy people, this is a parody of development. We need to slow down from the current pace of growth.”


A good thing is Chinese government has already realized the urgency of improving the sustainability of its economic growth. Ministry for Environmental Protection has been established in 2008 and protecting environment has been added to the basic principles at Communist Party conference in 2012. Chinese government has invested heavily in promoting renewable energy, aiming to generate 20% of energy from such kind in 2020. President Xi Jinping is also trying to boost greenery, indicating that local officials will be responsible for serious environmental problems. All of the policies and measures prove the Chinese central government’s statement that it would use “an iron hand” to make the country more energy-efficient.

However, the biggest problem lies in the attitudes and implementations of local officials, who may simply ignore it and still focus on short-term economic growth, sacrificing the environment. While the policies, investment and subsidies in enhancing energy efficiency, reducing pollution and promoting renewable energy should be continued, a more critical matter is to make local officials aware that tackling environment problems is equally important, which should be added to the criteria of judging local official’s performance. It is indeed a long way to go for China, to make the “APEC Blue” a daily reality along with its economic miracle.


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