February 17th, 2014
09:10 AM ET

China's bold environmental move

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By Global Public Square staff

There has been some surprising good news out of China. As you probably know, China's super-speed growth has produced super-high levels of pollution. Indeed, Beijing's poor air quality has popularized the word "air-pocalypse". There are days when you can barely see more than a few feet in front of you. It got so bad that the U.S. embassy in Beijing posted a real-time measure of air quality on its website; Chinese officials, of course, have disputed the American data as propaganda.

So people, mostly Chinese people, have asked for an accurate reading of pollution levels in China. In recent years, environmental groups have pressured Beijing to release official data on air pollution. But the government, notorious for being tight-lipped, secretive and unresponsive, had declined. In fact, few people actually believed that Beijing would ever accede to their demands.

Well, guess what? Beijing has ordered 15,000 factories to report details about their emissions: in public, and in real-time. The decree also calls for details on the release of pollutants like wastewater and heavy metals. This is a real first in China – an unprecedented mandate for transparency.

Keep in mind that many of these factories are actually run by powerful state-owned companies, with links to politicians in the upper echelons of government. But for the first time, there is a requirement to publicly acknowledge the environmental impact of mass-scale production…and to take steps to go green.

If you look at the numbers, perhaps we should have seen this coming.

According to the World Bank, the impacts of China's environmental degradation costs the country 9 percent of its Gross National Income. Studies by a number of journals show that more than a million Chinese die prematurely every year because of the country's poor air quality.

More from CNN: Can social media clear air?

And then there's the public response. In the West, we tend to hear only about the big incidents. For example, this time last year, when thousands of dead pigs were found floating in a river near Shanghai. Or when 39 tons of a deadly chemical leaked into one of China's main rivers. Or yet another "air-pocalypse."

All of these incidents and others have led to mass outrage and protest. But often unreported, at a smaller level, every day across this vast country there are hundreds of local protests about the environment. China's Society of Environmental Sciences reports that protests about the environment have grown by an average of 29 percent every year between 1996 and 2011. There are some reports that a majority of the organized protests in China are about the poor quality of air and water.

The good news – for China, and the world – is that Beijing seems to be listening. China has promised to spend $280 billion dollars cleaning up its air. According to information from the International Energy Agency: China's carbon emissions per unit of GDP have dropped by half since the 1990s. Massive investments in wind and solar energy mean that China hopes to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The next step is to be open and transparent about how it is progressing on these fronts. But this is a big first move. And it should send a signal to other developing countries to stop denying their pollution problems and start dealing with them. Most of them are actually much worse than China in this regard. So we have the strange irony that dictatorial China, responding to public protests, is cleaning up its air faster than democratic India.​​

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Topics: China • Environment • What in the World?

soundoff (80 Responses)
  1. atavisms

    I spent a week each in Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai. The air was far and away the worst in Xian. It was as if there were a fire down the block, everywhere, outside. I had an asthmatic reaction to it, nothing terrible, but it was wild. As was the pollution on water ways and the desperation of some beggars. Otherwise, it blew me away..

    April 20, 2014 at 3:06 pm |
  2. cacique

    A mix of super-economics, greed, and a screw-the-environment business policy has created just the right context for national progress. The health cost has been terrible for people, nature, and many communities at large. Waking up and smelling the poisonous gasses and having to drink contaminated water is mandatory for the Chinese government and the national industry.

    April 21, 2014 at 4:22 am |
  3. TAJW

    Yep...China is seriously going to move toward environmental quality issues over transfer of wealth from the west to the east.

    They are so focused on making the environment a safer place.

    April 21, 2014 at 2:05 pm |
  4. DerBaron

    When they found almost 20% of their own arable land was tainted with industrial pollution, they finally saw there are limits to short-term thinking.

    May 7, 2014 at 12:40 pm |
  5. Skippy

    Important statistic ... carbon emissions per GDP. Their GDP went from 400B in 1990 to 7000B in 2001. Even if emissions per GDP were halved they went up almost 10x over this time. Nice misleading little dance

    May 12, 2014 at 1:07 pm |
    • david

      You point is fair but so is Zakaria. Their economy is growing super fast so of course their carbon emission will rise in lock step. But, if Zakaria is correct, they are getting more efficient in energy use per unit of GDP. That is important too. The wWst got rich first and cause much of the carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Sure, we should also acknowledge the carbon emissions from the developing countries too. We all share the plant, remember?

      June 7, 2014 at 4:18 pm |
  6. oogenhand

    Reblogged this on oogenhand.

    May 22, 2014 at 12:15 am |
  7. John

    Who cares if scored of Chinese are dying from lung cancer. They will just make more!

    May 26, 2014 at 4:30 am |
    • dae

      Who cares if you die a slow and painful death. Certainly not me.

      May 27, 2014 at 12:26 am |
    • Hope

      I do cares if John die a slow and painful death. To know he did

      May 30, 2014 at 8:57 am |
  8. sly

    I'm glad to hear this. Let's really hope they do this and don't renege after a few year.

    May 30, 2014 at 10:44 pm |
  9. Yoda

    A good start would be to stop deposing dictators, as brutal as they may be, who stand against these Islamist forces. I remember you Fareed, being one of the cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq that has lead up to the strengthening of these forces.

    June 12, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
  10. ajpiro56

    Why do you have the same Nimrods who guided this catastrophic Iraqi policy for more than a decade on the show to give their opinions? If you are going to have them on, you should have them on wearing dunce caps, confessing their errors and asking our pardons, in the manner of the Cultural Revolution.

    June 15, 2014 at 1:31 pm |
  11. Justin Brkovic

    I would suggest to read studies on environmental cleanup in Stockholm and even Ontario.

    June 24, 2014 at 9:05 pm |
  12. Chen

    Okay, as a Chinese I come into the admission that the air has been quite worse than decades before......
    But how can you America just watch and laugh at us? Don't ignore the fact that China must be a country as powerful as yours a few years later, but you have not to worry about it, for we are always good and honest. We never like making disputes but a peaceful life and deserved respect.

    July 19, 2014 at 7:45 am |
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