Foreign Aid

‘People power’ aids green drive in China

(September 10, 2002)¬†The country’s natural resources are under such strain that experts warn there could be more than 150 million ‘environmental refugees’ in future as people flee ecologically stressed regions.

Straits Times
September 10, 2002

Beijing: Autumn in Beijing is the time of year when blue skies reign and the city looks its finest, locals like to boast. Of late, however, clear skies have become a rare sight, outnumbered by smoggy ash-grey ones – a grim testimony to the capital’s worsening air quality. Beijingers are not the only ones choking on bad air. China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, according to the World Bank. If nothing is done, pollution levels could be four times worse 15 years from now, Chinese officials warn. China is the world’s fastest growing economy, but also the second-biggest generator of greenhouse gases, and set to surpass the United States in this dubious honour in 30 years. The country’s natural resources are also under such strain that experts warn there could be more than 150 million ‘environmental refugees’ in future as people flee ecologically stressed regions.

Painting a dismal picture of its pollution woes, Deputy Environment Minister Pan Yue said in an interview: ‘Acid rain is falling on one-third of China, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one-fourth of our citizens do not have access to clean drinking water. ‘One-third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 per cent of the trash in cities is processed in an environmentally sustainable manner.’ If there is a silver lining, it is that the Chinese government knows the situation is dire, as do a rising number of environmentally conscious people and groups.

In recent years, activists say, both camps have made efforts to stem the damage. Sustainable development is now the political buzzword, and China’s top leadership has vowed to push through various green policies. A new law mandating the use and development of renewable energy was passed in February. Last week brought news that up to 1.5 trillion yuan (S$321 billion) would be invested by 2020 to boost renewable energy consumption to 15 per cent of national energy consumption, up from the current 7 per cent. Officials are also devising a ‘green GDP’, which would alter how gross domestic product (GDP) is calculated to reflect losses inflicted by environmental degradation. The authorities have also introduced small but impactful ways to tackle pollution. These include tax breaks for buyers of small-engine, low-emission cars; holding anti-air pollution campaigns and setting ‘blue sky’ targets; and giving awards to environmentalists.

Green activists say there is political attention now as pollution has reached such a critical state that it could impede economic growth and cause social unrest. Said Mr Ma Jun, an independent environmentalist and researcher based in Beijing: ‘The top leaders are sincere but whether those further down the chain of command are sincere remains to be seen.’ He asserts that only ‘people power’ can exert enough pressure on industry and local governments to bring about a permanent change.

Indeed, ordinary Chinese fed up with the problems arising from environmental pollution are becoming more vocal. Environment-related complaints and petitions have risen by 30 per cent on average every year, revealed environment officials. Green groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have sprung up in the past five years and now number more than 200, from virtually zero a decade ago, said Mr Wen Bo, the China coordinator for Global Greengrants Fund, a US-based environmental organisation.

When the group first started its work in China in 1996, he found less than 10 groups worthy of grants. Now, he hands out some 70 grants a year, ranging from US$500 (S$855) to US$5,000 each, to finance everything from organising talks to printing brochures on green issues. Although less organised and confrontational than some of their Western counterparts, China’s green NGOs have had a major role in raising public awareness of the dangers of destroying the resources on which China’s long-term health and prosperity depend. The Beijing-based Friends of Nature, for example, regularly goes to rural schools to spread the green message to village children. Set up in 1994, it is now one of the country’s largest such NGOs with some 3,000 members, a third of whom are teenagers and young adults.

Beijing schoolgirl Yuan Rishe, 12, is an example of how it is never too young to think green. At six, she launched her ‘One piece of paper project’ to encourage recycling. Today, more than one million schoolchildren across the country are involved in the effort to save paper and trees. So far, they have recycled more than 70,000 sheets, the equivalent of 14 3m-high trees. Said the precocious youngster: ‘Protecting the environment should be a habit. You can start small but you will be able to do more than you think.’

In just a short time, China’s green groups have moved from simple tree-planting and garbage-recycling projects to championing larger causes, said Beijing-based Mr Wen. ‘They have been able to publicise some hot issues, such as dam-building on rivers, poaching of Tibetan antelopes and illegal logging. In some cases, they even serve as watchdogs for government projects and policies.’

The Nujiang River project is a case in point. In 2003, several Chinese green groups, backed by China’s top environmental protection agency, organised an Internet campaign opposing a government plan to build 13 hydropower projects on the river, one of Asia’s last pristine rivers. Premier Wen Jiabao halted the project and ordered further studies early last year, citing ‘a high level of social concern’. The project is still being debated. Environmentalists hailed that as a small victory for NGOs and say the episode showed that ordinary citizens who care can make a difference.

But the fight is far from over. Striking a balance between economic growth and environmental protection will be tough. Said Mr Ma Jun: ‘Growing the economy and protecting the environment at the same time sounds like ‘mission impossible’. But we have to be optimistic as the flip side is total destruction, and that is not an option. ‘A lot of the environmental problems we have now are the result of bad decision-making. To make better decisions, we need more transparency. If people voice their concerns and call for openness, gradually, they will be heard.’

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