- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2011

After two decades of nonstop development that devastated the environment in many areas, Chinese leaders now say they want to clean up and restore the nation’s fabled rivers and ancient lands.

To that end, Beijing’s latest economic program aims to establish a new generation of advanced-technology industries like medicine and social media that tend to pollute less than traditional industries like steel and autos.

China also is targeting green technology as a new area for development in industrialized cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Ningbo, both to address domestic pollution problems and to tap into the burgeoning export market for clean technologies in the West.

The new emphasis on the environment represents an about-face for a country where pollution is rampant and industrial cities often are rated among the dirtiest in the world by the World Bank.

“Everyone knows we’ve enjoyed rapid economic growth. But we’re paying a heavy price for that — pollution,” said Jia Xiudong, senior fellow at the Chinese Institute of International Studies, a Beijing-based think tank.

Chinese leaders appear to be several steps behind the citizenry, who in opinion polls have voiced grave concerns about the environment. In a survey by the Economist magazine last year, 54 percent of Chinese citizens cited air pollution as the thing they would like the change the most in their lives, and 53 percent cited it as one of their greatest concerns about the future.

“Decades of pell-mell growth has decimated China’s environment,” said Joe Quinlan, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund. He said the epidemic of water pollution has contributed to a shortage of clean tap water in two-thirds of China’s 660 cities.

“The lack of clean water and the deteriorating environment have become a social and political lightning rod, with the number of pollution-related protests rising steadily over the past decade,” he said.

Trailing the hype

Despite some hype in Western media that China already is gaining an edge in pollution-control technology, for the most part the environmental-cleanup business here is just getting off the ground.

Until recently, corporate executives say, enforcement of environmental laws was almost nonexistent, and the ability to dump untreated waste onto land and water as authorities looked the other way was seen as a drawing point for manufacturers.

But that approach left a legacy of rivers choked with filth, toxic dumps that threaten public health, and smog-laden air that hovers suffocatingly over cities and clouds the view.

China’s leaders are beginning to regret their reckless neglect of the environment during years of rapid development when their priority was to create millions of manufacturing jobs to stave off mass unemployment and poverty. Now, they appear to be selectively starting to enforce the environmental laws.

But as in so many other areas, Chinese leaders eschew what they describe as “expensive” environmental-control technology available for purchase from the West, and instead are encouraging less costly solutions made at home.

Home-grown solutions

The port city of Ningbo already is a major recycling center for paper and other waste products shipped in from the West. It is seeking to expand its franchise by cultivating other pollution-control industries.

One Ningbo company, Taiji, is offering a unique Chinese solution both to cut the haze of sulfur dioxide emissions spewing from coal-fired power plants and factories, and to tackle the legacy of toxic brownfields and industrial waste sites from China’s rapid industrialization.

Taiji takes a holistic approach that seeks to turn environmental problems into environmental solutions at a fraction of the cost of existing technologies. It has developed a recycling process for extracting the sulfur from factory emissions and incorporating it into usable products, including cement bricks for buildings.

Taiji also uses desulfurization byproducts to help neutralize and clean up toxic industrial waste sites and improve alkaline and saline soil, making more land available for agriculture. That’s an important selling point in a nation that barely has enough arable land to feed its huge population.

Much has been made of China’s forays into clean technologies such as solar power and wind power, with President Obama and environmental groups often warning that China is getting ahead of the U.S. in such areas.

“We’re letting our economic future slip away to other countries, such as China and Germany, which have now supplanted the United States as the world’s leaders in wind and solar energy,” said Bob Keefe of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To be sure, the Chinese countryside is dotted with wind farms to an extent not yet seen in the U.S., where political opposition has cropped up to windmills in some localities and where siting decisions can take years.

Eyeing exports

But analysts say China’s government has poured money into such clean technologies not only to answer international criticism, but also to clean up its own sullied environment.

China also is using every means available to fill the burgeoning demand for electricity around the nation, as well as add to its portfolio of exports to the West, where government mandates have raised demand for the cheap component parts for windmills and solar panels made in China.

“Less than 10 percent of solar panel production is for the internal market,” said Derek Scissors, analyst at the Heritage Foundation, who said the government has encouraged overproduction of windmills as well as solar energy parts because of the export potential.

With China on track to nearly double global capacity for solar panels, “far more in the way of exports is on the horizon,” he said. U.S. solar firms recently filed a complaint accusing China of dumping solar materials below cost on U.S. markets, in a case pending before the Commerce Department.

“If spending money is the solution to all problems, China will always seem to be leading,” Mr. Scissors said, because its state-directed economy excels at just the kind of government-supported technology incubator programs being espoused by the Obama administration and European leaders.

But for all its efforts and for all the glowing accounts by foreigners, China is still the world’s fastest-growing polluter and consumer of oil, and it remains overwhelmingly dependent on coal, the dirtiest fuel, for generating electricity.

About 80 percent of electricity in China comes from coal-fired plants, as compared with 45 percent in the U.S., with China’s voracious appetite for coal enriching exporters from Australia to West Virginia.

“The dominance of coal has a predictable impact on greenhouse-gas emissions,” Mr. Scissors said. “In 2006, Chinese and American emissions were roughly even. By 2009, Chinese emissions were over 50 percent larger, and the gap was growing quickly.”

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