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Environment pays price of progress

By Joe Havely for CNN

Poor water quality is a problem for a majority of China's population.
Beijing (China)
World Bank
Shanghai (China)

(CNN) -- A snapshot of China's environmental situation paints a bleak picture.

Look out the window of an office block in downtown Shanghai, and the smog can sometimes be so thick it is hard to make out the building on the other side of the street.

Around the capital, Beijing, the desert is gradually encroaching and sandstorms are becoming a growing problem.

And in China's heartland, the Yellow River, once known as the cradle of Chinese civilization, has in some areas been reduced to barely a trickle.

Sheri Liao, of pressure group Global Village Beijing, describes China's environmental record in one word: "terrible".

There is, she says, an urgent need to change the direction of China's development and focus on more sustainable growth.

China's economic growth over the past quarter century has been stunning. But it has come at a heavy cost to its environment.

"Awareness of environmental issues is rising," says Liao. "But China's economy is growing much too fast and popular consciousness of the environment is still a long way behind."

Too much emphasis is placed on development as a good thing, she says, without regard to the wider costs.

While there have been positive moves, such as the conversion of buses and taxis to less polluting LPG gas, Liao says the pace of development on other fronts has more than wiped out any benefits.

It is, perhaps, a universal problem -- balancing the imperatives of growth and the drive to improve standards of living with the need to preserve and manage the environment for the health and benefit of future generations.

In China's case though, representing a fifth of humanity, the challenge is huge, the scale of the problem unprecedented, and the health impact is already being felt.

In large part, the devastation of large swathes of China's environment derives from the Maoist view of nature as a force to be beaten into submission, conquered and molded to the will of man.

There are also questions of inefficient and wasteful use of scarce resources.

According to the Chinese government's own figures, for example, the energy consumed to produce one unit of China's gross domestic product (GDP) is almost two and a half times the world average.

In terms of sulphur dioxide emissions -- a major atmospheric pollutant -- China's output per unit of GDP is nearly 70 times that of Japan and 60 times that of the United States.

Much of that is due to the fact that China generates more than 70 percent of its energy needs from burning coal.

The results are widespread: According to the World Bank, China today is home to seven of the world's 10 most polluted cities.

Every year, the World Bank estimates, air pollution alone costs the Chinese economy $25 billion in health care costs and lost working hours.

According to the United Nations Development Program, the main supply of drinking water to some 980 million Chinese is at least partially polluted.

The damage to China's environment is so great that it is weighing on economic growth.

"It's estimated that between eight and 10 percent of China's GDP is offset by environmental damage," says Professor Gerald Fryxell, a specialist in environmental management at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.

Other estimates go even further, arguing that much of the growth China's economy has seen over the past quarter century has effectively been cancelled out by the heavy cost to the environment and uncontrolled waste of resources.

One of the ironies, says Fryxell, is that China has some of the best and most wide-ranging environmental legislation in the developing world.

In 2003, for example, the central government passed a law requiring all major construction projects to pass an environmental impact assessment process.

Among the law's biggest backers was Pan Yue -- the deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration and a man regarded as one of the most outspoken members of the central government.

It was Pan who warned officials last year that the strain on China's environment had reached "breaking point." Without action, he said, development would soon grind to a halt.

"There are a lot of good laws," agrees Sheri Liao, of pressure group Global Village. "The problem we have is lack of enforcement."

Without enforcement, polluters have no incentive to play by the rules -- and in China, the worst environmental offenders are often those who would also be the enforcers.

Professor Fryxell says the root of the enforcement problem is China's complex administrative structure and its fragmented bureaucracy.

While there is strong emphasis on environmental protection and sustainability from the central government, he says, "at the local level there's intense pressure on officials to preserve jobs and generate growth."

At the same time, the threat exists that clamping down on polluting industries will only result in those same industries relocating to another district ruled by more amenable officials.

According to Fryxell, one of the most significant and positive developments of recent years has been the emergence of local non-governmental organizations.

"NGOs have always made the Chinese government very nervous," he says. "But now they're being allowed to emerge and speak out around local environmental issues."

Environmental concerns also are being given greater coverage in state media -- with local and national newspapers officially encouraged to name and shame the country's worst polluters.

In part that is because of a growing government awareness that China simply cannot keep going the way it is.

And in part it's because China's environment will soon be in the global spotlight, when Beijing hosts what officials have proudly proclaimed to be the "Green Olympics".

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