China and its controversial carbon appetite

China’s Environmental Challenges, by Judith Shapiro (China Today, RRP£14.99)

What does China want? Of all the large questions of our time, few are more compelling than those surrounding the rise of this economic superpower. Will the new generation of Chinese leaders, to be chosen later this year, harbour urges to overturn the US-led international order that has prevailed since the end of the second world war? Or is this a paranoid western delusion about a nation fixated on the extensive challenges it faces at home?

There is little consensus among military strategists and diplomats. And for anyone toiling in the less lofty fields of environmental policy, the debate about the Middle Kingdom’s ecological aims is just as perplexing.

In the space of a few short years, China has become the world’s biggest maker of solar panels and wind turbines. Its leaders have brought in a spate of pollution controls; shut down some of the filthiest coal plants; announced plans for pilot carbon markets, and spoken of building an “ecological civilisation” based on sustainable growth.

But does this amount to meaningful change? Or is China still at heart a growth-at-all-costs vandal, ready to choke its rivers with vast mega-projects and allow industrial pollution devastating enough to poison its water, food and air? The answer is complex – and far more relevant to the rest of us than widely thought.

Judith Shapiro, a US academic who was one of the first Americans to live in China after relations with the US were normalised in 1979, explains many of the reasons why in this concise and illuminating book.

For one thing, trying to clarify China’s environmental policy is as fraught as trying to establish such a thing in the US – a country capable of approving both Arctic oil drilling and some of the world’s toughest pollution rules.

There are bureaucrats in Beijing eager to tackle the environmental destruction that makes the air in the capital itself a menace. But they face rivals who see no reason why China should not follow the “pollute first; mitigate later” model on which industrialised nations built their wealth.

Here lies the central conundrum facing not just China but the world: morally, it is impossible to argue that the Chinese people should be denied the right to the economic prosperity long enjoyed by the developed world. Environmentally, however, it is impossible to say that they should, for this is a country whose ecological impact is spreading far beyond its borders. From climate change to Californian air quality, the influence of the world’s factory is immense.

That makes China vital to any effort to stop global temperatures rising by more than 2C from pre-industrial levels – the threshold scientists say should not be crossed if the world is to avoid potentially dangerous climate change.

And it is not just China’s carbon pollution that affects the rest of us. When Chinese dust storms are at their most violent, scientists say they blow contaminants as far as California and other western US states.

China’s appetite for everything from shark fins to tropical hardwoods and minerals has added to pressure on fish stocks, forests and African farmlands. Its hunger for coal and other fossil fuels spurs environmentally contentious exploration for such energy sources worldwide, from Canadian tar sands to Nigerian oilfields.

Still, no one has experienced the harsh impact of China’s industrial transformation more than the Chinese themselves. It has therefore become conventional wisdom to believe that change lies in the clout of a growing Chinese middle class, fed up with a government that cannot guarantee air safe enough to breathe or food clean enough to eat.

Recent events add weight to the idea. Twice last month, Chinese authorities axed contentious projects after mass protests – a copper plant in Shifang; an industrial waste pipeline in Qidong.

Prof Shapiro is rightly doubtful. As well as assuming that the Beijing government will be able to respond to such pressure in a country already struggling to enforce its environmental laws, the idea implies that battered natural resources will be capable of rehabilitation.

This may have been the case after the first industrial revolution. It requires a lot of optimism to believe it will definitely happen again.

The writer is the FT’s environment correspondent

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