Quick! Picture China’s biggest environmental problem.
I bet you saw in your mind the polluted skies of Beijing and its citizens wearing face masks as they go to work. The western news media have been filled with alarming stories of China’s poor air quality, especially in the north, where China relies more heavily on coal-fired power stations.
But a recent Toronto Star story entitled China Wakes Up to its Water Crisis gets to the heart of an even more serious problem: China has only 7% of the world’s fresh water, but 20% of its population. While electricity can, in the long run, be produced by more renewable means, water cannot be manufactured out of nowhere.
China’s massive population and its relative scarcity of natural resources magnifies the impact of China’s environmental problems. As the world marches towards a population of 10 billion people, the reality that Chinese people face today will soon become the reality faced by the most of the world. China is now beginning to export its pollution to neighbouring countries and even to Africa and Latin America, which, like the Canadian tar sands, are undergoing massive natural resource development in part to meet China’s demands.
Soon the grim environmental reality that China’s citizens face could be shared by the rest of the world.
But here’s the good news.
There is no debate in China as to whether climate change is real. While some American leaders act like King Canute watching the ever rising tides that will eventually submerge them, the Chinese are already preparing sustainable megacities, and the massive sustainable agriculture systems that will feed them over the coming century. All of the world’s leading architectural and engineering practices are undertaking revolutionary work in China on the sustainable design of buildings and cities, and the whole world will benefit from the massive experimentation that is currently taking place in China.
Since 2011, China’s environmental policies have been declared better than those of North America by Oxford University’s Smith School. While not as good as some countries, they are definitely moving in the right direction.
China has accepted that lower economic growth is the price worth paying for not destroying the planet, and in March this year China’s premier declared war on pollution just as China once declared war on poverty. It’s hard to imagine Western leaders declaring that their policy objective is to have lower economic growth than in previous years. The fact that this is occurring in a developing country makes this all the more remarkable.
China’s consumers are the second greenest out of seventeen countries measured in National Geographic’s Greendex. The report measures consumers’ attitudes towards recycling, eating vegetarian food, using public transport and other important lifestyle choices. Remarkably, Chinese consumers have become even more green as they have become rich. As the Greendex report highlights:
Chinese consumers’ Greendex score has consistently increased since 2008 despite rapid development in China. Consumers in the other emerging markets surveyed, including Brazil, Russia, and India, have not seen this upward trend in scores.
If this trend continues, it will be one of the most significant developments in consumer culture in the world.
Finally, China’s ancient cultural traditions, long neglected in the rush for modernization and development, have the capacity to underpin China’s postmodern engagement with a new and more sustainable form of civilization. While American Christians go to war on environmentalism, Chinese Confucians, Taoists and Buddhists have a long and complex history of recognizing the significance of the natural world for human wellbeing, as my new co-edited book on Religion and Ecological Sustainability in China demonstrates.
In the end, China will solve the world’s environmental problems, because it has to. While Canadians and Americans debate the reality of climate change, and wonder whether they can afford to invest in public transport infrastructure, Chinese people have no such luxury. Their investment in sustainability is already taking place. If it is successful, it will be a boon for the whole world.