Free-enterprise pollution is catching on everywhere! -American democracy is HOT!
(At least they won't starve; there's plenty of spit pea soup!)
19 March 2010: Science Magazine
News of the Week
2010 Budget:

China Amasses War Chest to Confront Its Environmental Nightmares
Hao Xin* and Richard Stone*

BEIJING—China's third-largest freshwater lake, Taihu, is a microcosm of what is going right—and wrong—in the world's economic dynamo. Buoyed by manufacturing, the two provinces surrounding the lake, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, are enjoying sizzling growth. And Taihu, which provides drinking water for more than 2 million people, sustains one of China's most important fisheries for crabs, carp, and eels. But it is ailing. Nutrient-rich sewage and industrial runoff have turned Taihu into a toxic soup and fueled vast algal blooms in recent summers.
   Taihu and other ecological wrecks are now squarely in the government's crosshairs. In a nod to rising public expectations, China's government work plan for 2010, rolled out last week at the country's two major annual political powwows, puts the environment front and center. At the National People's Congress (NPC), officials announced that science priorities include new energy sources, energy conservation, environmental protection, and marine technology. Plans call for $20.7 billion to be spent mostly on engineering solutions for environmental woes. New initiatives are planned in health and food safety as well (see sidebar).

Figure 1: Green GDP? China plans aggressive measures to clean up messes like Taihu Lake. -CREDIT: NEWSCOM

   Cleaning up China's Augean stables is critical to the new strategy. At NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), together known as Liang Hui, delegates outlined projects to transform cities and provinces into incubators of a "low-carbon economy." "We will work hard to develop low-carbon technologies, promote application of highly efficient, energy-conserving technologies, and develop new and renewable energies," Premier Wen Jiabao declared in a report to NPC.
   Some scientists hail this as a defining moment for China. "I'm optimistic that we can start to bring development and environmental protection into harmony," says Lu Yonglong, an environmental management professor at the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing.
   Public disaffection over China's myriad environmental ills is rising. One response, from the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), is a blueprint to clean up hot spots such as Taihu and other polluted sources for the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. This $75 billion plan would redirect water to the arid and heavily populated northeast. Meanwhile, 30 CPPCC proposals promote sustainable development of Poyang, China's largest freshwater lake (Science, 23 October 2009, p. 508). Unlike Taihu, Poyang is fairly clean and offers a testing ground for water-protection measures that are "win-win for ecology and economy," NPC Vice Chair Hua Jianmin said on the eve of Liang Hui.
   In addition, as part of an effort to "comprehensively improve the rural environment," NDRC said it would bring under control soil erosion on the Loess Plateau northwest of Beijing and protect the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau's fragile ecology. Toward those ends, Wen vowed in 2010 to "accelerate afforestation, increase forest carbon sinks, and expand our forests by at least 5.92 million hectares." Tree planting last year hit a target set by the State Forestry Administration to have one- fifth of China's land area forested by 2010, up from 18.2% in 2006. Another program aims to improve "ecological zones around the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow, and Lancang rivers."
   A more slippery subject is China's aspirations for a "low-carbon economy." That expression came up over and over in CPPCC meeting sessions and in proposals to the central government. "Low carbon is a hot topic nowadays," says Chen Junwu, a chemist with China Petrochemical Corp. in Louyang. What those buzzwords mean is another question. "There is a lot of talk but not many specifics," Chen says. [Figure 2 omitted]
   At Liang Hui, low carbon appeared to encompass any activity that reduces energy intensity, or the amount of energy consumed per unit of gross domestic product (GDP). In the run-up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit, China pledged that by 2020 it would reduce energy intensity 40% to 45% from 2005 levels. Meeting that goal will be a stretch. At an NPC news conference on 10 March, NDRC Deputy Director Xie Zhenhua noted that efforts to meet a previous goal cut energy intensity 14.38% from 2006 to 2009. But an analysis of GDP growth rates published by China's State Bureau of Statistics and total energy consumption data pegs the decrease at 8.2%, says Chen. The discrepancy may lie in how China's GDP is tallied. Several Liang Hui delegates questioned why the sum of provincial GDPs has been higher than the national GDP for years; in 2009, the difference was more than 8%.
   No matter the precise figure, "increasing energy efficiency by such a large amount is not technically feasible," asserts He Zuoxiu, a physicist at CAS's Institute of Theoretical Physics in Beijing. Much of China's efficiency savings so far have come from shuttering energy-chugging, high-polluting factories. But China is running out of such soft targets, He says.
   Further gains could be achieved by moving from a manufacturing-driven to a service-driven economy, as developed nations have done. But the structure of China's economy has shifted little in recent years. A more promising approach could be to slash fossil fuel consumption and increase renewable and nuclear energy use. President Hu Jintao has said China would strive to increase nonfossil fuel use to about 15% of total energy consumption by 2020. (It now stands at about 8%.)
   Moving to a low-carbon economy and stemming pollution are immense challenges—and Taihu sums up the complexities. Lu's team recently completed a study for China's National Audit Office of the effectiveness of past cleanup efforts. Although municipalities have made strides in clamping down on industrial effluents into the lake, they have largely failed to tackle pollutants from homes and small businesses. Each province expects the other to take the lead. "It's a tragedy of the commons," says Lu, president of the International Council for Science's Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment. "There's a long way to go."
   To speed up progress, Lu advocates installing real-time monitoring systems to identify "who is doing the polluting." A second idea is for the central government to appoint directors of provincial environmental offices; too many these days are beholden to local interests, including the paramount interest of raising GDP at any cost. "The central government needs to make such reforms," Lu says. He and others believe the time for action has finally arrived.
* With reporting by Li Jiao.

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