"Were Canada to eliminate all of its GHG emissions, China's increases would replace them - every last ounce - in 18 months. Were Canada to eliminate 10 per cent of its emissions, China's increases would replace them all in 60 days. As noble as self-sacrifice can occasionally be, it must have - somewhere - a rational purpose."
Who needs Kyoto while China pollutes?
2007 Telegraph-Journal (New Brunswick): 22 Feb 2007 - China pollutes deliberately, strategically. The World Health Organization says that seven of the 10 most polluted big cities in the world are in China.
Beijing's ambient air holds 360 micrograms of particulate pollutants per cubic metre - compared with zero readings (for all practical purposes) in London and Los Angeles. Two-thirds of China's 350 biggest cities pump sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere in vast quantities in routine violation of China's clean-air laws. (The Americans have tracked these mobile pollutants 16,000 kilometres away, at the Donner Summit near Lake Tahoe, as they pass by.) China's biggest lakes are all seriously polluted. So vast are the diversions of water from it, the Yellow River runs dry every year, failing to reach the ocean in one instance (1997) for 226 days.
China's own environmental protection agency reported last year that pollution costs the country 10 per cent of its US$2.2 trillion economy - $200 billion a year. The World Bank has gone further, calculating the cost of the premature deaths of thousands of Chinese killed each year by pollution. Economic losses from pollution-induced mortality and morbidity, the bank found, equals as much as three per cent of China's gross dometic product - $60 billion a year. By contrast, the country spends roughly one per cent of its GDP to fix environmental messes which, according once again to China's EPA, have multiplied - on average - by 250 significant environmental "accidents" a year for the last decade.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are another thing altogether. China reportedly builds a coal-fired power plant every week, and expects to maintain this pace for years. Few of these plants are equipped with pollution-control technology. Not that it matters. Writing last year in Foreign Affairs magazine on the limitations of the Kyoto Protocol, U.S. environmental bureaucrat Ruth Greenspan Bell says that pollution-cutting technology often goes unused in China - even when provided to the country free. "Evidence from China demonstrates," she writes, "that plants equipped with superior pollution equipment do not run these controls when doing so proves inconvenient." When might it prove inconvenient? Whenever, Ms Bell suggests, no one is watching.
Ms Bell held management positions in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 20 years and is now a resident scholar with Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank. She supports reductions in GHG emissions but warns people not to expect too much from Kyoto. "There are 900 environmental treaties on the books," she observes. "Unfortunately, few have achieved any reduction in pollution." This cautionary note reflects the judgment of another Kyoto scepto-enthusiast, British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "The truth is that no country is going to cut its growth or consumption [to deal with] a long-term environmental problem." Ms Bell says this impediment will be even greater in China than elsewhere - because the government owns or controls so many industries that environment enforcers find themselves working "with hopelessly divided allegiances." These enforcers, she says, have no capacity for independent regulatory action.
Implicit in these observations is the fact that environmental advances occur when rich countries, acting unilaterally and independently, invest large amounts of money, privately and publicly, either to preserve environmental legacies or to restore them. China will turn environmentalist, too - someday.
Economists have calculated that countries begin to clamp down on sulfur dioxide when per-capita GDP reaches $9,000 a year, on particulate pollution when per-capita GDP reaches $15,000 a year - a variation on the "Kuznets Curve" which holds that you have to get dirty before you get rich and you have to get rich before you get clean. China will get much dirtier. Its per-capita GDP reached $1,000 last year.
The producer of 18 per cent of the world's GHG emissions, China is gaining fast on Europe (22 per cent) and the United States (21 per cent). The International Energy Agency says that China will expand GHG emissions by 120 per cent in the next 20 years, averaging six per cent a year, far surpassing Europe and the U.S.
For a small-population country such as Canada, with two per cent of global emissions, the awkward question that compels awkward answers is this: Why bother with Kyoto? What difference will it make?
Canada produces 160 million tons a year of the world's eight billions tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Were Canada to eliminate all of its GHG emissions, China's increases would replace them - every last ounce - in 18 months. Were Canada to eliminate 10 per cent of its emissions, China's increases would replace them all in 60 days. As noble as self-sacrifice can occasionally be, it must have - somewhere - a rational purpose.
Neil Reynolds, a former editor