November 2013

China – on the road to become a model country of environmental protection?

I think that nearly all of us think China to be one of the worst environment polluting countries in the world. This is probably even partly true. Instead, it is a misconception that the Chinese do not take environmental problems seriously. The reasons behind the changed attitudes and the changed environmental policy are clear: productivity suffers if the preconditions are endangered. Air and water pollution cause people to suffer from environmentally derived diseases, food safety is at risk, people are demonstrating, the availability of raw material is threatened and so on.

China has to react to the rapidly growing environmental threats and it has to be proactive towards new possible threats of the future. Massive changes have to be done because e.g. the air quality of the smog over Beijing repeatedly substantially exceeds the limit values. Therefore, Beijing has already cut down the use of coal, started to limit traffic and moved heavy industry away from the city. The change has also begun in other big and wealthy cities.

On the local level, citizens are being heard more and more regarding the environmental issues. I had a possibility to familiarize myself with a so called Jianxing model which is being tried out in Zhejiang Province. Different methods of involving different interest groups as well as citizens in environmental protection and planning as well as in decision making on the local level are tried out in this model. It has involved developing citizen forums and discussions, increasing briefing and finding new forms of corporate responsibilities regarding environmental issues. Some of the solutions are interesting from the Finnish point of view. What would it feel like to be a part of an inspection group consisting of citizens – an inspections group which is free to go and inspect any company´s environmental activities and issue sanctions if faults or shortcomings are detected? A company may lose its operating license, it can be forced to move location or it can be forced to issue a public apology.

Cultural characteristics cause different kinds of challenges on the environment. Chinese families and restaurants – both of which exist in great magnitude – use a considerable amount of coal and vegetable oil when cooking. Traffic is also a major air polluter. One very interesting phenomena is the electrification of mopeds and scooters. During 5 days in Hangzhou (with approximately 8,5 million inhabitants), I saw one moped/scooter running on combustion engine and literally thousands running on electricity. Another question entirely is what source of energy has been used to produce electricity, but regarding the quality of city air, the mopeds and scooters running on electricity are definitely a good solution, especially with the ongoing development of the battery technology.

When giving a lecture a short while ago, I was asked which country or region will be a forerunner in realizing an efficient environmental policy in the future. A couple of years ago I would have replied “The European Union and the Nordic countries” without hesitation, but now I’m willing to bet, what little money I have, on China.

Despite everything: Happy rest of 2013!

Juha Kaskinen
14 November 2013