Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Boycott China

The emergence of China as a dominant economic power is an epochal event, as significant as the United States' ascendancy after World War II. It is in many ways an astonishment, starting with the ideological about-face that enabled it, the throwing over of Maoist values for plainly capitalist ones starting in the late 1970s. So thorough is the change that the 19-foot-tall portrait of a stolid, potato-faced Mao Zedong that still looms over traffic-choked, commerce-suffused Tiananmen Square looks paradoxical, even startling, in seeming need of an update in which Mao winks—or sobs—in blinking neon. Meanwhile, inside Beijing's Forbidden City, the heart of old China, buildings with such intoxicating names as Hall of Preserved Harmony and Palace of Heavenly Purity bear signs reading, "Made Possible by the American Express Company."

The grander astonishment is the most massive and rapid redistribution of the earth's resources in human history. In a mere two and a half decades, China has awakened from Maoist stagnancy to become the world's manufacturer. Among the planet's 193 nations, it is now first in production of coal, steel, cement, and 10 kinds of metal; it produces half the world's cameras and nearly a third of its TVs, and by 2015 may produce the most cars. It boasts factories that can accommodate 200,000 workers, and towns that make 60 percent of the world's buttons, half the world's silk neckties, and half the world's fireworks, respectively.

China has also become a ravenous consumer. Its appetite for raw materials drives up international commodity prices and shipping rates while its middle class, projected to jump from fewer than 100 million people now to 700 million by 2020, is learning the gratifications of consumerism. China is by a wide margin the leading importer of a cornucopia of commodities, including iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel. It is the world's biggest consumer of coal, refrigerators, grain, cell phones, fertilizer, and television sets. It not only leads the world in coal consumption, with 2.5 billion tons in 2006, but uses more than the next three highest-ranked nations—the United States, Russia, and India—combined. China uses half the world's steel and concrete and will probably construct half the world's new buildings over the next decade. So omnivorous is the Chinese appetite for imports that when the country ran short of scrap metal in early 2004, manhole covers disappeared from cities all over the world—Chicago lost 150 in a month. And the Chinese are not just vast consumers, but conspicuous ones, as evidenced by the presence in Beijing of dealers representing every luxury-car manufacturer in the world. Sales of Porsches, Ferraris, and Maseratis have flourished, even though their owners have no opportunity to test their finely tuned cars' performance on the city's clotted roads.

The catch is that China has become not just the world's manufacturer but also its despoiler, on a scale as monumental as its economic expansion. Chinese ecosystems were already dreadfully compromised before the Communist Party took power in 1949, but Mao managed to accelerate their destruction. With one stroke he launched the "backyard furnace" campaign, in which some 90 million peasants became grassroots steel smelters; to fuel the furnaces, villagers cut down a 10th of China's trees in a few months. The steel ultimately proved unusable. With another stroke, Mao perpetrated the "Kill the Four Pests" campaign, inducing the mass slaughter of millions of sparrows and a subsequent explosion in the locust population. The destruction of forests led to erosion and the spread of deserts, and the locust resurgence prompted a collapse of the nation's grain crop. The result was history's greatest famine, in which 30 to 50 million Chinese died.

Yet the Mao era's ecological devastation pales next to that of China's current industrialization. A fourth of the country is now desert. More than three-fourths of its forests have disappeared. Acid rain falls on a third of China's landmass, tainting soil, water, and food. Excessive use of groundwater has caused land to sink in at least 96 Chinese cities, producing an estimated $12.9 billion in economic losses in Shanghai alone. Each year, uncontrollable underground fires, sometimes triggered by lightning and mining accidents, consume 200 million tons of coal, contributing massively to global warming. A miasma of lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other elements of coal-burning and car exhaust hovers over most Chinese cities; of the world's 20 most polluted cities, 16 are Chinese.

The government estimates that 400,000 people die prematurely from respiratory illnesses each year, and health care costs for premature death and disability related to air pollution is estimated at up to 4 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Four-fifths of the length of China's rivers are too polluted for fish. Half the population—600 or 700 million people—drinks water contaminated with animal and human waste. Into Asia's longest river, the Yangtze, the nation annually dumps a billion tons of untreated sewage; some scientists fear the river will die within a few years. Drained by cities and factories all over northern China, the Yellow River, whose cataclysmic floods earned it a reputation as the world's most dangerous natural feature, now flows to its mouth feebly, if at all. China generates a third of the world's garbage, most of which goes untreated. Meanwhile, roughly 70 percent of the world's discarded computers and electronic equipment ends up in China, where it is scavenged for usable parts and then abandoned, polluting soil and groundwater with toxic metals.

Though government-run and heavily censored, the English-language China Daily has reported that pollution problems caused 50,000 disputes and protests throughout China in 2005. (See "The People's Revolution".) If unchecked, the devastation will not just put an abrupt end to China's economic growth, but, in concert with other environmentally heedless nations (in particular, the United States, India, and Brazil), will cause mortal havoc in societies and ecosystems throughout the world.

The process is already under way. During the Mao era, the People's Liberation Army ritualistically fired shells at the Taiwan-controlled island of Quemoy; now, the mainland spews garbage that floats across the mile-and-a-quarter-wide channel and washes up on Quemoy's beaches at the rate of 800 metric tons a year. Acid rain caused by China's sulfur-dioxide emissions severely damages forests and watersheds in Korea and Japan and impairs air quality in the United States. Every major river system flowing out of China is threatened with one sort of cataclysm or another, including pollution (Amur), damming (Mekong, Salween), diverting (Brahmaputra), and melting of the glacial source (Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra). The surge in untreated waste and agricultural runoff pouring into the Yellow and China Seas has caused frequent fish die-offs and red-tide outbreaks, and overfishing is endangering many ocean species. The growing Chinese taste for furs and exotic foods and pets is devastating neighboring countries' populations of gazelles, marmots, foxes, wolves, snow leopards, ibexes, turtles, snakes, egrets, and parrots, while its appetite for shark fin soup is causing drastic declines in shark populations throughout the oceans; according to a study published in Science in March 2007, the absence of the oceans' top predators is causing a resurgence of skates and rays, which are in turn destroying scallop fisheries along America's Eastern Seaboard. China's new predilection for sushi is even pricing Japan out of the market for bluefin tuna. Enthusiasm for traditional Chinese medicine, including its alleged aphrodisiacs, is causing huge declines in populations of hundreds of animals hunted for their organs—including tigers, pangolins, musk deer, sea horses, and sea dragons. Seeking oil, timber, gold, copper, cobalt, uranium, and other natural resources, China is building massive roads, bridges, and dams throughout Africa, often disregarding international environmental and social standards. Finally, China overtook the United States as the world's leading emitter of CO2 in 2006, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

All this is common knowledge among the scholars and activists who follow Chinese environmental trends. The news, however, has not yet shaken China out of its money-induced euphoria. One indication is that China's 10 percent growth rate takes no account of the environmental devastation the boom has caused. In June 2006, an official at China's State Council said environmental damage (everything from crop loss to health care costs) was costing 10 percent of its gross domestic product—in other words, all of the economy's celebrated growth. Vaclav Smil, a highly respected China scholar at the University of Manitoba, pegs the environmental-damage rate at between 5 and 15 percent, with 7 percent a "solid, defensible figure." Smil says that shorn of hype, China's growth rate is also likely 7 percent, "so basically every year environmental damage wipes out the gdp growth."


No sector better illustrates the vast reach and explosive impacts of China's manufacturing dominance than logging. At one end are the consumers in the United States, Europe, Japan, and China itself, who are mostly oblivious to the social and environmental destruction left by the Chinese-made furniture, plywood, moldings, and flooring they buy.

At the other end are the wood suppliers, almost all poor countries with weak or corrupt law enforcement and a flourishing trade in illegal lumber. Among China's leading wood importers, Thailand and the Philippines have already been stripped of their natural forests; Indonesia and Burma are projected to lose theirs within a decade. Papua New Guinea's will succumb within 16 years, and the vast forests of the Russian Far East will survive no more than two decades. Even so, Forest Trends, a Washington-based nonprofit, estimates that China's wood imports will probably double over the next decade. Chinese manufacturers are already developing replacement sources in Africa, and South America's forests are under threat for a different reason: China's growing consumption of pork and chicken is fed by soybeans grown on newly cleared Amazonian land; by one estimate, 30 percent of the jungle could eventually be transformed into soybean fields.

In the middle is China, the world's workshop, now both the planet's leading wood importer and exporter, supplying more than 30 percent of the international furniture trade. Hundreds of sawmills line China's northeastern border to process softwood logs harvested in Russia, while a port north of Shanghai called Zhangjiagang, described by the British watchdog group Environmental Investigation Agency as "a sleepy backwater" in 2000, grew to become "probably the largest trading centre for tropical logs in the world" by 2005—by then, at least half a billion dollars in wood passed through it annually, according to Chinese customs figures. From the port, many of the logs are transported two hours by road to the town of Nanxun, another former hinterland that the eia calls "the wood flooring centre of the world," with more than 500 flooring factories.

Until 1998, China fed its wood mills trees from its own forests. That year, the middle reaches of the Yangtze River swelled with the region's biggest flood in more than 50 years, killing 3,000 people, destroying 5 million homes, and engulfing 52 million acres of land. As winter approached months later, 14 million were still homeless. The land, it turned out, had no defense against erosion left. Lakes and wetlands that once would have absorbed some of the rain had been drained to create farmland, and the forests that once held topsoil in place had been harvested. Torrential rainwater carried the topsoil to the river and then down it, until its bed swelled with new sediment and the floodwater rose above its banks. As a result, China declared a logging ban on what little remained of its old-growth forests. Most environmentalists applauded the ban until they grasped its corollary: Chinese companies began harvesting other countries' trees on an even grander scale.

Most of the world's remaining natural forests are formally protected by law and regulation, but enforcement is generally corrupt and ineffectual. Thus, the planet's deforestation problem is largely one of illicit logging, and China is the world's leading importer of illegally logged wood. Chinese wood purchases have also helped finance armed conflicts conducted by such international pariahs as Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, Burma's military government, and the now-deposed regime of Liberia's Charles Taylor. "China is the number one buyer of timber from many of the countries most affected by the scourge of illegal logging," the eia reported in 2005. The largest supplier of timber to China is Russia, where an estimated half of all logging is illegal. In Siberia, pine forests are largely protected unless damaged by fire, so loggers intent on exporting wood to China routinely set the woods ablaze.

In Indonesia, the rate of illegal logging has sometimes reached as high as 80 percent. From there, logging syndicates plied what the eia calls "perhaps the largest and most destructive single trade route of stolen timber in the world," from the forests of Indonesia's Papua Province (which comprises most of the eastern half of New Guinea), often through Malaysia, where export documents are forged, to wood factories on China's southern and central coast. It's indicative of the injustice perpetrated by illegal logging that when prized tropical hardwood trees called merbau were cut down in Papua in 2004, locals were paid $11 per cubic meter; when the logs reached China, their value increased to $240 per cubic meter; by the time they arrived in the United States or Europe as flooring, they brought $2,288 per cubic meter. Most of the profit falls to high-living timber barons running smuggling syndicates out of Jakarta, Singapore, and Hong Kong. They receive support from Indonesian military and police officials who often invest in smuggling operations themselves or, if not, are bribed to facilitate them.

In addition to its many other devastating effects—species extinction, the spread of disease and poverty—deforestation dramatically speeds up climate change. Not only do cut trees no longer absorb carbon, but they release (either slowly, or, in the case of Siberian fires, rapidly) the carbon they'd sequestered. Thus, deforestation accounts for 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions—a rate higher than the global transportation sector's, pegged at 14 percent. The staggering rate of deforestation in poor, nonindustrial Indonesia places the country third among the world's emitters, after the United States and China.

While Indonesia and the other supplier countries endure the effects of deforestation, the countries that benefit from it behave as if the problem is not of their making. Thus China has signed both multilateral and bilateral commitments to halt imports of illegal wood but failed to enforce them. And George W. Bush's "President's Initiative Against Illegal Logging," announced to much fanfare in July 2003, doesn't even propose to ban American imports of illegally cut wood, but rather focuses on helping supplier countries combat illegal harvesting.

An end to American and European purchases of products made from illegally cut wood—still retailed by such companies as Ikea, Home Depot, and Armstrong (see "Timber Line")—would certainly reduce the destruction of tropical forests, as half the tropical wood that enters China is reexported as finished products. Even so, about 90 percent of all Chinese-manufactured wood products are consumed within China. This is alarming, for per-capita consumption of wood products is still far below that in developed countries, and is likely to grow as the middle class expands. China's per-capita consumption of paper, for example, is now only an eighth of the United States'; if it reaches the American rate, pulp suppliers will have to double the world's current annual timber harvest. As Greenpeace argues in a 2006 report titled "Sharing the Blame," "The world's forests cannot support either the level of consumption of developed countries, or the aspiration of developing countries to attain a similar level."


Half a century ago, the world was much less dusty. Dust, after all, is nothing more than fine particles of soil, in contrast to larger particles known as sand. Many deserts are basins filled with dust and sand held in place by a protective crust of mosses, lichens, and soil bacteria. But modern civilization has exposed the fragility of these crusts as the human population has pushed impoverished migrants and profiteers onto marginal land. As the deserts deteriorate, they expand: Overgrazing of cattle, sheep, and goats causes grasslands to collapse, baring the underlying dust and sand to the mercy of wind. Sand is too heavy to travel more than a few miles, but dust can fly farther than many birds. If a storm system sucks it upward into the troposphere a few miles above the earth, it reaches a conveyor belt of powerful currents that can carry it across oceans and continents.

China now rivals North Africa as the world's leading producer of border-crossing dust. It has always been generously endowed with deserts—including the Gobi, Asia's largest (which China shares with Mongolia), and the forbidding Taklimakan, the world's largest sand dune desert—which cover more than a fourth of Chinese territory. Until recently, when programs to combat desertification began to make some progress, it lost a Rhode Island-sized parcel of land to desert each year.

Dust storms that now debilitate Beijing appear in records from as long ago as the 1200s, but they occurred less than once a year on average then; today they come at least 20 times a year. At their worst, the storms drape Beijing in a yellowish cloak that blots out the sun, shuts down air and road traffic, clogs machinery, and makes seeing across the street nearly impossible. Each year, they blow a million tons of dust through Beijing and several tens of millions of tons as far as the western Pacific Ocean, 7,000 miles away. Dust particles are so small—at most a seventh of the diameter of a human hair—that human lungs are defenseless against them. Frequent inhalation can cause coughing, painful breathing, bronchitis, asthma, permanently decreased lung function, and premature death.

Dust storms also set off ripples of harm. "When dust blows, what you are seeing are nutrients leaving a system—the ability of the soil to support agricultural crops is leaving," says Jayne Belnap, a research ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey. "So you're setting up a dynamic that causes people to starve or to add more fertilizer to their soil. If they add more fertilizer, then the water becomes eutrophic, and it flows into the ocean and screws that up. It's just this huge hunk of 'uh-oh' on a massive scale. And every time we have an 'uh-oh' in a country, it doesn't matter where, it comes back and hits us."

That became clear in April 2001, when a satellite photograph showed a vast, perfectly coiled cyclonic spiral of white clouds intertwined with brown dust plumes centered over Inner Mongolia. Joseph Prospero, a leading atmospheric researcher at the University of Miami, called it "the most remarkable dust-storm image that I have ever seen." Visibility soon dropped close to zero in Beijing and driving was nearly impossible. Satellites tracked the dust as it moved across eastern China, the Yellow Sea, Korea, the Russian coast from Vladivostok to the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Sea of Japan, and Japan itself. In less than a week, it crossed the Pacific Ocean, and produced thick haze as far east as Denver. High concentrations of dust were found as far away as Maine and Georgia and eventually in the Canary Islands off northwest Africa. Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington-Bothell, calculated that only a 20th of the storm's dust reached the United States, but that amount, 50,000 metric tons, was two and a half times as much as all U.S. sources typically produce in a day.

For all that, dust storms are merely the most dramatic example of an array of pollutants that Asian winds deliver to other countries. In 2003, Siberian forest fires covered 73,000 square miles, an area larger than North Dakota, and sent up a smoke plume that drove ozone levels above epa limits in Seattle, 5,000 miles away. The fires are assumed to be the work of arsonists intent on supplying Chinese sawmills with logs. A year later, clouds from Asia carried enough industrial pollutants across the Pacific to produce a sudden spike in measurements of mercury, ozone, and carbon monoxide at a monitoring station at Mt. Bachelor, Oregon. Analysis of the pollutants revealed a chemical signature with what Jaffe calls "a very robust China fingerprint."

Not all Chinese pollution that crosses the Pacific is borne in huge storms. Using high-elevation monitors set up at three California sites, Steven Cliff, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California-Davis, has detected what he calls a "persistent Asian plume"—pollutant-laden air that crosses the Pacific on a nearly continuous basis. To be sure, it's a fraction of what is emitted within California's borders, and most of it continues wafting across North America, falling to earth bit by bit. Nevertheless, at Cliff's mountain sites, particulate matter from Asia accounts for 4 to 6 micrograms per cubic meter of air—already approaching half of California's annual average pollution limit of 12 micrograms. "The problem is going to be that the ability to emit any sort of pollution from any industry here in California will be reduced because of federal regulations," Cliff said. "There could be a day when essentially the entire regulatory limit is met" by Asian pollution.

The largest source of that pollution is the billion tons of coal China burns per year, more than virtually all the world's developed nations combined. The International Energy Agency reported in November 2006 that global coal consumption had increased as much in the previous 3 years as in the 23 before that, and that China was responsible for 90 percent of the increase. It operates more than 2,000 coal-fired power plants and puts a new one into operation every four to seven days. Few possess scrubbers that could limit emissions, and those that do tend not to use them, since scrubbers drive up the plants' energy and maintenance costs. China's central government has issued some fairly strict regulations to limit plant emissions, but they are rarely enforced because of corruption and the reluctance of local officials to confront job-generating power companies. Those companies called upon to meet the regulations usually opt for paying an annual $500,000 fee instead. The plants provide 80 percent of China's energy, at the price of emissions devastating to both China and the rest of the world.

Start with sulfur dioxide, "China's number one pollution problem," according to Barbara Finamore, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's China program. Sulfur dioxide causes respiratory illness, aggravates asthma and heart disease, and turns soil, lakes, streams, and oceans acidic. It is the key ingredient in the premature deaths of more than 400,000 Chinese each year from air pollution and has led to the outbreak among Chinese in their 30s of chronic lung diseases usually associated with old people. By 2005, China's sulfur-dioxide emissions were nearly double those of the United States—and they are estimated to have grown by 14 percent since. As a result, acid rain now plagues a third of China, much of Japan and Korea, and even the Pacific Ocean.

Coal has also made China the world's leading producer of human-caused mercury emissions, accounting for 30 percent of the global total and rising. A 2004 peer-reviewed study found that up to 36 percent of man-made mercury emissions settling on America originated in Asia. Mercury impairs neurological development in fetuses, infants, and children, and is highly toxic.

Another coal-derived pollutant, nitrogen oxide, combines with sunlight to produce ozone, whose inhalation induces coughing, wheezing, chest pain, and airway inflammation. Thanks to coal and cars, China's nitrogen-oxide emissions have climbed 48 percent in five years. Add the nitrogen oxide from the Siberian arson fires, and the result is a toxic brew powerful enough to raise ozone levels along the U.S. West Coast more or less continuously.

Even so, the most insidious product of China's coal consumption is carbon dioxide, which, along with CO2 generated by the rest of the world, is destroying China's ecosystems: Already-arid northern China is drying out, the wet south is seeing more and more deluges and floods, and the Himalayan glaciers that feed China's major rivers are melting; according to a June 2007 Greenpeace report, 80 percent could disappear by 2035. Such a development would jeopardize hundreds of millions of people who depend on the rivers for subsistence and livelihood.

Nevertheless, China has steadily maintained that the developed countries bear primary responsibility for global warming and must be the first to counter it. The argument has some merit: After all, the United States alone is responsible for a quarter of the man-made greenhouse gases pumped into the earth's atmosphere over time, while China's cumulative contribution is still less than a third as much. And even today, China's per-capita carbon dioxide emissions are less than a fifth of America's. Yet China's refusal to curb emissions could single-handedly wipe out reductions made elsewhere, crippling the international effort.


Nothing mentioned so far—not even China's supplanting the United States as the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluter—should make Americans feel smug, for what the Chinese are chiefly guilty of is emulating the American economic model. From the 1980s on, Chinese policymakers went on foreign-study missions to figure out how developed countries fostered economic growth. As Doug Ogden, former director of the Energy Foundation's China Sustainable Energy Program, puts it, "It's not surprising that the lessons the Chinese drew from their international experiences are often based on sprawl development and private automobile ownership and highly energy-consumptive practices," since the economies they studied all possess those features.

One of the Chinese officials' most fateful choices was to promote the automobile industry as a pillar of China's economy. The decision must have seemed obvious. After all, cars are the foundations of the American, Japanese, and South Korean economies, generating jobs and economic activity. To bolster a domestic industry, Chinese officials imposed quotas and high tariffs on imported vehicles and encouraged consumers to buy cars. The quotas succeeded all too well. China's car industry is already the world's third largest, but many of its cities are paralyzed by traffic, the inhabitants are choking on the fumes, and China's foreign policy increasingly revolves around courting outcast nations such as Sudan to obtain oil at premium prices. From an international perspective, the potential impact on climate change is worst of all. Motor vehicles now account for no more than 3 or 4 percent of China's greenhouse gas emissions, but the industry is still nascent. According to one projection, the number of cars on Chinese roads will grow from 33 million to 130 million over the next 12 years.

The only thing likely to slow this explosive growth is the increasing scarcity of the resources needed to make and fuel cars. As numerous commentators have pointed out, if China's income per capita, now less than a 10th of the United States', ever reached the American level, several Earths would be required to provide resources. "Through all of our engagement with China, the U.S. government has aggressively promoted China's adoption of an American-style, high-consumption, high-waste economic model," says Jim Harkness, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and former executive director of the World Wildlife Fund in China. "Combine that with the global trading rules [that downplay environmental and labor standards], the tremendous constraints China faces in terms of its need to generate employment, and the fact that they've got all that coal and no oil—and how surprised can we be that we've ended up with an environmental nightmare?"

Given the tenfold difference between U.S. and Chinese incomes per capita and the presence of some 800 million impoverished Chinese, even the idea of asking the two nations to sacrifice equally for the global environment is presumptuous, and the Chinese know it. Consider Pan Yue, the outspoken deputy minister of China's environmental protection agency. Three years ago, Pan declared that the Chinese economic miracle will end soon "because the environment can no longer keep pace." Yet asked for his view of studies showing that mercury from Chinese power plants is settling in American lakes and rivers, Pan focused his criticism on the United States. "As for China's impact on surrounding countries, I'm first to admit the problem," he said. "But let's talk about this in the context of international fairness. Whose development model are we emulating? Who has been shifting all of its pollution-heavy factories to China? And who bears an even greater international responsibility than China—but has yet to shoulder it—on matters like greenhouse gas emissions?"

The world has passed up the opportunity it had at the beginning of China's economic transformation to guide it toward sustainability, and the loss is already incalculable. All that is left is the one option that would have served everyone best all along, which is to model environmental sanity. Stop buying products made in China. Stop building coal-fired power plants. Instead of subsidizing oil companies, invest government funds in research on sustainable-energy technologies. Build effective mass-transit systems in every city. Cut greenhouse gas emissions. Show China the benefits of responsible behavior.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home