Hearing on Asia's Environmental Challenges: Testimony of Christopher Flavin

Washington, D.C.—Worldwatch president Christopher Flavin provided testimony on environmental challenges in Asia at a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations hearing on September 22, 2004. Flavin was invited by Representative James Leach (R-IA), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific Economic Policy. Other witnesses were Ruth Greenspan Bell, Resident Scholar, Resources for the Future, Elizabeth Economy, Ph.D., Director of Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Mingma Sherpa, Director of Asia Programs, World Wildlife Fund. A transcript of Flavin's testimony is below.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today on the important subject of Asia’s environmental challenges. During the course of this century, Asia in general and China in particular will stand ever-closer to the center of the global economy and environment. Rapid economic growth in a region with more than 3 billion inhabitants will inevitably shape the future of the human and natural worlds. The choices made in the coming years will have enormous consequences for the quality of life in Asia and the world.

I. China’s Global Impact

China has become central to the challenge of environmentally sustainable development. Rapid economic growth is propelling many of China’s 1.3 billion people into the consumer society, increasing the pressures on its own resources as well as those of other nations. Due to its population size, growing economic importance, and wide cultural influence, China’s decisions will have a major bearing on the future health of humanity and the planet.

China is roughly the same geographic size as the United States, but has four and a half times as many people. China has 21 percent of the world’s population but just 7 percent of the world’s fresh water and cropland, 3 percent of its forests, and 2 percent of its oil. As the output of China’s economy has more than doubled in the last decade, it has joined the United States as the world’s second environmental superpower. China is already the second largest consumer of oil and water, and trails only the U.S. in its emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that causes global climate change. China’s booming economy will consume a rapidly growing share of the world’s resources, and will produce a growing share of its pollutants in the coming decades. Food and timber imports are also growing rapidly, placing pressures on fragile landscapes as distant as the Brazilian Amazon.

Since the mid-1990s, China’s oil consumption has risen far above its domestic production of just over 3 million barrels per day. The difference is made up by soaring imports, which have gone from zero to over 3 million barrels per day in just a decade, making China the world’s third largest oil importer, just behind Japan.

As recently as the early 1980s, China relied mainly on bicycles for transportation. By early 2002, the country had 10 million cars, added 4 million in 2002, and another 6 million in 2003. By 2015, it is projected that China will have 150 million cars—about the same number as the U.S. in 2000. China’s cars will create new industries and jobs, but those vehicles will consume not only oil, but valuable agricultural land, as road networks are expanded.

China now consumes just 1.5 barrels of oil per person per year, compared with 26 barrels per person in the United States. But China is building vast numbers of houses, factories, roads, and motor vehicles. This is driving up demand for oil, which is being consumed not only in transportation but by thousands of diesels generators being used to back up an overstrained national power grid, which was not able to meet last year’s 14% rise in electricity demand. China’s soaring oil imports will have strategic as well as environmental impacts as the country becomes increasingly dependent on Russia and the Persian Gulf for its energy.

II. The Environmental Burdens of China’s Development

If one were to take the population of the United States, move it east of the Mississippi River, and multiply it by four, the U.S. would have a population density equivalent to that found in the eastern provinces of China where the vast majority of the population lives. As more than a billion people seek to acquire the goods and services that are already the norm in industrial countries, the consequences are proving enormous, exacerbated by the country’s heavy dependence on coal.

Coal provides 70 percent of China’s energy, a level of coal-dependence that is comparable to Great Britain’s economy at the height of the industrial revolution. (The U.S., which at that time relied heavily on wood fuel, has never been this dependent on coal.) In China, coal is not only used for power generation and steel production as it is in the U.S., but is also burned in millions of homes and factories to meet needs as simple as heating food. Efforts to replace coal with gas and oil are proceeding in cities such as Beijing, but alternative fuels are simply not available or affordable in many parts of the country.

The major atmospheric pollution problems in Northeast Asia include stratospheric ozone depletion, acid deposition (acid rain), urban air pollution, and climate change. All but ozone depletion are mainly a consequence of fossil fuel combustion. Of these problems, acid deposition presents one of the region’s most pressing cross-border concerns, particularly via long-range transport of the emissions from China’s coal-fired plants.

Local air pollution in China from power plants and industrial facilities has reached crisis proportions in most urban areas. Among all energy options, coal-fired power plants are the largest emitter of particulate matter (PM), sulfur oxides (SOx), and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2). They are also a major emitter of nitrogen oxides (NOx). About 90% of total PM, SOx, and NOx emissions in China are due to coal burning, including power generation and a significant fraction from small scale, residential use for cooking and heating.

Within the next two to three decades, as regional sulfur dioxide emissions increase by as much as a factor of three, sulfur deposition levels may exceed those once observed in the most polluted areas in eastern Europe. Ambient levels of sulfur dioxide would exceed World Health Organization (WHO) health guidelines not only in cities, but in many rural regions.

Sulfur dioxide contributes to the formation of acid rain, which now falls on about 30% of China's total land area. Industrial boilers and furnaces consume almost half of China's coal and are the largest single point sources of urban air pollution. The health consequences of China’s coal consumption are even more daunting. The World Health Organization has concluded that six of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China, and the government environmental agency estimates that breathing the air in those cities is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day.

III. China’s Choice

The magnitude of China’s environmental problems is unprecedented, and is complicated by the fact that its governmental structure is in gradual transition from the centralized, one-party system that dominated the second half of the 20th century. Local and state governments are playing a growing role, and non-governmental environmental organizations, which were only recently permitted, now number over 2,000, and are beginning to drive the policy reform process. Still, China’s government environmental regulator has one-hundredth the number of staff members of the U.S. E.P.A., and some of the recent environmental laws that appear strict on paper are not being effectively enforced.

Despite this still unsatisfactory record, there is reason for cautious optimism that China is beginning to recognize that environmental sustainability is one of the keys to the country’s successful economic development, and that China cannot afford to continue to lag decades behind the environmental technologies and policies now being pursued in industrial nations.

The China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development said recently, “China’s remarkably low per capita consumption pattern is an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of many other countries that have developed very high levels of material and energy consumption. Moving towards more sustainable consumption patterns could lead to more competitive domestic enterprises and greater access to international markets.”

This kind of leapfrog strategy is what is needed for China to succeed in the 21st century. And because of the size of the Chinese economy, a decisive move towards sustainable technologies and industries could have a global impact—lowering costs and spurring other nations to join the new economic bandwagon. Encouraging recent developments include:

  1. Energy efficiency is now being widely promoted and deployed, including via new government-mandated efficiency standards for a variety of devices, including home appliances, and has proposed new standards for motor vehicles that would exceed current U.S. standards. One result of the commitment to efficiency is that China has quickly leap-frogged over Europe and the United States to become the world’s number one producer and user of compact fluorescent light bulbs.
  2. China has also become the world leader in two important renewable energy technologies: small hydropower and solar water heating. In solar hot water, China is installing solar collectors on thousands of apartment buildings across the country, and had a remarkable 75 % of the world market for the devices in 2003. At an international conference in Germany in June 2004, China announced an ambitious new commitment to generate 10 percent of its power using renewable energy by 2010. A new renewable energy law is currently being prepared, which is intended to open the way to widespread development of wind power and other options.

These recent achievements hint at China’s potential to become a world leader not only in total resource use and emissions, but in showing the way to a more sustainable future. China’s prowess in low-cost manufacturing, and its demonstrated ability to change directions quickly, could allow it to move quickly to the forefront in sustainable production and consumption.

China’s emergence as a large-scale economic power demonstrates that current patterns of resource use and pollution relied on by the roughly 1 billion people who live in industrial nations, cannot possibly work for an economically advanced world with a population that will exceed 8 billion by the middle of the next century. China and the United States, which will together be the economic and environmental superpowers of the current century, have a common interest in developing the new technologies, consumption patterns, and policies, that will make a prosperous and sustainable future possible.