CHINA has carried a controversial reputation for being one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses but now a new report suggests that the large country could be Asia’s new “environmental poster child”
According to the Hinrich Foundation Sustainable Trade Index 2018, the government has over the past few years, undertaken a mammoth effort to improve air quality in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei greater metropolis area which has seen massive decreases in PM10 and other pollutants.
The report said residents of the metropolis could be making plans for blue-sky days in the city once synonymous with the “smog apocalypse”.
The index saw China;’s air pollution score rising by 30.6 points – the only double-digit rise for this indicator – contributing to an overall environmental improvement.
China is also one of the only three countries in the continent, along with Laos and Pakistan, to see signs of improvement in the region.
“You’ve seen a real change on the part of the government, obviously for their commitment to the Paris Agreement, but also more generally around issues of environmental sustainability that have arisen out of the challenges around air pollution in major urban areas, but also many concerns about water pollution, about soil pollution and degradation,” Stephen P. Groff, vice-president for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the Asian Development Bank, said.
In 2017, China pledged to invest 2.5 trillion yuan (US$378 billion) in renewable energy by 2020 as it continues with its plan to move away from burning coal. This saw China’s air pollution score improve dramatically.
Groff said the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei clean-up was driven by many policy decisions, including the shift of polluting enterprises and industries such as coal-fired plants, steel and other manufacturing. The policy decisions also touched on the establishment of acceptable levels of air pollution and the necessary enforcement around those guidelines.
However, the aggressive interventions came at a price.
“You do read anecdotally about people being put out of work…or homes, or people not getting electricity or heating as a result of some of these policy changes,” Groff said.
“In the long run, this is something the country obviously needs to do but it is important to be mindful of the short-term transitional costs.”
In some ways, China has transformed itself from being an ecological pariah to a poster child for environmental change. The index pointed to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) call for India to follow China’s example of addressing air pollution.
“The scale of the challenge in China and the fact that there are very strong efforts underway to address it shows other countries that seemingly insurmountable problems can actually be addressed and progress can be made,” Groff said.
Stephen Olsen, research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation said the index attempts to measure the extent to which countries engage in international trade in a way which not only generates economic growth but also strengthens social capital and promotes environmental stewardship.
“The basic message is that trade should not come at all costs and that if we engage trade in a way that doesnt strenghten social capital or protect the environment, that ultimately trade won’t be sustainable,” he said when met on the sidelines of the East-West Center International Media conference in Singapore last week.
Despite its enthusiasm for trade, Asia has experienced an overall regression in sustainable trading practices – a practice defined by its support of the long-term domestic and global goals of economic growth, environmental protection, and strengthened social capital.
Richer countries are said to have performed better in the index report, but they are also found to be the ones with deteriorating environmental sustainability. Three Southeast Asian neighbours – Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – have experienced the worst score declines.
“This suggests that even as many countries continue to achieve exceptional rates of growth, they have not done enough to mitigate certain negative externalities such as air pollution and inadequate labour standards,” the report reads.