BOSTON--China's economic slowdown is likely to result in worsened pollution, setting back efforts to clean up the environment, experts say.
Analysts are concerned that the net effect of China's recent policy decisions will be an increase in emissions, even though thousands of polluting factories have shut down due to the economic slump.
On the one hand, slower manufacturing growth means lower demand for electricity and less air pollution from power plants. But economic stimulus plans will add pollution with new construction projects, said William Chandler, director of the energy and climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
"It's hard for me to see anything good coming from this economic crisis in terms of the environment and climate change," Chandler told Radio Free Asia.
Chandler fears that spending on new technology will stall while China's economic troubles run their course.
"To control greenhouse gas emissions, we have to use ingenuity applied in the form of more efficient, more modern equipment. That costs money," he said.
In November, the output of coal-fired generators dropped by a sharp 16.6 percent from a year earlier, the official China Daily reported, quoting the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Power use fell in October for the first time in at least six years, according to NBS data cited by The New York Times.
New tax imposed
China has also taken some steps that could stem energy consumption and emissions of global warming gases. On Jan. 1, the government imposed a new consumption tax on motor fuels after years of subsidizing a wasteful system of price controls on diesel and gasoline.
Those factors may ease pollution growth, but the concern is that China's 4-trillion-yuan ($586-billion) stimulus plan will pump it back up with conventional construction projects. Those in turn depend on high-polluting industries like cement.
China already accounts for 48 percent of the world's cement production, according to a 2007 study by the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cement is one of the biggest users of coal-fired power, which creates greenhouse gases.
China's contribution to climate change has been projected to keep growing at high levels, even before the worst of the economic crisis has been felt. In November, a study by the Paris-based International Energy Agency said China alone will account for 49 percent of the world's increase in emissions by 2030.
That trend is unlikely to be affected by the cooling of China's economy, said Chandler.
"The benefit, if that's what you call it, of slower economic growth really gets lost in what I fear will be a reversion to dirty, inefficient fuels," he said. "I'm talking about coal."
China's coal production is expected to reach 2.9 billion tons this year, a staggering 26 percent rise over 2007, Reuters reported, citing a Land and Resources Ministry report.
Negative impact seen
Daniela Salaverry, China program co-director at Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization, agreed that the environmental impact of the economic downturn is unlikely to be good.
"I think right now there's going to be less of an incentive to invest in green technology and clean energy resources in China," said Salaverry.
Emissions are likely to "stay where they are or even increase in the meantime because people are going to be looking for less expensive and more polluting sources of energy," she said.
Even rail projects, which can increase the efficient use of energy for transport in the long term, are likely to raise emissions in the near term while new lines are being built.
"The infrastructure investment will certainly bring some short-term emissions increases in China," said Salaverry.
"When you're looking at building roads and railroads, those all require very high energy-intensive resources like cement and metals."
On Dec. 31, Railways Minister Liu Zhijun said China will nearly double annual investment in railroads this year to 600 billion yuan ($87.9 billion) under the stimulus, building 5,148 kilometers (3,191 miles) of new tracks.
The ministry also plans to launch 70 new projects this year that will take 1.5 trillion yuan to complete, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Taking a different view, the English-language China Daily on Jan. 12 cited analysts as saying that the slowdown had contributed to an overall improvement in the country's environment last year.
The paper's website also reported on Jan. 10 that the Ministry of Environmental Protection rejected 11 proposed projects under the stimulus plan as likely to cause "high energy consumption and heavy polluting."