The Circular Debate on Chinas Economy and Environment

2004-10-21
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HONG KONG — ; In the old days of the socialist command economy in China, where scarcity of goods was the order of the day, almost everything was recycled: packaging, clothes, car parts, building materials, and human, animal, and plant waste.

"More and more high-level officials are becoming aware of the very large cost that the heavy pollution load in China is imposing on their people and on their economy."

Now, China's leaders are trying to re-inject that ethos into the world's fastest-growing economy, but with little success so far, experts say.

In mid-2004, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) began recycling a concept that has been around for a long time in China's policy-making circles—that of a circular economy, in which optimum re-use of materials and resources is achieved, boosting the Green GDP index recently unveiled by the agency.

"The concept of a circular economy certainly is not new. I think there's been a lot of discussion over the past several years," Elizabeth Economy, director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told RFA in a recent interview.

New brooms may spell cleaner growth

"Environmental activists see an opportunity at this particular point in time, an opening with the new leadership of President Hu [Jintao] and Premier Wen [Jiabo] to try to advance their interests by linking environmental interests with economic interests," said Economy.

But experts agreed that, in China, repetition of a concept or slogan doesn’t necessarily translate into increased action.

"Environmental activists see an opportunity at this particular point in time."

Richard Ferris, an environmental attorney at the law firm Beveridge & Diamond in Washington, pointed to other high-profile campaigns in state media that had yielded little in the way of concrete results, such as initiatives to improve labor conditions or mine safety.

High-profile events such as the opening of the West-East gas pipeline to Shanghai have been highlighted for their environmental benefits in decreasing air pollution from coal, Ferris said. But little attention had been paid to other sources of pollution, such as the 40-percent increase in China's oil imports this year.

"Yes, we've got these potential environmental benefits from this pipeline project, but they're offset by the challenges, for example, with regard to our use of coal and energy production or the fuel imports, that kind of thing."

Tighter EU-inspired rules

But Ferris also pointed to a number of new recycling rules either in the works or under consideration, such as the return of wastes from used electronic products. Some of these may be related to trade with the European Union, where similar practices are in force, he said.

Economy said actions are usually very difficult to match with words in China, especially regarding environmental protection at the local level.

"I expect that we'll see some ideas of clean production or industrial ecology—the kind of things that are embodied in the idea of circular economy—see some of those things implemented in some places, but we're a long way away from wholesale adoption," she said.

Some are more hopeful

Some observers were more optimistic.

David Moskovitz, director of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a U.S. nonprofit research group that works on conservation issues in China, said the government had already set new national efficiency standards for air conditioners in September and new "Euro II" standards for automobile emissions in Beijing. It also imposed fuel economy standards on new cars for the first time in September.

"More and more high-level officials are becoming aware of the very large cost that the heavy pollution load in China is imposing on their people and on their economy," Moskowitz told RFA.

"I suspect it's really laying the groundwork for even far more serious environmental protection actions that will be taken in the coming months."

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