In the United States, the Barack Obama administration is fighting to lift the national debt ceiling. In China, the huge debt owed by local governments has set off shockwaves across the country. In the European Union, member states are desperately trying to find a way out of the debt crisis.
In other words, the world seems to be obsessed with financial or monetary debts, ignoring the environmental debts we have piled up, which could dwarf all the other debts.
If Americans have been living beyond their means in the financial sense, we Chinese have been doing so in the environmental sense. And if we don’t address our environmental debts, they will haunt our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and those who follow them.
Two recent cases reflect the folly of blindly pursuing economic growth at the cost of the environment. One happened last week when a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling accused China of illegally imposing export quotas on raw materials. A similar ruling on China’s export restrictions on rare earth materials could be heard in the near future.
China argues that the restrictions have been imposed to protect the environment. On February 16, Premier Wen Jiabao chaired a Cabinet meeting on consolidation of the rare earth industry, and a national conference on rare earth a month ago also highlighted the need to turn the industry toward a healthy and sustainable path. But the failure to impose the same restrictions on domestic and overseas buyers has made our environmental argument less convincing.
To make a strong case in the WTO and to prove its commitment to environmental protection, China should adopt higher environmental standards for mining rare earth. Otherwise, we may not win the WTO case, and by overexploiting rare earth to make quick money we will leave a long-term environmental deficit for our children.
The other case was the oil spill in the Bohai Bay. Oil leaked from a facility of China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), China’s largest offshore oil company, and ConocoPhillips China (COPC), a subsidiary of the US oil giant, about a month ago.
The two companies’ officials have downplayed the long-term impact of the oil spill on the environment, which environmentalists say is “appalling”. More appalling is the fine, a maximum of 200,000 yuan ($30,940), which COPC will face under current laws on offshore pollution, a State Oceanic Administration official said.
The penalty, if imposed, will be minimal compared to the environmental damage caused by the oil spill. It is this high level of tolerance and lenient punishment that make winning the environmental battle a difficult task in China.
Many inland cities continue to welcome unconditionally polluting industries shifting from China’s coastal areas or developed countries. And quite a few international pharmaceutical and chemical companies have subcontracted Chinese researchers and factories to produce highly toxic substances, because the cost of doing the same job would be tens, if not hundreds, of times more under the strict environment regulations of developed countries.
While high inflation and other factors of production have driven up consumer prices, the cost of polluting the environment has remained extremely low or non-existent in China.
The grave environmental landscape of today is in contrast to what it was even a few decades ago. It is almost impossible to find a major water body that has not been polluted or seriously polluted, and access to safe drinking water has already become a serious problem in many parts of China.
According to a Ministry of Environmental Protection report, issued two months ago, groundwater in a majority of Chinese cities has been contaminated to some extent, and contamination is spreading fast. Besides, medical experts warn that cancer cases in the country will continue to increase over the next two decades.
Given the grave situation, we should use the rare earth and Bohai Bay oil spill cases to show our commitment to protecting the environment and prevent the environmental deficits from haunting the generations to come. It’s time we gave proof of our keenness to preserve the harmony between man and nature as described by Laozi, who we are so proud to talk about.
Chen Weihua is deputy editor of China Daily US edition based in New York.