Friday, August 24, 2007

Don't Drink That Water

Elizabeth Economy has a fascinating article on China's environmental crisis and its impact on the economy. Doesn't mention the 50-mile long benzene slick that went to Russia, but it points out that levels of certain heavy metals along the Guangdong cost are 2000 times the regulation limits, the shrimp catch has declined 90 percent in the last 15 years, and around 190 million people suffer from respiratory illnesses.

It's all pretty staggering stuff, but there's relatively little hope that the Chinese government - both in Beijing and especially in the local areas - will take the necessary steps to ensure not just one-off improvements, but a long lasting system of monitoring and evaluation. The economic incentives just aren't there. A case in point: one factory owner said he was ignoring environmental regulations because the upgrade would equal 15 years worth of penalties. And while the central government is concerned about the environment, they're even more concerned about economic development. Unfortunately, that's just not the political environment for protecting the natural one.

EDIT: Additional articles and multimedia on the subject from the New York Times can be found here.


HoBs said...

And yet all is not as gloomy as popular press makes it out to be. Even if will didn't exist internally, money exists globally. Europe is meeting its Kyoto obligations by funneling billions of dollars into Chinese factories.

While at the White House, we worked with China's coutnerpart to the EPA, and they are moving in that direction. In some areas, factories are ranked by their emissions and managers are shamed based on their rankings. Reports from the White house's chief environmental officer made me think in some cases, governments were overly zealous in protecting the environment.

It is legitimate to trade off economic costs when considering environmental costs.

So I don't know the numbers for China, but if the economic cost of cleaning up benzene, leads to fewer people coming out of poverty, and therefore more deaths, than cleaning up the benzene would be morally reprehensible.

Even in the US, efforts to clean up arsenic in drinking water arguably costs 10 deaths for every one it saved. The Bush administration tried to stop this early on, but was excoriated by the press for it.

Chengora said...

Interesting points, I hadn't heard anything about the arsenic (or wait, maybe I did on the Daily Show...)

Anyway, I'm not sure how much the points necessarily apply to China. The issue with the benzene slick was that it was a. 50 miles long and b. went into Russia. So part of the issue was an externality. Sure, some of China's people are becoming more well off (but without freer information, it's very difficult to tell just how much and how many people are being negatively affected). But, the costs are being borne by people in other parts of the world as well. So, for example, the issues with particulate matter in Los Angeles coming from China, and much more important, the dust storms that sweep through the Philippines and Taiwan and which come from Inner Mongolia. I think Jonny was stuck in one once with a mattress?

For me, the major hope is that China's leaders realize that the public is on their side for this one. They want to be taking an active hand in monitoring polluters, but are largely prevented from doing so. Naturally, the problem is political: the more you empower civil society, the more that threatens the CCP's hold on power. Unfortunate...

hcduvall said...

Does it mean anything if I prefer live poor people, rather than less poor, more dead? And as Chengora mentioned, the particulars of the benzene spill he's referring to involved more than just China. And I think in that case, the weighed economic cost on the water supply for down river cities (Chinese and otherwise) was going to be high enough that cleaning, even if costly now, was a better option than letting it go. One or two of the nearest population centers had filtration plants, but I don't believe that was a common case. The numbers were with this one.

Chengora said...

Ooo, actually, sorry if that last comment came off as snarky. I didn't review what I had written and thought that emphasizing the length of the slick and that it went into Russia was a new piece of information. Didn't mean it come off that way.

But yeah, you pretty much couldn't use the water (drinking, industry, etc.) while the slick was running through town. I think it's out in the ocean somewhere now.

hcduvall said...

The Benzene slick going into Russia is actually the only one of the incidents I remember getting covered widely offhand. It's just the most vivid of the examples (insofar as we've latched onto it). Actually, I remember when it was being reported that the local authorities in China had waited two weeks before reporting the incident any further, and it was it's imminent arrival in Russia that prompted the reportage and subsequent
cleanup with active carbon.

HoBs said...

Yeah, so it is affecting lots of people, but I don't think the trade offs are so easily made.

The border between China and Russia is sparsely populated, so not like that many people are directly affected. Agreed that China should be responsible for anything that flows into Russia, but it sounds like they were in this case. Also, benzene is bad for you, but it is also common, it comes out of the tailpipe of every car on the road, and we all seem ok.

And again, curtailing economic growth doesn't just mean poorer people, it also means dead people.

In the US, for every 2000 people a company lays off, one will kill himself. I am sure you can calculate comparable values in China.

So sure, I agree the environmental damage being done in China right now does sound bad, all I urge is caution before condemning all of it.

hcduvall said...

I know it's one of your opposed stances, but this was all really mild for "condemnation".