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The Only Way To End China's Pollution Disaster Is To Slow Down The Economy

Look at the numbers, both environmental and economic, and the solution is clear: slower growth.

Article illustrative image Partner logo Clearly something must change

BEIJING - Recently the haze that lies over much of China's eastern region, including the capital, has been fodder for the newspapers, both here and abroad. And there is no doubt that the impact of the pollution on the economy, society, and public health is immense.

But it is worth asking whether the smog we live under is a necessity for China's development?

The first concern relates to resource depletion. China's massive development requires the support of enormous natural resources -- and not just its homeland resources but also those from around the world. According to recent figures compiled, the speed, scale and impact of China's mineral extraction over the past generation is unprecedented in human history.

In 1978, China's total energy consumption was 571 million tons of standard coal, whereas by 2012, this had increased 5.3 times to 3.62 billion tons. In 2010, China accounted for 10% of the world's total economic output and consumed about 20% of the world's energy: 60% of the cement, 47% of the iron ore, 49% of the steel, 44% of the lead, 40% of the aluminum and 38% of the copper.

Currently, China's unit GDP energy consumption is 2.5 times the world's average, 2.9 times of America's and 4.5 times of Japan's. China's unit GDP water consumption is three times the global average.

Another concern is sewage disposal. In 2011, China's volume of wastewater discharge was 65.92 billion tons, which means more than 48 tons per capita, again, the global leader. In 2010, China's total emissions of both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides were over 22 million tons, ranking first in the world. Its industrial smoke and dust emissions were 14.46 million tons. This is far beyond the environment’s carrying capacity. About 64% of Chinese cities' groundwater is heavily polluted, and only 3% of urban groundwater is clean. From 2000 to 2010, the world's carbon dioxide emissions had an average annual growth rate of 2.63%. China's average annual growth rate was 8.58% and it accounted for 25% of the world's total emissions.

Over the past 30 years, China has maintained a 10% growth rate every year. Does it really want to maintain a growth rate of 8% -- as the government aims to do -- through 2020? What will be the consequences of maintaining this level of growth?

Put this in another perspective. If China's GDP does have an 8% average annual growth until 2020, China's per capita GDP will reach $11,000, which would be double its 2010 rate. Under the current energy production, consumption and efficiency, China will probably consume 5.57 billion tons of standard coal which is an increase of more than 70% compared with 32.5 million tons in 2010. This is likely to account for more than 30% of the world's energy consumption.

Does China itself, and the rest of the world, even hold such a huge supply of resources? Even if the answer is yes, what about the rising price of a shrinking supply of resources? Besides, based on China's current energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions ratio, by 2020, its carbon dioxide emissions are likely to go beyond 12 billion tons which will account for about 40% of the world's total. Will China, or the world, be capable of absorb such emissions?

In light of both these numbers and very basic questions, we know China has to change direction -- and start to slow down. It has been more than 20 years that China has advocated a transformation of its development mode, and more than ten years that it has talked of scientific development.

However, looking back, we know these ideas have remained as little more than slogans. Real policies to make them happen are viewed as a luxury the country's growth model cannot afford. Too often, the laws that are passed tend to cancel each other out.

There is a chance that China's new leaders may begin to take the environmental question seriously, having even set the construction of an ecological civilization as one of its five priorities of the nation. However in the face of the severe haze we see every day, China has to dig even deeper.

We must change the original path of development, not in slogans but in real action. The most fundamental method to achieve this is by slowing down the pace of China's development path so as to damp down the "high fever" of a fast-growing Chinese economy.

Indeed, it is the "economic fever" that is the main source of China's development syndrome.

China has to effectively reduce the pace of its development, aiming to keep its overall economic growth below 7% between now and 2014; and during its "13th Five-Year Plan" (2015-2020), growth should be kept under 6%.

It's only by reducing the speed of China's economic growth that we can reduce the excessive resource extraction and curb the high pollution emissions. Only by reducing the over-consumption of resources and the over-expansion of pollution can China protect and save itself, and the world as well.

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