Saturday, August 23, 2008

China's Olympic Village is green but the country's environmental record is scary

China has received kudos worldwide for a green Olympics. They've used the latest innovations in sustainable architecture, energy and landscaping for the 2008 Olympic Village in Beijing (see our previous post by Juliana Sloane).

Given the media coverage of the Olympics, such efforts will go a long way in improving the world's impressions of China's environmental scorecard. China's choices for the Olympic village are commendable, in that they've set a precedent for future Olympic villages and other major construction projects, and they've also publicly validated that "green" is a goal to be proud of, for all of us.

But the green Olympic Village is a bit of smoke screen for China. The reality is that China is the world's most polluted nation.

According to Peter Navarro of UC-Irvine, 70 percent of China's major rivers are severely polluted, 80 percent of its rivers fail to meet standards for fishing, and 90 percent of its cities suffer from water pollution. As a result, over half of China's people drink foul water of a quality well below World Health Organization standards. Not surprisingly, liver and stomach cancers are leading causes of death in the Chinese countryside.

The widespread water-pollution problem was evident even in the Olympics, although not widely publicized. One third of the Olympic sailing course was closed for sailing practice due to massive algal blooms which the Chinese scrambled to contain. Algal blooms are a rampant problem from China's overuse of fertilizers, which flood into rivers and streams. When the algae decay, the bacteria use all the oxygen in rivers and lakes, killing fish and other aquatic life, while the high nitrogen levels from fertilizers are dangerous and can be lethal to humans.

algae in the polluted waters of Qingdao, one of the main sailing venues for the Olympic Games (photo courtesy of the BBC)

China's pollution of its waters is only one aspect of its frightening environmental performance. According to Worldwatch Institute, worldwide carbon emissions increased 22% between 2000 and 2007, and China accounted for a whopping 57% of that growth.

China's recent industrialization has been explosive and unprecedented. Because of their huge human populations, the coal-dependent development of China and India is the biggest driver of growth in global carbon emissions. China's fossil-fuel emissions passed those of the United States this year, reports the United Nations Environmental Program.

Stabilizing our global climate will require that industrialized and heavily polluting countries like the United States move to low-carbon energy sources, and that rapidly expanding nations like China and India pursue cleaner energy development.

But China's economy will grow faster if its industries are allowed to minimize costs and maximize profits; in other words, if they're allowed to burn the cheapest fuels, such as coal, and skip the expensive scrubbers that can remove pollutants from smokestack emissions. And just like the United States, China prefers the prosperity of rapid economic growth. I wonder if China's motivation for hosting the Olympics was, at least in part, the opportunity to divert attention from their growing contributions to our planet's climatic plight. With a population more than 4 times that of the U.S., their potential for future damage dwarfs our own.

On the bright side, international action to protect our climate is intensifying. In December 2007, the 192 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed to establish a new global climate change agreement by 2009. This will build on the existing Kyoto Protocol, which commits industrial countries to reduce green­house gas emissions to 6-8 percent below their 1990 levels. The current Kyoto Protocol has not been adopted by dev­eloping countries such as China or by the United States. We must all work toward the compliance of these biggest offenders with the new agreement of 2009, starting with the candidates we choose in November. Perhaps one day the green face that countries present to the world stage will truly represent a greener way of guarding our rivers, our air, our future. Maybe we'll celebrate our Olympics of the year 2052 in a world where carbon emissions have stabilized and lakes aren't clogged with algae.

by Sally Kneidel

United Nations Environmental Program. "Carbon emissions are rising, and policies to address them are growing too, think tank reports."

Peter Navarro. "China's Pollution Olympics." AlterNet. July 15, 2008.

James Russell, Worldwatch Institute.
"Carbon Emissions on the Rise But Policies Growing Too." August 6, 2008.

Our previous posts about China (click to view):

Keywords:: Olympics Olympic games Olympic village Beijing China carbon emissions population growth greenhouse gases climate change Kyoto

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