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Western companies should be blamed for China’s pollution

When talking with Chinese friends and co-workers about the pollution levels in Nanjing (awful compared to developed countries, but decent for Chinese cities), they are quick to point out that foreign companies in China are the ones that should be blamed for the filthy air. While it is absolutely true that foreign companies are adding to China’s environmental woes, I’m not convinced they should shoulder all the blame.

Today, I’d like to start by discussing three points related to this statement, and I hope you’ll continue the discussion in the comment section below.

Production for the West

This factor is undeniable. Western consumers have benefited from the destruction of China’s environment by purchasing cheap goods. If all of our environmental standards were enforced globally (and corporations actually complied), then the price of goods would be higher.

The latest example of this can be seen in the fact that Apple’s production facilities in China have created many environmental problems while making goods far out of reach for most Chinese consumers.

The problem I have with this argument, is that the destruction of China’s environment for the sake of producing goods for the West has also benefited many Chinese by creating jobs (from migrant workers to factory owners). The pollution has been seen as a by-product of development, without questioning how it could have been avoided.

However with the slow down in the global economy, one would expect that declining demand overseas would correlate to China’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions. Instead we see China’s emissions have continued to grow during this time, as there have been massive pushes to increase domestic consumption. It turns out cheap Chinese products made in polluting factories aren’t any less attractive in Chinese Walmarts than they are in the West.

While consumers in ALL countries have a responsibility to choose environmentally responsible products, due to the explosive growth of Chinese manufacturing, it would be very difficult to buy only “green” products.

Chinese Companies

Another important point against this argument, is that China was polluted before foreign companies arrived in the late 70’s. Foreign companies work largely through or with Chinese factories, and Chinese companies are among the world’s least environmentally conscious. The idea that western corporations are doing something different than Chinese companies is ridiculous.

Let’s take a quick look at two companies operating in China that have been attacked in the Chinese press:

In Apple’s case, Foxconn is their major supplier and also their major polluter. Apple clearly should be making greater efforts to practice corporate responsibility, but Foxconn should not be absolved of wrongdoing simply because it is working with a foreign company. Yet in Chinese papers you will always see Apple taking the majority of the blame.

The same is true of the recent oil spill involving ConocoPhilips. Both Global Times and People’s Daily railed against their environmental destruction, and both failed to mention that a state owned company owned the majority share of the project.

While blaming foreign companies might be more politically palatable, it does little to address the underlying problem.

Lax Regulations

Let’s be honest, when it comes to corporations, do we really expect them to take any actions that don’t add to their bottom line?

Corporations have a responsibility to their share holders to maximize profits, and few legal responsibilities to communities beyond paying taxes. This might be a fairly negative view of corporations, but it is not surprising that companies will dump as much toxic waste into rivers, and spew as much carbon into the air as governments will allow (if it is profitable).

While cheap labor is often cited as a reason for companies moving to developing countries, lax environmental standards are another major factor.

For example, in Nanjing there is a large chemical factory owned by a German multi-national that is often blamed for the smog in the air. The question I always pose to my Chinese friends is, “Why didn’t they build this factory in Germany?” The reason being that environmental regulations in Germany would make this kind of processing plant incredibly expensive to run. The Nanjing gov’t invited the company here because it would increase local GDP.

This is the major underlying problem. The pursuit of local GDP development (in return for promotions) has essentially aligned the interests of local government leaders with those of corporations, instead of the people they supposedly represent. While the Central government has created CO2 emissions targets and other environmental incentives, local leaders still recognize the fact that the key to promotion is GDP.

Perhaps the most troubling example is Huaxi (read my series on the richest village in China), instead of being condemned for it’s reliance on dirty industries like fertilizer production and steel, it has been lifted up as a national model of excellence.

Even in cases where factories have been “shut down” for violating the already lax environmental regulations, they are frequently allowed to continue their operations until people end up in the hospital (numerous examples of lead poisoning from “closed” factories have surfaced in the last year).

If local governments encourage the creation of heavily polluting industries, than they too must shoulder some of the blame for the resulting mess.

Ultimately, even if every multinational pulled out of China tomorrow, there is little evidence that this would actually bring an end to China’s pollution problems. Certainly the West is benefiting from this environmental destruction, but to pretend that this disaster is not largely of China’s own making ignores the reality of the situation.

For unbelievable photos of China’s environmental devastation and the toll it takes on China’s people check out this post from ChinaHush.com

Can the world afford China’s heating bill?

Yesterday we were looking at how cold it is outdoors and in here in China. Today I want to get to the meat of the problem that lies just beyond that thought. Is it possible for China (or any country) to develop without destroying the fragile environment?

I’ll start with something I’m not so proud of; my wife and I are currently running 3 space heaters full blast, all the time. Not because we’re trying to recreate the climate of sunny Florida, or even temperate San Francisco, this is just what it takes to keep our apartment from feeling like winter in Minnesota. At the office we also have two heaters running non-stop, and still I have to pause between sentences to hold my hot cup of tea.

My other co-worker, Jasmine, told me the other day that it was only a few years ago that office workers would wear 4-5 layers and tough out the frigid days in the office. Now though everyone is starting to expect the office to be at least comfortable with only 2 layers. Oh the things I had taken for granted before coming to China.

The big problem is that heating is a new thing for most of the people living in southern China, since a long time ago the govt. decided that we didn’t need central heating. So it is common for people to still leave windows open while the heater is on. I also spend a good chunk of time every day getting up from my desk and closing the door behind the people who leave it flung wide open, or closing the bathroom windows that blow less than fresh air down the hall.  I wonder how long it will be before fathers in China start carefully guarding the thermostat, and sarcastically ask their child, “Are you trying to heat the outdoors?”

So rising wealth in China is now allowing more people to buy heaters for their apartments, and we south of the Yangtze will no longer freeze each winter. I think we could agree generally that people not freezing to death is progress. At the same time, when I look at the high-rise apartment blocks and see all of the individual heating units whirring, I hate to think of the amount of energy and burning coal it takes to keep me and the rest of the middle class warm.