Is Environmental Horror Perhaps China’s Biggest Export?

In 2011, China burned more than 4 billion tons of coal, almost half the world’s total.

Cleaning workers retrieve the carcasses of pigs from a branch of Huangpu River in Shanghai, on March 10, 2013. Nearly 3,000 pigs have been found dead in one of Shanghai's main water sources, triggering a public outcry in the country for food safety and pollution concerns. (Photo: Stringer/Reuters)

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

The recent spate of sad and nasty ecological news coming out of China—nearly 3,000 dead pigs and 1,000 dead ducks found floating in a river that provides Shanghai with its drinking water—takes me back to my first visit to the country.

The West has done a very good job of exporting by example its own energy-sucking lifestyle, which is now deemed desirable by the burgeoning middle class in China.

The first time I was in western China, exploring a tributary of the Yangtze River, we got badly lost and ended up on a winding road leading through landscapes I’m sure the Chinese government that had given us the permit never intended for us to see.

All around forests were clear-cut, paper plants were built on rivers above towns, children with deformities were visible in outsized numbers on the streets, and the air was so hazy at midday that many people wore medical masks, even indoors.

That was in 1996.

Nearly three decades later, things have only gotten worse as China’s human population, energy needs and consumerism have all escalated.

In his new book, The Devouring Dragon, How China’s Rise Threatens Our Natural World, author Craig Simons expands on the problem, suggesting that the ills of China are not just bad for the Chinese, but one of its biggest exports is now environmental calamity.

The country's boom times, he contends, are impacting everything from dirty air and water around the globe to fast-climbing temperatures and fast-disappearing wildlife.

China, of course, is not to blame for the fact that the planet is screeching to an inevitable environmental meltdown. The U.S. and Europe have long led that charge thanks to healthy economies and the ability to earn and spend at will. The West has done a very good job of exporting by example its own energy-sucking lifestyle, which is now deemed desirable by burgeoning middle classes in China—and India, Russia, Brazil too.

But pollution created by the world’s biggest nation, 1.3 billion headed quickly to 1.5 billion, is accelerating global environmental problems on a scale not seen before. (Don’t forget those dead, floating pigs.)

Simons’ China experience began as a Peace Corps volunteer the same year I first visited, in 1996. He has reported from there since. A few of the most egregious examples of China’s pollution exports and imports:

- In 2011, China burned more than four billion tons of coal, almost half the world’s total and four times what was burned in the U.S. the same year. By comparison, in 1976, it was only burning 550 million tons.

- The illegal wildlife trade, from elephant tusks to tiger skin pelts and shark fins, is dominated by China’s demand. We are used to stories of excessive wedding parties where every table has a pot of shark fin soup on the table or miniature cityscapes carved from elephant ivory, but as Simons points out, some of the proudest Buddhists in Tibet still wear tiger skin robes as a sign of success.

- China’s fat pocketbook and voracious energy needs are having an impact far from home wherever fossil fuels are dug out of the earth. The nation has funded natural gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan, has put $35 billion into railroads “to transport copper and coal out of Africa and into the power plants of China,” and is currently building half of all the nuclear reactors under construction globally. China’s energy and food needs are so big the country is buying up existing power plants from Tanzania to Saudi Arabia and farmland across Russia, Australia and Argentina.

- Dams proliferate across China, none bigger than the one built at the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River. The 360-mile long reservoir that stretches above the dam submerged more than 100 cities and towns and tens of thousands of acres of farmland. A recent Chinese hydrologists report called the Yangtze “cancerous,” and warned that two thirds of it may already be dead—unable to support either plants or fish. Why is the health of the world’s third longest river important? Because it supports 40 percent of China’s economic output and almost one-third of its people.

- While half of China’s 1.3 billion people live simple, rural lives putting very little strain on the environment, as China becomes richer they will worry little about climate change and more about keeping up with the Joneses. One example: In 2000 there were roughly 15 million gas-powered vehicles in China. Today that number has grown to 125 million (about half what we have in the U.S.); by 2030 it is expected to grow to at least 600 million, maybe as many as one billion.

China today—like the other fast-growing mega-nations, especially India—is obsessed with growth. Slowing it down seems impossible. Fueling that growth requires evermore burning of dirty fossil fuels, which turn skies into haze and light rivers on fire.

Simons’ firsthand stories from China today do not fill anyone with great optimism. His conclusion is simple, perhaps overly simple, but hopeful: The world belongs to all of us. We need to decide what matters. And then act.

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