PRC’s ‘grim’ environment sparks concern as CO2 emissions spike
The post-lockdown restart of economies worldwide has brought some relief amid the devastating COVID-19 pandemic. In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), however, a noxious cloud hangs over the return of industrial output, environmental analysts say.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions “have surged back” as China’s coal-fired power plants, cement factories and other heavy industries resumed operations in mid-2020, sending air pollution to pre-coronavirus levels, according to an analysis by the independent Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
“This is prompting concerns about the global implications of a coal-heavy recovery in China,” center analyst Lauri Myllyvirta wrote in a June 2020 article for the website Carbon Brief.
Even a senior Chinese official admitted recently that the nation’s environmental conditions are “grim.”
The PRC accounts for nearly one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, Bloomberg reported in December 2020. Its air quality is among the lowest of any nation, according to the World Economic Forum. That has fatal consequences: An estimated 4.2 million deaths worldwide each year are caused by exposure to air pollution, the World Health Organization reports.
“China’s by far the world’s big emitter,” John D. Sterman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who researches environmental sustainability and climate change, told The Associated Press in September 2020. “They’re emitting more than the EU [European Union] and U.S. together.”
That same month, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping told the United Nations General Assembly that the PRC has set a 2060 deadline to achieve “carbon neutrality.” The PRC’s pledge is among a series of promises to address its reputation as one of the planet’s prime polluters, including commitments it made under the Paris climate accord.
Long the primary destination for the processing, recycling or, simply, dumping of the world’s trash, including toxic and hazardous materials, the PRC is banning solid waste imports effective January 2021. More Chinese cities also are prohibiting single-use plastics, such as straws, shopping bags and utensils, which fill municipal landfills. The PRC recycled less than one-third of the 63 million metric tons of plastic it produced in 2019, Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, the PRC’s efforts to cut CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuels with clean, renewable sources are hindered by the pollution itself. Research published in the journal Nature Energy in 2019 found that atmospheric pollutants are blocking the sun’s rays, reducing the energy harvested by China’s solar panels by up to 15%. (Pictured: Air pollution shrouds a solar thermal power facility in Yanqing, north of Beijing, in September 2020.)
The PRC’s attempts to clean its air and water are undercut by its continued dependence on coal and heavy industry, acknowledged Zhao Yingmin, China’s vice minister of ecology and environment. The “grim environmental trends” persist despite gains, and “it should be clearly recognized that the quality of the ecological environment remains far from people’s expectations for a better life,” Zhao said in October 2020, according to Reuters.
Moreover, the PRC’s emerging policies often hinder progress. For example, its recent push not to buy Australian coal could have detrimental environmental effects.
“It really is a lose-lose here because Australian coal, compared to that coal that is sourced from other countries, the other countries have 50% higher emissions than Australian coal,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in mid-December, Reuters reported.
This environmental crisis is “the Achilles heel of modern China,” damaging the nation’s public health and economy and undermining the CCP’s legitimacy, according to a new book by Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S.-based think tank.
In Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State, Huang wrote that the CCP’s inability to control pollution could spark internal unrest, according to a November 2020 book review in The Wall Street Journal newspaper. Such disorder, Huang contended, could “prompt the state to act more aggressively overseas to whip up nationalist sentiment and deflect domestic criticism in an attempt to shore up its political legitimacy.”
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