Could slower GDP growth help solve China’s environmental problems?

Could slower growth lead to better environmental conditions in China? Three academic experts gave chinadialogue their opinions

chinadialogue: China is likely to set the 2014 GDP target at 7% to 7.6%. Where do you think the environment ranks on the leadership’s list as they try to tackle a slew of problems?

He Ping, President at the International Fund for China’s Environment: Environmental issues rank very high on the problem list. As the smog is spreading to all over China, the public is fully aware of the bad air quality. The government is under enormous pressure. It must do something very seriously. Otherwise, the government will lose public support. The public is also unhappy with the corruption. The government needs to do something to regain public confidence.

Mun Sing Ho, visiting scholar at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University: I don’t think the leadership has a simple list with a rank ordering of priorities. The recent party plenum listed many issues ranging from letting the market play a bigger role to tax reform to environmental protection and resource taxes. Many of these things are related and have to be tackled at the same time. I think environmental protection is high on the agenda given the great public awareness of the air and water pollution now.

Li Wei, Professor at the School of Environment, Beijing Normal University: The leadership has set a lower target primarily to adjust economic structure. The government also takes the environment into consideration. It just announced plans of building an “ecological civilization.” However, environmental considerations probably account for no more than 40% of all factors linked to the leadership’s decision-making process. In the future, the number may grow to 50 percent. But in less developed areas, the new growth model will be hard to carry out without strong political and financial support from the central government.

chinadialogue: Do you think slower GDP could solve China’s environmental issues?

He: Slower GDP growth would help solve the environmental problems. The main challenge of the environmental solutions is that the speed of environmental treatments can’t catch up with growth. Once growth is slower, the pressure would be lower. The government can invest more in environmental infrastructures, instead of chemical industries, etc.

Ho: I think we should first ask the causes of slower growth. If the reason for the slowdown is a change from an unsustainable path to a sustainable one then that is obviously a needed change and, by definition, is good for the environment. If the reason is that global economic conditions are poor then that means less income and less resources to fight pollution. The current slowdown is probably a mixture of both; to the extent that the high investment in the past 10 years is too excessive then reducing it would reduce fossil fuel consumption.

Li: As growth slows, a better economic structure would reduce environmental stress. However, a growing economy, no matter at what pace, is still going to put added pressure on the environment. The real solution is increasing investment in environmental governance and ecological restoration. Slower growth only provides a chance to improve the environment.

chinadialogue China is shifting its growth model. How do you think the country could develop in a sustainable way?

He: Slow down, put more emphasis on social justice and environmental quality. I think the central government has a clear view and a good strategy. The challenge is to get local governments to implement it. Many local governments are still chasing growth. They haven’t fully understood that quality of life is more important than GDP growth. In some ways, they are hijacked by some interest groups. So drawing some redlines is crucial.

Ho: I am not sure if any country has found the right definition and right formula for sustainable development. China is now rich enough to devote more resources to reducing emission and even begin a cleaning-up process. China can have a cleaner environment if it is willing to enforce the environmental rules, which will mean higher costs to consumers, and adjustments for workers that will be affected, and lower profits for enterprises.

Li: To achieve sustainable development, China should first make sure it successfully changes its growth model. A greener economy is the key. China should emphasise efficiency and quality over quantity, scale and speed. The leadership should change the way it makes decisions.