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The Wrong Lessons from China

April 6, 2017

When President Xi Jinping of China visits Mar-a-Lago this week, it might not surprise him to learn that his host’s advisors see China and its environmental problems as a cautionary tale. He may be puzzled by their reasoning, though.

Backing up a week, the night before Donald Trump joined EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and other officials at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency to announce an executive order (EO) specifically designed to curtail environmental protections, an unnamed “Senior Administration Official” provided reporters with a preview of the EO.

Ironically, the Senior Administration Official also cited China as proof that pursuing prosperity over other goals is “the best way to protect the environment.”The Senior Official had a lot of ground to cover. The EO directs agency heads to immediately “review” (wink, wink) existing regulations, orders, other agency actions “that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources, with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources.” The EO also rescinds policies and revokes studies that were written to help the country better assess, address, and ultimately cope with the challenges posed by global climate change, and it takes steps to promote fossil fuel mining on federal lands (while, tellingly, doing nothing specific to promote the use of carbon-free nuclear power).

SENIOR WHITE HOUSE OFFICIAL: To the extent that the economy is strong and growing and you have prosperity — that’s the best way to protect the environment … Because — well, look, globally, I think the more prosperous the economies — compare the United States to other economies, we have a cleaner, healthier environment than other countries that don’t. Look at China.

Here’s the problem: China has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Its gross domestic product grew at an average rate of just over nine percent per year over the past two decades (1996-2015), per World Bank data (annual US GDP growth during the same period averaged 2.2%). China accounted for 2.4% of the global economy in 1996; by 2014 that share had risen to more than 13%, per Bloomberg. While its GDP per capita remains low compared to North American and European countries as well as some of its neighbors in the Pacific Rim, China’s explosive economic growth over the past twenty years has transformed it into a global economic powerhouse. Clearly, it is not for a lack of prosperity that China is beset with air and water quality problems.

Shanghai. Photo: Joan Campderros-i-Canas

The environmental challenges are severe. In 2013, 99.6% of China’s population lived in areas where air pollution levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) exceeded the World Health Organization’s Air Quality Guideline, according to the Health Effects Institute. Beijing’s PM2.5 level “has been at an average of 100 micrograms per cubic meter” during 2008-2014, according to data collected at the US Embassy, “about six times what the US’s Environmental Protection Agency deems safe.”

These problems (as well as widespread water pollution, soil contamination, etc.) stem in part from the combination of strong economic growth and weak environmental regulations—in short, China’s decision to prioritize industrial development over clean air and clean water protections. China’s policymakers did not make that decision blindly. Economic development has been the overriding objective for the country’s leaders, many of whom are old enough to remember the 1959-1961 famine. China’s economic growth since 1978 has lifted 800 million people out of poverty.

Still, the lack of balance in China’s approach to development—specifically, the lack of attention it paid to protecting its air, water, and other natural resources—is increasingly seen as a significant, regime-destabilizing mistake. According to the Council on Foreign Relations,

Environmental damage has cost China dearly, but the greatest collateral damage for the ruling Communist Party has likely been growing social unrest. Demonstrations have proliferated as citizens gain awareness of the health threats and means of organized protest (often using social media). In 2013, Chen Jiping, former leading member of the party’s Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs said that environmental issues are a major reason for “mass incidents” in China—unofficial gatherings of one hundred or more that range from peaceful protest to rioting … 

The [pollution] issue has worried the top leadership, which views the unrest as a threat to the party’s legitimacy. ‘Air pollution in China has turned into a major social problem and its mitigation has become a crucial political challenge for the country’s political leadership,’ write Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Jane Nakano and Hong Yang. 

And yet the Trump Administration seem intent on heading down the same path as has been so destabilizing for China. According to the aforementioned Senior Administration Official, the EO’s reviews, rollbacks, and rescissions are necessary because the Obama Administration had “devalued workers” by prioritizing environmental protection over economic development. “We’re saying we can do both,” said the official. “We can protect the environment and provide people with work and keep the economy growing, and that’s the policy we’re going to focus on.”

Pruitt and others in the Trump Administration often sound as if they believe they came up with the idea that, hey, maybe economic development and environmental progress are not incompatible. To state the obvious, they did not come up with that idea. It has been a basic tenet federal environmental statutes since the 1970s, and since then every previous administration has embraced the idea that economic growth and environmental health can be and should be pursued together. Scott Pruitt’s own Agency has the pictures to prove it:

Stronger economy, cleaner environment. Chart: EPA

In 1970, the US population was 200 million. Today it is 316 million, a 43% increase. In 1970, the GDP was $5 trillion. Since then, it has grown to $17 trillion, while air and water quality have improved remarkably. In fact, from 1970 to 2015, aggregate national emissions of the six common pollutants alone dropped an average of 70% while gross domestic product grew by 246%. Due to Clean Air Act regulations, since 1970 automobiles are over 90% less-polluting and most coal-fired power plant pollutants have been reduced by 70-90%, all while the US economy has thrived.

What’s different about the Trump Administration’s approach is that it uses the economy-and-environment rhetoric to justify the elimination of environmental protections. It’s a crabbed, fundamentally defensive outlook – and it repeats the mistakes China now seeks to overcome.

Rather than acknowledge the ample evidence that promoting durable economic growth and promoting clean air, clean water, and climate stability are mutually reinforcing activities, the Trump Administration’s new efforts portray environmental safeguards as something to be avoided. Instead of viewing clean air, clean water, and climate stability as factors that foster economic productivity, the Administration apparently sees environmental regulation as something that is only to be tolerated in small doses (and even then, we have yet to learn of a single environmental safeguard that it supports). If the environmental regulation is thought to interfere with the Administration’s economic objectives, however narrow or unrealistic those objectives might be, it’ll be the environmental measure that gets the axe, because it has violated the Administration’s uber-reductive version of the idea that prosperity and environmental progress can be achieved simultaneously. That is, economic growth “trumps” the environment, even where those two objectives are completely compatible.

That the Trump Administration would point to China’s legacy to justify its own attempt to chase a dubious economic growth strategy at the expense of public health and the environment is both ironic and baffling. It completely misunderstands the struggle in which China is now engaged.

Another irony is that the Administration is trying to undo Clean Air Act regulations at the same time China is trying to replicate them. About a decade ago, when I was working on CATF’s effort to build connections between clean energy companies in the United States and China, officials in Beijing were studying the US Clean Air Act and how US-style cooperative federalism works in the environmental sphere, in hopes that they might find some answers to their own pollution problems. When China reformed its primary environmental law in 2014, it did so “in a way that brings it closer to the structure of the US Clean Air Act.” Moreover, China’s course correction seems to be bearing fruit. The country’s air pollution-related death rate has begun to decrease, reports The Diplomat, and the Chinese government

has now set limits on the burning of coal and is transitioning to lower emission coal burning technologies. The dust concentration by the coal-burning boilers in thermal power plants has been reduced from 30 milligrams per cubic meter to 20 milligrams per cubic meter. China has also taken high-polluting vehicles, those registered before the end of 2005, off the roads. 

Once President Xi finishes explaining to President Trump that “[t]he Paris agreement is a milestone in the history of climate governance” and that “[w]e must ensure this endeavor is not derailed,” he might want to take a moment to clarify the lessons that the White House ought to learn from China’s ongoing environmental crisis. It is unlikely that, based on China’s experience, he would advise the US to weaken its environmental laws. Instead, the lesson that President Xi might impart is that smart environmental protections are conducive to sustainable economic prosperity. His best evidence? The United States’ multi-decade track record of economic growth paired with continuously tightening environmental controls.

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