By Nirvana Bhatia
MA candidate in International Human Rights
Josef Korbel School of International Studies
Environmental sustainability in China was the focus of the second lecture in the University of Denver's Bridges to the Future series. Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and its director for Asia studies, stressed that Chinese President Hu Jintao was taking a far more serious look at environmental policies than any of his predecessors.
"There's no Al Gore within the leadership of China, but there's an understanding of how the environment affects other aspects of life -- like the economy and the country's global reputation," she said.
Economy was full of shocking facts on inefficient water consumption that has 400 million Chinese affected by desertification. For instance, urban China loses 25 percent of its water through leaky pipes. Cities like Tianjin in the north have sunk as much as 10 feet in the last decade. And nearly half the population, some 700 million people, drinks water contaminated with animal and human feces.
The concern is that as Chinese multinationals go abroad, they are exporting these environmental practices, which have ramifications for global environmental policy.
China doesn't want to be perceived as a contributor to these global problems however,
so the people and the government are taking notice -- even if the environment isn't
a priority. It appears that the educated middle class is getting involved in securing
better environmental practices in the nation, as 51,000 protests occurred in 2005.
The Chinese government is eager to quell this social unrest and to preserve its global
reputation, Economy said.
Emphasizing the relationship between the expanding economy and the environment is the best way of spurring improvement as environmental degradation is currently costing 8 to 12 percent of the country's gross domestic product. At the moment, China only spends 1.5 percent of its GDP on environmental protection.
A decentralized government makes enforcing goals for improvement difficult though; there is rampant corruption and local level officials are easily swayed by economic gains.
"It's difficult to change the habits of farmers versus factories," Economy said. "But
real environmental protection takes place at the local level."
Economy was unable to travel to Denver because of East Coast blizzards, but she spoke to the crowd of approximately 700 people at the Gates Concert Hall through a live video stream. To learn more about the University of Denver's Bridges to the Future lecture series, click here.