The distinction between pollution and climate change

March 3, 2014 by Timothy Beardson

Pollution and climate change are distinctly different. Those who care passionately about the environment and the urgent need to prevent pollution may not agree with those believing in the uniqueness of the current changes in climate. We need to note the distinction.

In the year 2000 BCE, today’s Beijing was the home of a substantial elephant population but according to Professor Mark Elvin’s important book The Retreat of the Elephants, by 1000 BCE – following steep, long-term temperature falls – they had completely gone.

From the eighth through the ninth century a sustained rise in strong winter monsoons in Central America led to lower rainfall, drier weather, crop failures and famine which eventually contributed to the fall of the Mayan civilisation. At the same time there were similar effects in China, which helped to undermine the Tang dynasty. Indeed weather seems also a contributing factor in ending the Yuan and the Ming dynasties in the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries respectively.

When Chinese people consider the frequent climate change effects in their history, it is unsurprising that they seem sceptical of the uniqueness of current climate changes. Opinion surveys show less concern about climate change than about pollution of water, air and soil. A 2010 survey concluded that only 41% of Chinese feel that climate change is a very serious problem. Beijing’s response to external climate change policy proposals seems equally measured.

The problems of China’s polluted landscape however are not sparse and superficial; they are endemic and run deep. They poison rivers and ocean, bring birth defects, degrade the land, damage fish and food crops, harm children’s health and cause premature death for millions.

Deep concern is expressed over issues such as polluted soil from misuse of fertilisers, poisoned rice and toxic materials left buried after urban factory closures. Beijing commissioned a six-year national survey of soil pollution in 2006 but decided not to release it, describing the survey in 2013 as a “state secret”.

There are many examples. Take the excessive use of antibiotics in the swine industry. China is estimated to have over seven times the volume of agricultural antibiotic usage of the US. This is leaking – through soil, water and air – into the human sector. It is building resistance to antibiotics in humans, thus destabilising healthcare.

The debatable current national drive to urbanisation will have several adverse consequences, such as continuing to undermine the birth rate. As is often remarked, ‘urbanisation is a highly effective contraceptive’. However another clear result will be an increase in pollution. Guangzhou’s recent plan to near double its land area will make real estate development easier through re-zoning rural districts as urban and thus boost the city’s land sales revenues – but at what cost?

Fast developing “mega cities” create concentrated communities of dense population where pollution is harder to control.

The rapid conversion of fertile agricultural land into real estate development owing to urbanisation and municipal finance needs has until the recent change in grain policy required local governments to find matching acreage to farm in order to keep the national arable land totals unchanged. This matching acreage is often in remote and inhospitable regions where soil suffers wind and water erosion and excessive quantities of fertiliser are needed.

Degraded soil, where for example topsoil has been lost, often causes irrigation water to flow straight through the ground to rivers and ultimately out to sea without benefiting agricultural production. Such flows have been blamed for half of rising sea levels since 1960. The excessive fertiliser used has helped to poison the river systems and coastal waters.

Soil itself is only produced extraordinarily slowly. Estimates are that a twenty-fifth of an inch is created every century. However it is eroding globally at a rate which is a multiple of that. Indeed in China it is being lost five times more quickly than it is being formed.

In order to stem the steady march of desertification, Beijing embarked in the 1970s on the largest afforestation programme in human history, aimed at covering 40% of the country. Since 2009 over three-quarters of this forest cover has been lost through poor planting.

We should remember that in most of the Eastern European countries which were Soviet-ruled, dissident movements began with an environmental stimulus. Moreover, officials have noted that many of the estimated 100,000 mass riots each year have an environmental basis. Regime stability suggests the need for more urgency by the Party to getting pollution under control.

The cost to China of cleaning up its landscape is hard to calculate. There are several estimates but it is difficult to believe that even the government has a clear idea because of China’s pervasively frail data and owing to the fact that not all pollution is even yet known. Estimates include $300bn across four years to $500bn per year for several years and this is only for air pollution not soil or water pollution. There is, of course, a difference between the cost of cleaning up and the economic cost of ongoing illness and death.

Why have the results achieved thus far been so inadequate? Essentially, it stems from governance. There are good laws but the political system has found it hard to implement them. A clinical approach is now needed from the top of the party to how cadres are managed and motivated in order to achieve better than sub-optimal results.

Whatever side one might take on the climate change debate is irrelevant. Pollution is clearly a priority for China. It is compromising China’s ability to achieve many national objectives. The damage that threatens the economy, public health and political stability demands a far greater urgency.


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