Can China Fix The World’s Environment?
What is pollution?
Where are we today?
The solution to Pollution is dilution. That was the mantra for mainstream ecology for decades, in the 20th Century. Is garbage in the local lake killing the fish? Of course it is! That just means that a little lake isn’t big enough to absorb the pollution. Silly, silly 20th century thinking! Of course you’re destroying the lake! You should have been dumping your garbage into the Ocean! The infinite ocean will take care of all your problems. Or most of them. For a while. After all, the solution to pollution is dilution. Enough dilution and any pollution problem will go away!
That does sound just a bit crazy today, but back then big industry credibly argued that lead in gas wasn’t a problem, and the smoke from cigarettes didn’t cause cancer. It was much more naïve time. As the 20th Century moved towards its conclusion and environmental science was established as a discipline, “dilution” became less and less credible. We understood that pollution does just go away, it just gets moved around. The world was no longer the mysterious place it used to be, with undiscovered lands and a mystical view of the environment. After all, the first weather forecast was made, and ridiculed, a little over 150 years ago; it was considered preposterous that anyone (other than a witch) could predict what the weather would be 24 hours in advance.
In the 20th Century, the world looked to America for leadership on just about everything, including the environment. But as the issues have become harder, and taking action to save the environment meant accepting significant economic costs, the US has become a reluctant leader. Which has created a gap in leadership. Ironically, the world’s worst polluter, China, is now stepping forward and appears to be interested in taking over the recognized leader in global environment issues. Can China take the lead in solving the world’s environmental problems? Surprisingly, the answer may be… yes!
China: World's #1 Economy
China: The inevitable leader of the world?
Let’s be very clear about one thing, China has not changed from the world’s most aggressively expanding economy to a land of tree-hugging altruists. China is and will continue to be a hard-nosed, business oriented country in pursuit of its own interests. However, over the next few decades the interests of China align surprisingly well with a clean environment. Not 100%, and not above all other interests and needs, but there is a lot of alignment with the need of the environment. At a minimum China’s environmental and economic interests align better with China than with any other country in the world.
What doesn’t align very well with China, is their position in the world and their growing power. China has a lot of reasons to believe that they should be better respected, and more influential, than any other nation in the world. China has the largest population of any nation in the world. Their economy is number two, or possibly number one, depending on how you count.
Because China is the world’s most popular outsourcing location, their economy is intertwined with more of the most powerful nations in the world, than any other country. Outsourcing driven success has made China the most successful and fastest growing economy in the world. Unlike the economic revolution in the Middle East, which was based on exploiting natural resources (oil), China has made long term investments to fuel future growth. 2013, China submitted over 825,000 patent applications. Saudi Arabia submitted less than 1,000. And of course, China has become the nation with the world largest cash reserves… $3.9 trillion, more than 30 times the reserves of the U.S.
Why isn’t China recognized as the world leader across all of these areas? For decades China has been seen as a leader… of poor and underdeveloped nations. As China has transitioned from a leadership position in the third world, to a member of the 1st world industrial nations, it retained a second class citizen status when it came to international power. But China has been building their military, and now has the largest military in the world, by personnel, even though the U.S. has much greater military firepower (even if you don’t count nuclear weapons). China is usually recognized as the number three military, after the US and Russia. China’s standard of living has risen dramatically, but is just #91 in the world (compared to #5 for the U.S.). And there are all of those ongoing questions about human rights in China.
From 1600 to 1800 China was the biggest economy in the world; by 2015 China will be #1 again!
Who should lead the world in fixing the environment?
What happens when the water goes away!
World’s number 1 issue: Climate Change
China may not have all of the qualification of the world leader, but as their economy continues to expand, they will have more and more reasons to feel that they should lead the world. Besides, if the U.S. economy is overtaken, what other country has the economic, military and technological qualifications to become the next super power?
China may find a different model to run the world, but if they follow U.S. model, they need to have more than just a big military and economic power… they need to be able to lead in defining and promoting global issues that improve the world. America became THE world leader following World War II, by taking on the job (and the cost) of rebuilding a ruined Europe. The framework for rebuilding Europe, called “The Marshall Plan”, included the development of a World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations. These institutions were needed both to tackle issues too big for America to take on by itself, and to develop consensus on how global issues should be managed.
Today, the world faces an even greater… although less obvious… challenge: rebuilding of the world’s ruined environment. There is international consensus that the world’s environment has been damaged, and that climate change is just one results of this damage. There is also political and scientific consensus that without major changes to world-wide industry and international regulation, the problems will get worse, and may become irreversible. Already, environmental problems are evolving into economic problems.
Climate change is fueling the drought in California, which has devastated farming and fishing, and will require massive expenditures (and possibly more damage to the environment) to develop more water sources. The fight over water between agriculture, home owners, the recreation industry and other factions has already led to political infighting. Elsewhere in the world, water that once flowed from country to country, is being fought over. Small water conflicts could easily escalate into full scale military action as water becomes ever more scarce.
China has enormous challenges in dealing with its own water challenges. There are enormous demands for new water sources in China as the population and industry continues to grow. In order to provide the water it needs, China has partnered with Western firms to develop desalinization technology, the process of turning sea water into fresh water. As a result of these partnerships, the cost of desalinated water in China has dropped by half over the last 20 years. If China follows the same pattern in water as in other industries, it will soon market its own brands, slashing the price point of desalinated water. Building industrial scale water desalinization or purification systems is exactly what China is looking for. And, if they can significantly reduce the cost of desalinization, China would develop a new industry and then dominate it.
Water is just one environmental industry that China is ready to dominate. China produces twice as much polar power as the US, and is the world’s largest producer of solar power equipment. Wind power? China produces 25% of the world’s wind power, more than any other country, and has two of the world’s top three wind turbine manufacturers. Of course, dominating an industry isn’t always a positive. China’s fishing fleet is the biggest in the world, officially harvesting 20% of ocean caught fish, but perhaps illegally catching a dozen times more. China, more than any other nation, bears responsibility in the last 20 years for depopulating the world’s oceans. That’s hardly the record you would expect for a leader in ocean ecology. Still, with so much invested in fishing, China is highly unlikely to let any other nation become the dominant voice in fishing.
Who can lead the world in fixing the Environment?
#1 Super Power, Military Power, Financial Leader, World Political Leader, Control of Key International Commities and Groups
Conflicts With Islamic World, Outdated 20th Century Alliances, Responsible For Many Pollution Issues, Huge Fossil Fuel Industry
Most Cash, Biggest Population, 4,000 History, New Economic and Political Models, Leader In Green Technologies
Human rights, Isolationist history, Only a Regional Leader, No History In South America, Limited History in Africa
Impartiality, New Ideas and Viewpoints, Fewer Conflcts of Intersts
Less Money, Less Influence, Fewer Allies
Fixing the environment could be profitable....
Is the Environment a problem or an opportunity?
The condition of the world’s environment is a huge problem. We are tied to energy sources that are cheap in the short term, but have very high long term costs. There are just as strong short term incentives to overfish, drain the water table, farm using destructive chemicals or lose precious topsoil because of bad farming methods. For decades industry has been filling the air, the oceans and the small amount of fresh water on the planet with toxic waste. Most countries look at this situation and think, “It’s too big an issue for me to handle.” They may be right. The technology hasn’t been invented, the costs will be astronomical, and even if America or Britain or Germany focuses on this issue, can they stay focused for the next 30 or 40 years?
China is the only country that has the financial reserves, the industrial background and the political alignment with environmental issues to possibly unify the world behind them. Oh, we’re going to see some new issues. China will undoubtedly offer cut rate or free technology to countries that help them with other global issues. They may provide the world with fresh water, in exchange for harvesting the last fish in the ocean, or forgiveness for poaching endangered species. Leadership has its privileges, and China very much wants those privileges. It will be a very mixed bag, and there will be many opportunities to abuse this position, but China truly is the best bet to lead the world in fixing our broken environment. At least, that’s my Niccolls’ worth.
Reasons for China to lead the world?
- The #1 economy in the world
- The largest population in the world
- More cash reserves than any other nation
- The world's third most powerful military
- Develops more technology than any other country