Helping China's Pollution with Waterways

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Helping China's Pollution with Waterways


Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review


THE World Bank is expected shortly to raise billions of dollars worth of investment capital in support of a programme to reverse a series of environment management disasters in China, which many believe endanger the very health of the planet. High level discussions have been taking place between the Chinese government and the bank on financing the next five-year national economic development plan starting this year.

A focal point of the plan is a scheme to tam its 110,000 km network of rivers, lakes and canals into one of the least polluting and most economical means of moving freight, enabling big ships to travel far inside the interior. The bank has just announced a $100m investment towards the project. A lot more is in the pipeline.

The World Bank is being advised by the eminent geo-science research group of Munich Re, the world's biggest re-insurer. The company is deeply concerned by the effects of global warming caused by the greenhouse effect. It predicts an increasingly frequent recurrence of devastating weather-related disasters generated by atmospheric pollution, driving up premiums worldwide and placing affordable insurance cover beyond the reach of entire countries.

China is also listening. During its last five-year industrial development plan which ended this year, Beijing raised 1,020.9bn yuan ($123.5bn) for modernising its obsolete freight transport infrastructure, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. The first broad outline of an ambitious programme to develop the inland waterway system further in the 2001/05 period has just been revealed by Hu Xijie, the Chinese Vice-Minister for Communications. His announcement follows extensive talks in Beijing with Jemal-ud-din Kassum, Vice President of the World Bank. In the last 20 years, that institution has lent more than $34bn to China, a quarter of it for transport infrastructure and much of it for fighting pollution. Alternative sources of investment included China's central, provincial and local governments as well as other financial institutions. As China opens its gates to modern business, its next five-year plan may well create enormous new investment opportunities for the world finance industry.

Long-term neglect of the freight transport industry has generated pollution and created infrastructure bottlenecks posing a serious threat to future growth in the country, Le Le, a specialist spokesman for the World Bank Chinese office in Beijing, explains. The bank reckons that China would need at least $750bn investment within a decade. At its current pace of development, China is expected to emit more carbon dioxide by 2025 than the present total of North America and Japan combined.

The phenomenal expansion over the past several years of the national economy has already tamed China into the developing world's largest generator of carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas. The country is now responsible for about 10 per cent of all the greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, directly contributing to what Munich Re describes as an accelerated turbulence in the atmospheric weather engine generating heat waves, floods and windstorms.

Here in Beijing as well as in other major cities, sulphur dioxide concentrations, mainly from coal, regularly violate international guidelines, according to one authoritative recent study. The level of suspended particles in Chinese cities, also from coal, is 14 times that in the West. Acid rain falls on at least 14 per cent of the country and is spreading, not just through China but also into Japan and South Korea, damaging forests, crops and water ecosystems.

China is the world's second biggest coal consumer, but it has taken the most dramatic steps to curb carbon use. Coal subsidies fell from 37 per cent to 29 per cent between 1984 and 1995. Petrol subsidies were reduced from 55 per cent to just 2 per cent between 1990 and 1995. Clean air legislation and energy efficiency reforms cut coal consumption by 16. …

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