China is home to 55 ethnic minorities. While many live in rural areas affected by poverty and lack of employment opportunity, environmental or climate (in)justices are not exclusive to them. The divide of who suffers from environmental pollution runs along income and rural-urban lines. And China sees itself internationally as a victim of climate injustices caused by the development in the West.
For decades, China has been the dumping ground for plastic and e-waste from the developed world as labor costs for sorting were cheaper in China. Socially the weakest, Chinese children could be seen sitting on mounds of e-waste, sorting for precious raw materials in hazardous conditions. Toxic chemicals from unprofessionally stripped e-waste and unwanted plastic leaked into soil and waterways, causing various environmental and health issues.
Exploitation of the weakest members of society for economic profit at the expense of human and environmental health is a phenomenon of 30 years of prioritizing economic development in China. It led to so-called Cancer Villages, where high rates of cancers occurred that were linked to pollution from production close to those communities. High-polluting manufacturing, e.g. paper mills, were settled in poorer rural areas to spur economic development.
Some factories were moved to places far from their original location in advanced cities in an attempt to crack down on air pollution. For years, unfiltered emissions and effluence were uncontrollably discharged into rivers and the air. Local governments of poor communities turned a blind eye as they were measured on GDP, not on environmental health. The rural-urban income divide also drove millions of migrants from underdeveloped provinces to the cities to work as laborers in construction or garbage collection. Stories of occupational hazards due to unsafe practices abound.
After 3 decades of prioritized economic development, China’s government finally realized during the 2000s that the environmental and health consequences may hurt future growth and social stability. The last two Five-Year-Plans prescribed sustainable development as the path forward, integrating development with environmental protection.
Relevant authorities have improved their efforts to capture environmental complaints through e.g. whistle-blower functions on their websites and through social media, but NGOs are still often the go-to point for concerned citizens to lodge complaints as they are perceived more trustworthy and engaged with the topic. Many environmental NGOs in China, operating on a wide range of topics from e-waste mitigation to reforestation, work closely with and have access to public entities.
China has also developed mechanisms for participatory practices and information dissemination. In 2013, the environmental authorities required all provinces to create online platforms for disclosing factory emission data and the IPE’s “Blue Sky” App makes emission data accessible to a broader public. Consultative meetings, public hearings, advance briefings, surveys, and solicitations of opinion have become part of the feedback repertoire.
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The Chinese central government has over the past decade increasingly reacted to public complaints, intent on building a stable, “harmonious”, and “moderately prosperous” society. The Central Government’s heavy leaning in 2015 on the municipal government to thoroughly resolve the issues behind some very vocal village demonstrations illustrates the interest of China’s leaders to keep the peace: villagers protested against the alleged resettlement of PX (paraxylene) producers into a chemical park close to rural communities in Southwest Shanghai. PX production had over the years become the poster-child of chemical accidents in China; villages protested against such dangers in their backyard.
The Central government has also sought to strengthen its ability to effectively respond to pollution and to untangle local environmental governance from local administration: the Environmental Tax (2016) seeks to make pollution economically nonviable by moving from a one-time fine to a daily penalty for each day the polluting action continues. In 2018, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment was given greater powers to govern and punish with local environmental authorities now reporting in a direct line to the ministry, instead of to local administration.
China’s government is committed to very pragmatically tackle its environmental problems, from re-forestation to cleaning up its water bodies to waste management, with the aim to keep social stability while continuing economic development.
However, the discussion of who suffers most from the consequences of climate change and who within China is mostly responsible for the emissions that cause climate change, has not gained much traction yet. The climate justice discussion is in a nascent stage and evolves within NGOs and think tanks that are internationally involved in the climate change debate.
It can only be hoped that a constructive debate about climate justice will find its way into the public realm, as millions of residents in Guangxi and along the Yangze River are currently suffering (again) from heavy flooding caused by “unusually” heavy rains. So far, the question of what the relationship of increasing CO2 emissions from additional coal-fired power capacity in the far Northeast and unusually heavy rains in the Southwest is, has not been discussed. While coal mining and the coal-based industry is still the backbone of livelihood for many workers in the economically underdeveloped Northeastern provinces, reducing reliance on coal in favor of less CO2 emission-heavy power generation is an absolute necessity to combat global warming and mitigate freak weather phenomena like flooding. Now may be a good time to start that discussion.
The efforts that China has made to tackle its pollution issues such as reducing air and water pollution, as well as pursuing a re-greening strategy to restore forest coverage are truly impressive. At the same time, with China’s Southwest again suffering from heavy flooding due to unusually heavy rains, it is time to look at the more indirect causes and consequences of pollution. Climate Change and how it affects those who are not even causing the CO2 emissions that lead to temperature warming and freak weather phenomena. The majority of China’s CO2 emissions stem from coal-based industries like energy generation, steel or cement production. While we understand the need to provide employment to workers in structurally weak provinces, it is equally important to consider Climate Justice for those suffering the consequences. It will be paramount for China to step up its efforts and investments to reduce reliance on coal and coal-based industry in favor of more innovative industries. These efforts should be coupled with re-skilling programs for workers in the old industries, so that they can continue to be productive contributors to China’s drive to become an innovation and sustainability leader.
Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China / 中华人民共和国生态环境不
(for Chinese): http://www.mee.gov.cn/hdjl/bzxxzs_1/
(For English) email@example.com
National Development & Reform Commission / 中华人民共和国国家发展和改革委员会
Chairman Lifeng He / 何立峰主任
(for Chinese) http://xf.ndrc.gov.cn/xf/2019/ly.jsp
(For English) firstname.lastname@example.org
The State Council, 中华人民共和国国务院总理
Share your ideas with China’s Premier (in English)
Premier Keqiang Li / 李克强总理
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Country Manager: Annette Wiedenbach
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327931829_China_Climate_Justice_without_a_Social_Movement; https://brill.com/view/journals/cjel/1/2/article-p263_263.xml?language=enhttps://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/11/china-ban-plastic-trash-imports-shifts-waste-crisis-southeast-asia-malaysia/https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es802725m https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/04/china-villages-cancer-deaths
Jingjing Zeng; Meng Yuan; Richard Feiock: “What Drives People to Complain about Environmental Issues? An Analysis Based on Panel Data Crossing Provinces of China” https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwitzcPPoNzqAhXIg3IEHVcUC5cQFjANegQIBxAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.mdpi.com%2F2071-1050%2F11%2F4%2F1147%2Fpdf&usg=AOvVaw2C9XlFGnIKekvcbvwv4ykJ
 Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs