China is struggling with huge environmental problems, but there is also progress. DW columnist Frank Sieren thinks that the West should acknowledge this, instead of only painting apocalyptic scenarios.
China's unrestrained growth also has its darker aspects. For environmental activists, the smog in China's big cities is the visible proof that China's environment is about to collapse.
In the past, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has often taken the same line, saying that China is one of the world's worst sinners and responsible for a 50 percent rise in coal use over the past few years. This is true. Fossil fuels still accounts for 64 percent of China's energy mix, whereas in the USA, which is the world's second biggest user of coal, it makes up only 30 percent of the mix.
However, this does not necessarily mean that China's environment is on the brink of disaster. Germany's forests did not disappear even though there was a time when it would have been difficult to maintain the contrary. In the early 1980s, the slogan “When trees die, people do” brought tens of thousands out onto the streets. In Germany's 1983 election, forest decline was a major subject that could decide outcomes. The Green Party even entered parliament for the first time. Politicians took action: Filters were installed for nuclear power stations and coal-fired plants, stricter vehicle emissions controls were introduced and liming helped neutralize forest soil acidity.
Solutions instead of apocalyptic scenarios
Within a few years, Germans realized that a lot can be done. Things were not as bad as they feared. In 2003, the Green politician Renate Künast admitted that forest decline had been reversed. German forests are not dying, but growing. The Rhine River provides a similar success story: It is the prime example of a successful clean-up. Almost all of the 45 species of fish which used to live in the river 200 years ago have returned - even salmon. This is true despite the fact that for decades it was a cesspool without oxygen. We can learn from our German experience that it often makes sense to look at what's doable rather than painting bleak apocalyptic scenarios.
In this regard, the IEA recently altered its perspective. It is now looking at solutions and has even praised Beijing, saying that China deserves “more acknowledgement for its efforts in the energy sector.” It pointed out that China was a world leader thanks to its 80 billion dollar investment in renewable energies. It tops the list when it comes to wind energy use.
The vast uninhabited surface in the country's western parts can be used to expand this leadership. The world's biggest wind farm has been in development since 2009 in Gansu province - it will produce 20,000 megawatts of energy by 2020. The IEA said China was also well on its way to becoming the market leader in other areas too.
China wants to get away from coal
The Chinese government wants to get away from coal at almost any cost. It wants clean air. The fact that the government is serious about this can be seen mostly in Beijing. In the past six months, the air has improved. This has also been confirmed by Greenpeace, whose analyses show that “the government's strict measures of control are working”. Nonetheless, dust particle levels are still regularly above levels considered healthy in Germany. However, there are fewer days when smog levels are terrible.
In recent months, more and more dirty factories and power stations have been closed down and replaced by more efficient natural gas installations that generate 2.6 times more electricity and save an estimated 30 million tons of waste emissions.
It's not only in Beijing that old coal power stations are being replaced by new and cleaner ones or by natural gas installations, but in the whole country, where installations with a total output of 60 gigawatts are set to be taken off the grid. The government also intends to close over 2,000 small coal-mines by the end of 2015. There will be more wind farms and 27 new nuclear power stations which in China - as opposed to in Germany - are considered to be environmentally-friendly. Gradually, there is more realism when it comes to dealing with China's environmental problems.
Acknowledging China's successes too
In this case, realism means concentrating on finding a solution to a problem instead of denouncing hopeless situations. One thing is clear that for Beijing, praise is as motivating as pressure. That's why we in the West should express our pleasure in China's successes more. Like Greenpeace and the IEA. After all, it is in our interest that China's communists are successful in protecting the environment. Isn't it?
Frank Sieren has been living in China for the past 20 years.