Time to give China a break

Recycling in China

Sanne van Oosten

Western media is always full of horror stories about pollution in China. But I want to propose a positive side of the story. In many ways, people in China are living more environmentally friendly lives than people in the West. They might not be doing it for environmental reasons perse, but whatever the reasoning, it is happening.

For one thing, even outside the mega-cities of Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing, public transportation is superb. Busses and subways connect you to just about every place you need to be. Also, since housing is so dense with most people living in high-rise apartment buildings, it is very profitable to set up public transportation. I have yet to come across an empty bus or subway car. It seems like setting up a public transportation line is yet another booming business in China.

Subway systems are clean, conveniently located and frequent. In the largest part of the city you never need to walk far before you find a subway station and in the suburbs it seems like the subways are sprouting like mushrooms. Something that we, from Amsterdam, are very jealous of. In Amsterdam they have been trying to build a new subway line for about ten years and it is nowhere near from being finished.

Not only the subways are superb but China has been building highly sophisticated high speed rail lines all over the country, connecting most larger cities. Even though the ride feels so smooth, they go more than 300 kilometers per hour on most parts. These high speed trains are so fast and convenient that they are actually successfully competing with air planes. When taking check-in time into consideration they are almost just as fast as planes. Also, they are most convenient because you don’t arrive at an airport far away from the city, but right in the city centre. Why take a plane when you can also take a high-speed train? In Europe and the United I have yet to see any train line that can actually compete with highly polluting planes in price and convenience. But in China, they are all over the place.

Convenient subway systems, frequent busses and high-speed trains connecting most cities are not all. In large cities such as Shanghai, registering a for a permit to drive within the city limits can cost you more than your vehicle itself. Not only to improve the quality of the air, but also to prevent large-scale traffic jams. This is seen as a practical solution to otherwise large scale traffic congestion.

In many developing Asian countries the streets are filled with exhaust from motorcycles, but not in China. Each and every motorcycle I have encountered in China is electric. This doesn’t mean no CO2 is being emitted anywhere in order for them to move, but it does mean that the air in the cities is much better than it otherwise would have been. When asking around nobody seemed to prefer motorcycles running on gasoline, “why go to the trouble if you can just plug in your e-bike anywhere?” Once again, the environmentally friendly option is simply the most convenient.

Many Chinese cities have shared bike plans. You sign up and pay a small amount to be able to use a green bike to get from A to B. Take it out of the stand and a small amount is deducted from your account and take a bike ride on it. Traveling by bike is also a breeze thanks to the wide bicycle paths all over the larger cities. Watch out though, you don’t hear the motorcycles coming!

Just like with the use of public transport, people don’t use it because of environmental consciousness, but because it is convenient an necessary for other reasons than the environment. Taking the high-speed train from A to B is just faster and cheaper. Using the subway systems or busses are the best way to get in to town, cheaper than the car and you don’t need to look for parking. And that is exactly the balance that the West should find. Certain lifestyle choices can be solely based on environmental considerations, but these choices will be made much more often if they are also convenient. When it comes to transportation, t he Chinese have found ways in which to make the environmentally friendly way also the most convenient way.

But it doesn’t only stop at transportation. Recycling is much more normal in China than anywhere in the West. However, for a large part, this thorough recycling system is based on the extreme differences between rich and poor. Try walking over a Chinese street with an empty bottle in your hand. Before long someone will come to you and ask you if they can have that bottle for the deposit. The deposit is granted by the kilo and with such a negligible price that I would never bother to do so, but there are so many poor people who scurry through the streets and divide the recyclable material and deal with it accordingly. Once again, the environmentally friendly option is not being chosen out of heart for the environment, but it is chosen nevertheless. I don’t think I would prefer severe divisions between rich and poor over proper recycling, but the fact that its taking place deserves mentioning.

But the biggest polluter of China is definitely large amounts of industrial plants. Many people are keen to point the finger at China when it comes to this, and it is true that the industrial sector in China is not only polluting the air but also ground and water, with severe consequences for flora and fauna, including people. But I then ask you, where do most products made in China go to? Yes, they are exported. Where? Mostly to Western countries. Therefore, anyone who complains about Chinese pollution should stop buying things that are made in China. Will that be difficult and maybe impossible? Yes. And that shows how intertwined the actions of the West is with the pollution in China. Therefore, it is quite hypocritical to point the finger to China if most pollution comes from producing products for the (western) export market. Considering all of the domestic environmentally friendly choices they opt for, it might be time to give China a break.

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  1. Chinese inequality « - October 22, 2012

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