Monday, April 2, 2007

The High Environmental Cost of China's Economic Boom

Two recent Washington Post stories detail how China's economic growth has trumped environmental conservation. And in both cases, the United States shares part of the blame.

In yesterday's article, Corruption Stains Timber Trade, the Post reported on how furniture giant Ikea is trying to promote itself as green, but hasn't backed up its talk with action when it comes to its sources of wood:

Ikea cultivates a green image, filling its cavernous stores -- including three in the Baltimore-Washington corridor -- with signs asserting that its products are made in ways that minimize environmental harm.

But in Suifenhe, a wood-processing hub in northeastern China, workers at Yixin Wood Industry Corp. fashion 100,000 pine dining sets a year for Ikea using timber from the neighboring Russian Far East, where the World Bank says half of all logging is illegal.

"Ikea will provide some guidance, such as a list of endangered species we can't use, but they never send people to supervise the purchasing," said a factory sales manager who spoke on condition she be identified by only her family name, Wu. "Basically, they just let us pick what wood we want."


Two years ago, Ikea set a goal that by 2009, at least 30 percent of the wood for its products will be certified by the
Forest Stewardship Council. But now, the company says, only 4 percent of the wood used to make its wares in China meets that grade.

And last week, the Post article Olympic Trials for Polluted Beijing detailed how the Olympics were awarded to Beijing despite its status as one of the world's most polluted cities.

When I first saw the picture on the right, I thought it must've been taken during a forest fire or something. But no, it's a satellite picture of the smog over Beijing on an ordinary day.

China is taking steps to ease the problem, but will they go far enough?

In all, by the time the Olympics begin Aug. 8, 2008, 300 million trees will have been planted, some on tops of buildings.

According to internal Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee documents described to The Washington Post, the city hopes to increase clean-energy usage in homes fivefold, make sure 80 to 90 percent of streetlights around Olympic venues are solar-powered and nearly double the capacity of the subway.

Even with the improvements, however, environmental experts say they have mixed feelings.

Some steps the city has taken are only stopgap measures, akin to hiding the dirty laundry in the closet before guests arrive. "Moving factories outside of Beijing doesn't mean much for solving China's environmental crisis," said Sun Shan, director of Conservation International in China.

Particles in Beijing's air are still 40 to 50 percent worse than in Los Angeles, the most polluted city in the United States.
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