Panasonic has announced that it will offer a wage premium to workers sent to China to account for the healthrisks of China’s dangerous levels of smog. Levels of pollutants including sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide have repeatedly reached more than 400 micrograms per cubic metre, more than 16 times the World Health Organisation’s safety guideline.
This denunciation of China’s environmental stewardship is not the first. Environmental damage in China is a result of an unprecedented emphasis on energy production. Whether this is excessive is debatable considering that their 2012 emissions of CO2 equivalent were 6.2 tonnes per capita, a number which is dwarfed by the 17.6 tonnes emitted by the USA.
It is unfortunate that China boasts abundant coal reserves because, of the three fossil fuels, coal is by far the most harmful. Contrary to public belief, however, this is not the only cause. It is also a result of unclear and insufficient policy-making and enforcement.
The vast recent increase in societal actors and a wider variety of priorities increase the chance of inaction and conflict during the policy-making process. What is more, often the ownership ties between the state and localities are mere formalities. In high-growth areas, understandably, the ability to provide electricity is a fundamental metric for judging a governor. This, along with a system that has constantly encouraged maximum economic growth, means that localities often make autonomous decisions that ignore or evade national regulations. In Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he claims the size of the population determines the nature of the government: perhaps this disconnection between state and locality is unavoidable beyond a certain extent.
In addition, on accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, China turned the ministries of Coal, Petroleum and Electric Power into state-owned enterprises. The result was an energy policy void, with previous ministerial experts now working for energy companies. Though the several bureaus and committees created to replace the ministries possess a great deal of authority on paper, they lack the resources to tackle the pressing smog issue. China’s energy firms are the clear agenda-setters and this is certainly reflected in the quality of the air and the steady rise of the pollution-related death count.