Cleaning up "the Great Stink"

Salmon in the Thames? A "green province" in China? Who can we thank for these miracles?

Published March 30, 2007 7:15PM (EDT)

"Thames 'Clean Enough' for Salmon" -- the headline alone is enough to make any environmentalist's heart sing. In these days of impending climate change doom, who isn't encouraged by a news report detailing the release of 5,000 tiny salmon fingerlings into a river once referred to affectionately as "the Great Stink"?

Never mind that the BBC report on the release was a bit misleading. The Thames River Salmon Rehabilitation Project has been going on for years, and young salmon have been introduced into the river at least as far back as the early 1990s. But that's just quibbling: The crucial point is this -- the U.K., like many rich, developed countries, has taken significant strides toward cleaning up its environment.

Some might call the salmon swimming in the Thames another data point supporting the theory of the Environmental Kuznets Curve, which holds that there is an "inverted U-shaped curve" relationship between economic growth and environmental health. First, as a society experiences the initial stages of economic growth, the environment goes to hell. But then, once that society becomes affluent, it cleans up.

It's a nice story. But How the World Works has visited this topic before, and although we find it intuitively attractive, there's no escaping the fact that environmental economists have been poking holes in its applicability for years. A newly released study, "Is the Environmental Kuznets Curve Hypothesis Valid for Developing Countries? A Survey," by Jie He at the UniversitC) de Sherbrooke, provides a handy summary of the critical research. (Thanks to Natural Capital for the link.)

First problem: The theory appears to fit the evidence well when it's applied to localized pollution that is easy to see or smell, and not so well with larger, more systemic problems that are less immediately obnoxious to an affluent citizenry, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the curve may be an illusion -- the rich countries may be cleaning up by simply exporting the pollution-causing industries abroad. The U.S.-China economic relationship provides a classic example. To some extent the U.S. has largely decoupled its consumption of manufactured goods from their environmentally devastating production. And finally, close analysis of the circumstances of individual countries in the West suggests that historically contingent factors may have played a significant role: The oil shocks of the 1970s, for instance, may have impelled developed nations to improve their energy-efficiency and conservation efforts, which in turn had positive trickle-down effects on the environment.

Jie He concludes his review by suggesting that developing nations cannot just assume that economic growth will lead to environmental cleanliness. Instead, they have to examine the particulars of their own situations and determine what strategies are most appropriate, to see if they can "tunnel or leap-frog the EKC trajectory derived from developed countries' experience."

Which leads us to the case of Jiangsu, a coastal province of China just south of Shanghai with a population of 75 million. An enlightening story in ChinaDialogue this week tells us that Jiangsu, which boasted a blistering 14.9 percent economic growth rate in 2006, also happens to claim one of the best environmental records of any province in China.

Last year, it was also one of only two provinces that met national targets on pollution reduction and energy efficiency.

In 2006, emissions of major pollutants in Jiangsu province dropped by 3.3 percent, far surpassing the national target of 2 percent. Jiangsu's power consumption per unit of GPD also fell by 4.02 percent, just over the target of 4 percent.

Four of the six cities that were first awarded the title of "Ecological City" by China's State Council are in Jiangsu province. All four -- Zhangjiagang, Changshu, Kunshang and Jiangyin -- are among China's ten richest city and county-level economies.

Eighteen cities in Jiangsu have been designated "Environmental Protection Cities," one-fifth of the nationwide total and more than any other single province. Yangzhou was given the UN-HABITAT Scroll of Honour Award in 2006.

Sure, Jiangsu is relatively rich, a fact that, superficially, might suggest it is experiencing the happy effect of the EKC (or, more pessimistically, simply exporting its own pollution to China's less developed West). But a closer look indicates something more interesting. As far back as 2000, Jiangsu started instituting an emissions trading system aimed at limiting sulfur dioxide pollution -- in imitation of a similar program instituted in the United States that is widely considered a huge success. An incentive program that made the business of wastewater treatment profitable has also reportedly "spurred private investment in the wastewater treatment sector in the area."

Consider this: China's industrial and economic development only began to significantly accelerate in the mid-'80s, but in just 20 years the country is already adopting and employing sophisticated emissions trading strategies and incentive plans that took nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom hundreds of years to develop.

Whether the rest of China will be able to follow Jiangsu's lead is a huge question. Whether the world will ever be able to grapple with environmental challenges that transcend national boarders is equally challenging. One point seems clear: We can't just sit around and wait for economic growth to magically solve our problems. The salmon need more help than that.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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