Editorial and Op Ed Articles
Op-ed by Peter Bosshard (*)
San Francisco Chronicle.
February 8, 2008
China is rapidly buying up the world's resources. The new globalsuperpower is exploring oil fields in Africa and Central Asia, drillingfor gas in Burma, building hydropower dams in the Mekong region,prospecting for minerals in the Congo and cutting down forests inIndonesia. China's hunger for raw materials is pushing up the price ofoil and other resources, and stretching the ecological limits of theplanet.
China is joining the party at a time when other countries and companiesalready control most of the world's resources. China's response has beento explore sites which other actors have considered too risky. Chinesecompanies are developing oil fields, mines and dams in areas that aregeographically remote, politically unstable and ecologically fragile,often ignoring the environmental and human rights impacts of theirinvestments.
A Chinese company is building a large dam on the Kafue River in Zambiathat puts important wetlands, including two national parks, at risk. Thedam will generate power for nearby mines, which produce copper andcobalt for China's industry. When Western financiers hesitated to fundthe Kafue River project because of environmental concerns, the Chinesedeveloper immediately stepped in, and urged Zambian authorities to cutthe environmental assessment process short.
A backlash against the social and environmental impacts of Chineseinvestments has already begun. Workers have protested the poor laborconditions in Chinese mines in Zambia. Rebel groups have targetedChinese oil installations in Nigeria and Ethiopia. Environmental groupsin Burma and Sudan have asked Chinese dam-builders to stay away fromtheir rivers. And the government of Sierra Leone has outlawed timberexports because of the ravaging impacts of Chinese logging.
Like any long-term investor, Chinese companies have an interest inavoiding human rights abuses and environmental destruction in their hostcountries. The Chinese government has issued guidelines for Chinesecompanies to protect the rights of workers, local communities and theenvironment. Chinese companies have started to adopt environmentalstandards, but have yet to effectively implement them.
The responsibility for China's global environmental footprint does notend in Beijing and Shanghai, however. A large part of the minerals andtimber that China extracts around the world ends up in furniture,computers and toys in our homes. An estimated 70 percent of China'stimber imports are re-exported in products for the world market. And thecopper from China's mines in Zambia may well provide the wiring in ourtelevision sets.
China has become the world's factory, but its own per-capita consumptionis still modest. The carbon-dioxide emissions of average Chinesecitizens are only a quarter of the U.S. levels. Most Chinese don't drivecars, and already now, the fuel economy of Chinese cars is higher thanthe standard that the U.S. Energy Bill has set for 2020.
The carbon balance is telling. Goods that were consumed in othercountries accounted for 31 percent of China's carbon-dioxide emissionsin 2004. Our own carbon-dioxide emissions were up to 30 percent higherif we included the emissions of goods consumed here but produced outsideof the United States. China's role as the world's factory allows us tooutsource much of our dirty work.
Chinese companies need to strengthen the environmental standards oftheir overseas investments to protect workers, communities andecosystems in their host countries. Global textile, furniture andcomputer companies, which manufacture many of their products in China,should also consider the environmental impacts of their supply chain,including the origin of their raw materials.
Yet environmental standards alone will not do the trick. China, India,Brazil and other countries will continue to grow, and hundreds ofmillions of people are eager to join the American way of life. Theirrapidly growing environmental footprint demonstrates that our lifestylecannot be multiplied within the world's ecological limits.
We need to speak up for the rivers, forests and local communities thatChina's global resource spree is putting at risk. But we can only do socredibly if we cut back on our own wasteful consumption and adoptsmarter energy, transport, planning and industrial policies at home. Wecan only expect China to protect the global environment if we reduce ourown oversized footprint on the planet.
(*) Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers, anonprofit group based in Berkeley/USA.
Back to Editorial and Op Ed Page
Copyright 1998-2005, Tibet Environmental Watch (TEW)