The real China Syndrome

Welcome <cough> to <cough> Beijing

Dark clouds are gathering in the east.

We depend on China for all manner of manufactured goods. Consumer electronics, cookware, children’s toys, and virtually any other item you can name – or purchase – all come with the familiar “Made in China” label. In 2009 the country overtook Japan to claim the #2 spot on the World Bank rankings for Gross Domestic Product (GDP), second only to the United States. And with an annual growth rate that has hovered around 10% for the last four years, it won’t be long before China tops the charts.

The energy it takes to keep all that industry running is astounding. In 2009 China used 2,257 Mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent), making it the world’s top energy consumer. The International Energy Agency estimates that in 25 years, China will consume 70% more energy than the United States.

Where will all that energy come from?

The answer is enough to any environmentalist blanch. The country’s 12th Five-Year Plan, encouragingly, calls for lower carbon intensity and more diversification of energy sources. Despite this, two of the most significant sources of energy that will drive Chinese growth are nuclear and coal.

A burgeoning Chinese nuclear energy sector should be unsettling news both within the country and without. The Chinese people will have to bear the high cost of nuclear power and the near-eternal commitment to safeguard radioactive waste. Likewise, they will have to accept the risk of nuclear disasters. There are more stakeholders beyond the country’s borders; nearby countries like Korea, India, and Japan will also have to live with the danger of a Fukushima-style catastrophe.

The effects of coal will reach even further. A 2007 MIT report stated that China was building new coal-fired generation facilities at a rate equal to two 500MW plants per week. Olympians surveyed with dismay the dirty Beijing skyline, as much a result of the country’s addiction to coal as it is the massively polluting two-cycle engines of countess mopeds and motorcycles. While particulates and acid precipitation from burning coal take their toll on the Chinese, the carbon dioxide will be felt across the globe as temperatures rise and weather patterns increase in chaotic intensity.

Were China a democracy, there is at least a chance that the people might demand change. North American democracies are hardly a model for decisive action against climate change, but Europe has taken a firm stand. Germany has become a leader in renewable energy technologies and has made huge strides towards reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. Denmark has done likewise. All this because the voters have demanded it. There is no such pressure on Beijing – politburo members are accountable neither to the international community nor to the Chinese citizenry.

The term “China Syndrome” is used to describe an extreme-case nuclear disaster. In this scenario, the core of a nuclear reactor melts down, burning through the containment vessel and the secondary containment building, and continues right through the earth’s crust. In a stroke of childish hyperbole, the radioactive mass eventually emerges on the other side of the planet – China.

A more modern version of the China Syndrome would be this. The authoritarian regime ruling the world’s most populous country is bent on acquiring wealth for its elite members (and perhaps, through economic trickle-down, the rest of the citizenry). It pursues this agenda in spite of international pressure to clean up its environmental act. It rationalizes that the developed nations had their turn at the messy carbon trough, so why can’t the up-and-coming economies? Resources are consumed and greenhouse gases are emitted at an eye-watering rate. Global CO2 levels rise relentlessly. The world rides an express elevator to complete ecological meltdown.

The original China Syndrome has never happened (Fukushima may be the exception). However, the modern China Syndrome is taking place at this very moment.

Can anything stop it?

The avenue of formal, binding, global, multilateral agreement has failed. The Kyoto Protocol offered some hope, but that evaporated last year at the Durban Climate Change Conference. The so-called Durban Platform amounts to nothing more than hitting the snooze bar until 2015. Few are optimistic that anything meaningful will be accomplished then either.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, China did not get to where it is by catering to the needs of its own population. Its growth has been, and continues to be, fuelled by exports. China consumes coal, but we consume the products that the coal creates. If we want to know the real culprit, we have only to look in the mirror.

Consumers in developed countries have demanded more and more for less and less. To retain market share, manufacturer after manufacturer has been forced to relocate operations to locations with the lowest cost. All that we have demanded is that the products we buy be cheap – we don’t give a tinker’s cuss about the environmental impact. Heck, we don’t even care much about the quality. Who cares if it breaks, if it’s so cheap that you can just buy another one?

The only way the China Syndrome can be stopped is if we change our mindset, and our purchasing patterns. Manufacturers provide us with crappy merchandise produced in an utterly unsustainable way for one simple reason – we haven’t demanded anything different. If we demand products that are manufactured in an environmentally responsible way, producers have no choice but to supply them.

The most innovative players will identify environmental responsibility as a differentiator. Such products will, at first, be able to command a premium. With time, competitors will get in on the act. Hopefully, before too long, sustainability will be table stakes – producers simply won’t be able to sell goods that were created in a way that depleted the earth.

The clock is ticking. China’s trade balance took a sharp dip into deficit recently, meaning that the value of imports exceeded that of exports. The domestic Chinese market is growing as more and more citizens reap the benefits of economic advancement, and the middle class becomes larger and larger. Soon, Chinese firms will be able to profit without exporting. And any leverage the outside world has over Chinese environmental direction will vanish.

We’ve got the power to avert the modern China Syndrome. But we won’t have it for long.