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47 the national bureau of asian research nbr special report #47 | november 2014 BENJAMIN A. SHOBERT is the Founder and Managing Director of the Seattle-based Rubicon Strategy Group and a Senior Associate for International Health at the National Bureau of Asian Research. He can be reached at . The Key Drivers of China’s Environmental Policies Benjamin A. Shobert EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This essay examines the key drivers of China’s environmental policies and analyzes how environmental considerations are increasingly shaping China’s decisions on economic, energy, and public health issues. MAIN ARGUMENT China’s environmental policies historically have been a distant second priority to the country’s pursuit of economic growth. In recent years, however, environmental problems— specifically those that involve air, water, and food supply—have become politically sensitive subjects, inciting growing social unrest and protests. The Chinese government’s response to these problems has been to increasingly invest in a number of strategic renewable energy and clean-technology sectors, most notably clean coal. At the same time, the country has made massive investments in its strained healthcare system. Environmental considerations are also among the key drivers of China’s emphasis on higher-technology manufacturing and service-sector opportunities as part of the twelfth five-year plan. Nonetheless, despite these positive moves, questions remain about China’s ability to adapt its current environmental regulatory system in ways that might constrain key industries during a time when two things are happening: the country’s economic development model is transitioning, and overall economic growth is slowing. POLICY IMPLICATIONS • U.S. policymakers should not underestimate the priority that their Chinese counterparts will continue to put on economic matters over all else. In this way, China is likely to continue to resist adopting either energy or pollution standards that are perceived as restrictive to the country’s conventional growth model. • China’s energy policies are designed to ensure that the country can maintain cost-effective and timely access to key resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas. While the central government has taken great steps to incentivize the development of a renewable energy and clean-technology sector domestically, these priorities reflect economic goals more so than purely environmental priorities. • The primary vulnerability that China’s environmental damage has created is political and is best seen through the country’s strained healthcare system. This means that China’s healthcare reforms will continue to be a critical measure of how the government believes it can best balance the need to address the damage its economic growth model has caused to people’s health with the political risks attached to shutting down the country’s worst polluters. 49 THE KEY DRIVERS OF CHINA’S ENVIRONMENTAL POLICIES u SHOBERT F ebruary typically marks the worst time of the year for Beijing’s enveloping air pollution, especially for an egregious type known as PM2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less). These particulates are roughly 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair and gradually accumulate in a person’s respiratory and vascular systems—leading to premature death in the form of lung cancer, heart disease, cerebrovascular problems, and other respiratory ailments. In February 2014, the U.S. embassy in Beijing’s now-infamous Beijing Air Quality Index indicated that the city’s air quality had been at or above the “unhealthy for sensitive group level” for 70% of the month and that the same index had registered at “hazardous” or “beyond index” 25% of the time.1 For people aware of these measurements and the implications for their own and their family’s health, this meant that for 95% of February 2014 residents of Beijing needed to stay indoors, preferably in an environment with purified air. For those lucky enough to have the options to stay home or to work, go to school, or shop in artificial indoor environments with scrubbed air, a livable solution could be seen through the haze. But for the average citizen of Beijing, these were not options. The formerly white respiratory masks tucked neatly around people’s noses as they made their way around the city grew rapidly gray and dingy. These masks may provide solace but do little to protect one’s health.2 China’s environmental concerns have reached a critical inflection point, and these issues are increasingly driving national policy in ways that have key implications for public health, energy outlooks, and efforts to address global climate change. With this in mind, this essay...


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