Building a greener China

Environmental lawyers can help to meet the demands of this exciting new market

Paul Davies

In recent weeks pollution levels in Beijing are reported to have been almost 40 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s daily recommended limit. From a personal perspective, it was certainly the worst air pollution I have experienced since first visiting Beijing over a year ago.

The reasons for the pollution? Car emissions, construction dust, atmospheric conditions and, most particularly, increased burning of coal during the winter months. All this combined to generate a smog that blanketed the city.

And Beijing is not the only city in China where air pollution has become an issue. According to a 2012 report by the Asian Development Bank, seven of the most polluted cities in the world are in China.

Every challenge, however, is an opportunity and, from an environmental perspective, the problems in China are no exception. Indeed, the Chinese media have run various stories arguing that China can learn from London’s experience.

2012 marked the 60th anniversary of London’s Great Smog that was estimated to have killed as many as 12,000 people (4,000 in the smog and 8,000 in the following months). Smog had become common in London due to the use of coal, particularly in the winter months, but in 1952 it reached unprecedented levels. People could not see their own feet and animals dropped dead in the street. Controls were introduced via the Clean Air Acts, resulting in an improvement in air quality.

China, like the UK, must now grapple with the environmental costs of rapid economic growth,

focused primarily on industrialisation. Ad hoc measures for the reduction of air pollution – like those around the Beijing Olympics such as taking certain classes of vehicles off the roads or reducing manufacturing activities – do not provide a long-term solution.

Although environmental law is in its infancy in China it is developing rapidly. Emergency rules to address air pollution in Beijing will speed this up but they are only part of the process. Comprehensive measures and standards need to be applied across China. Tackling the particular problem of air pollution and addressing wider environmental concerns while acknowledging China’s commitment to delivering growth is ambitious, but feasible.

A greener China could drive the economy not just in Asia, but globally. Yes, there is a difficult balancing act to be achieved but the economic benefits of improving air quality, including increased productivity and a reduction in the cost of treating related illnesses, are already clear. In 2007 the World Bank published a study on the cost of pollution in China which indicated that the economic burden of air pollution in relation to health impacts could be as much as 3.8 per cent of GDP.

For environmental lawyers willing to invest their time and effort, China represents a significant opportunity to share their knowledge and experience and, in doing so, help meet the demands of a new and exciting market for environmental legal services.