Titanic choices

Growth versus the environment

Titanic choices

The less palatable part of that GDP growth Beijing is promising

It would be a rare person to stand on the deck of the Titanic and worry about the rainforests. When the ship’s going down, the concern is with more immediate practicalities (lifeboats, for instance) than longer term preoccupations with carbon emissions and climate change.

China’s current economic slowdown does not draw direct comparisons with a collision with an iceberg. But the nation’s leaders must decide which is the lesser of two evils: a slowing economy or environmental degradation.

When the government announced its Rmb4 trillion ($586 million) stimulus package in November it made it abundantly clear that 8% GDP growth was the intended result. With 20 million migrant workers already sacked – and the pending problem of finding jobs for 7 million university graduates – the growth target is said to be essential for social stability.

This trade-off once again became clear at the annual parliamentary session of the National People’s Congress. Vice-minister Wu Xiaoqing revealed that the ministry of environmental protection had quickened the approval process for large projects that the State Council had deemed vital to growth.“We have approved some projects as soon as we got their applications and effectively served the purpose of maintaining high growth in gross domestic product,” said Wu. Projects worth Rmb970 billion had been fast-tracked while 14 others (which went unspecified) were delayed by environmental impact assessments.

Greenpeace is among the groups that have voiced concerns that the environment is being sacrificed on the altar of 8% GDP growth.

The dilemma for the environmental protection minister is evident in comments he made to a media briefing on the sidelines of the Congress. Wu is reported to have said: “We have especially stressed in our meetings that we would rather be seen as the baddies today rather than as the criminals by history, and we will most definitely keep the bar high.” However, as if to emphasise the challenges that China’s environmentalists face, the chairman of the National People’s Congress, Wu Bangguo said it would be “arduous” (common Beijing parlance for ‘impossible’) to hit China’s own targets for reducing pollution next year.

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