China’s GDP has been growing at a rate of 10% a year for the past three decades. The country is rising quickly, no doubt. Some say China’s pursuing the dream of becoming a global superpower, and some argue that that is an inevitability.
But is GDP the sole factor in measuring global power? The answer is definitely not!
Most experts in the field consider the major criteria in measuring power: economic power, military power, and innovation in technology. And China is lacking in all three. And though GDP is a good indicator for economic power, it is not the only one; there’s also GDP per capita, average income per person, income inequality, accumulated wealth… all of which China fails drastically in.
However, I believe that other factors are equally important in determining a country’s power, mainly the environment and sustainable development, especially in China’s case.
The Chinese government strived to increase the gross domestic product in the past few decades at any cost, ignoring the heavy burden this created on the environment. The massive reliance on oil, coal and gas, as well as the rapid industrial development and the excessive number of inefficient factories managed to make China beat the US as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, towards the end of 2007.
It is assumed that 16 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are Chinese. Due to the lack of exact data on China, and a fairly significant margin of error, some claim that the all 20 cities are located in China.
On the Environmental Performance Index, China ranks 116 out of 132 countries.
In the past few years, the Chinese leaders pledged to reduce air pollution. Yet, economic impact of air pollution was almost 112 billion USD in 2005, while it was at 22 billion USD in 1975, say MIT researchers.
In 2008, the environmental degradation accounted for 10.51% of China’s Gross National Income, according to figures provided by the World Bank.
In 2004, cleaning up air pollution was estimated at a cost of 3% of the GDP. Nowadays, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that the damage to the ecosystem would cost China 9% of its GDP. Other estimates put the cost of its environmental damage as almost 13% of GDP.
The numbers are huge and scary, but that’s not all!
Natural disasters have been contributing to climate change and the high rate of GHG emissions could erupt at any time causing billion dollars’ worth of damages.
On the other hand, the Chinese population living in poverty in rural areas was assumed at 122 million people at the end of 2011. The index measuring income inequality, also known as the Gini coefficient, was 0.61 in 2010, while the warning level set by the United Nations is 0.4. This puts the country in the level of social unrest, currently causing lots of strikes, riots and other disturbances.
As a result, the government now hopes to reduce the poverty rate and decrease the inequality gap, but has focused on furthering economic growth and industrial development. Poverty and development are inter-related; poverty alleviation requires economic development that puts further pressure on an already fragile ecosystem, which will in turn lead to more billions of dollars of costs on the economy.
In 2012, China said it will invest $372 billion into energy conservation projects until 2015, in an attempt to reach its target in cutting its CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
Yet, regardless of how pressing the issue of a degraded environment, Chinese leaders are currently much more concerned with social protests, the threat of escalation into conflict levels, geopolitical issues with their neighboring countries and a possible decrease in GDP growth, which leaves little focus on its environment.
On January 12, 2013 the Air Quality Index- AQI- was 775 on the U.S Embassy Beijing Air Quality Monitor, noting that an AQI above 300 is considered hazardous to all humans.
The cost of environmental degradation cost to the Chinese economy is pretty heavy, and there’s reason to assume that the cost on health, corrective measures and investments in clean energy will only increase.
I hope that China learns this lesson, that it needs to green it’s GDP, that becoming a superpower by being a burden on the environment is simply not worth the effort