BEIJING — As China's economy roars ahead, leaving Technicolor rivers and polluted skies in its wake, the world's most populous nation has struggled to craft environmental policies that will appease growing numbers of critics at home and abroad.
Traditionally, many of the issues outlined in Friday's ominous United Nations report on climate change have been framed here, as elsewhere, as a trade-off between clean air and jobs. Yet it's also becoming increasingly evident that the division is not so clear-cut. Some studies estimate that pollution exacts a 7% to 10% cost on China's economy.
Complicating what passes for an environmental debate in China are political sensitivities, a controlled media, widespread rural poverty and a long tradition of top-down government wary of too much "meddling" by citizens.
For two decades, China has made economic growth a priority. The results have been impressive as the country becomes a bigger player on the global stage and hundreds of millions of its people are lifted out of extreme poverty.
But the cost has been high. China is home to 20 of the world's 30 most polluted cities, the World Bank concluded in a report last week. Officials here have acknowledged that 410,000 deaths a year are caused by pollution. And China is projected to surpass the United States and become the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases by 2009.
The U.N. report released Friday, which warned of the catastrophic results of global warming, served as a pointed indictment of the world's biggest producers of pollution.
Many of China's neighbors, including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, were able to pollute their way to prosperity and pay for the cleanup afterward. China, which comes to the development game late, is under growing international pressure to tackle its environmental problems at the same time, given its huge planetary footprint.
By some accounts, China remains two decades behind the United States in its environmental standards and as much as three decades behind Europe.
In response, Chinese leaders have set targets designed to promote alternate fuels, recycling and "green economic growth." These include vows by Beijing to get 16% of the nation's energy from renewable sources by 2020, double today's rate, and to become 20% more energy efficient by 2010.
Unlike the United States, China has signed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, although it is not required to reduce its carbon emissions under the agreement. And in two weeks, Beijing is set to release a national climate change plan that, though unlikely to break new ground, will consolidate and bring more focus to existing rules.
The effort, however, faces a host of problems. Many of the laws and regulations passed by the central government are routinely ignored or otherwise undermined by local officials because of corruption, mismanagement, greed and a system that hands out promotions based on economic growth.
"This is a big problem," said Yang Ailun, campaign manager for energy and climate change with Greenpeace China. "An important task for the central government is to design a framework for local implementation, rather than just issuing orders from above."
Although environmental awareness among the general public is growing, the picture is still mixed, reflecting divisions within Chinese society. Increasingly prosperous middle-class urban residents of Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing are voicing concerns. But many impoverished rural residents remain more focused on filling their rice bowls than rattling for quality-of-life improvements.
Still, the nation is seeing growing outrage and more violent protests as crops wither and children are born with birth defects caused by chemicals leaking from factories. Heart disease and respiratory problems linked to air pollution are among the leading causes of death in China, experts say, with acid rain now falling on 30% of the country.
Much of this information is successfully covered up by local officials holding an iron grip on the press and police. And victims have been prevented from organizing by a legal system that discourages class-action lawsuits.
China also has kept nongovernmental organizations on a relatively short leash, wary of any movement that might one day challenge the Communist Party's monopoly on political power. Registration and funding rules have been tightened, some activist environmental groups have been shut down, and other restrictions have been enacted to ensure organizations remain small.
The structure of the Chinese government creates other problems. Although the State Environmental Protection Administration, or SEPA, was elevated to the ministry level a few years ago, it is still far outgunned in terms of personnel and budget by ministries that oversee resource extraction, construction, industry and land use.