Sunday, March 20, 2011

China's membership in WTO exacerbates environmental problems

Since 1978, China’s rapid industrialization and trade liberalization policies have led to the country becoming the international dumping ground for environmentally damaging pollutants and dangerous hazardous wastes. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 has only exacerbated its ecological problems1. Since then the scale of economic activity has grown to more than offset technological gains in efficiency. Overall, compliance with environmental regulations is lax due to institutional weakness. In addition, the income gap is widening causing threats to the environment by escalating consumerism and high unemployment survival strategies1. Radical policy changes are needed to address China’s worsening environmental problems.

China’s industrial structure and natural resource endowments have favored pollution-intensive growth in coal energy production to meet the rapidly expanding energy demand of the exploding manufacturing sector. Air pollution has increased dramatically from the growth in coal and automobile industries. Small, low-tech, labor-intensive textile operations produce particularly dirty industrial sewage. Small firms account for the vast majority of production and are difficult to regulate and monitor1. These structural and resource factors have made China a free-for-all ‘pollution haven’ within an explicitly expansionist economic policy.

Numerous improved environmental standards have been adopted, but feebly enforced due to institutional weakness. China’s administrative structure is highly fragmented allowing economic ministries to focus on the “pursuit of narrow sectoral objectives with little consideration for the environment”2. Enforcing environmental regulations became even harder as the industrial ministerial structure was dismantled in the transition to comply with WTO rules1. In effect, the lack of enforcement has caused a ‘regulatory race to the bottom’ as China competes for foreign investment.

Socio-economic changes brought about by China’s WTO membership have magnified some environmental problems. China’s economic growth due to the reduction in trade barriers has boosted incomes of its urban populace and caused them to increase consumption of food, goods, and energy. On the other hand, high unemployment and reduced purchasing power means many people are engaged in heavily-polluting natural resource extraction survival strategies1.

China’s membership in the WTO will continue to allow a rapid expansion in the scale of industrialization and intensive energy consumption at the expense of the environment. Only a radical policy change could alter China’s trajectory of environmental degradation. Sudden crises such as food safety scares, climate change effects, or natural resource scarcity have the potential to cause large enough public concern for officials to contemplate serious policy changes. Or when a large social movement demands enforcement of environmental regulations, China may begin to prioritize environmental protection. Until then, China is unlikely to enhance regulatory enforcement or choose to fundamentally shift its development away from environmentally destructive practices.

~Mark Bremer, Green Explored Contributor


[1] Jahiel, Abigail R.(2006) 'China, the WTO, and implications for the environment', Environmental Politics, 15: 2, 310 — 32.

[2] Carter, Neil. 2007. The Politics of the Environment: Ideas, Activism, Policy. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press (p.189)


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