Expert View: Message to China... wake up and smell the carbon

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The Independent Online

"You must try the snake soup, and I'd recommend that with pink champagne." Some offers are irresistible, and the business elite of today's Hong Kong certainly live in their own way. But my bankers' dinner ended in disappointment. We had made the traditional trip up "The Peak" to enjoy the view on a warm winter's evening, but forget Kowloon or Victoria Bay - we could barely see to the end of our arms.

For anyone who has not been to Hong Kong for a while, the smog comes as a shock. It is all- pervading. In Hong Kong, the number of days with reduced visibility has tripled in the past three years, and most business people I met were thinking of leaving the city, fearing the effect pollution was having on their children. One recent survey discovered that 40 per cent of businesses were finding it harder to recruit overseas nationals because of this factor. Many ex-pats are relocating to Singapore.

Will Hong Kong, this thriving centre of capitalism, one day choke into extinction?

The problems come from the explosive growth of heavy industry upstream in the Pearl River Delta - where thousands of factories belch out smoke. The scale and speed with which this has happened is ample testimony to the "China effect". Environmental lobbyists have long castigated Americans as the planet's "filthy rich", but it is time we turned our attention to the East. You may be surprised to learn that China emitted more CO 2 last year than the whole of Europe, and at current rates will overtake the US as the planet's main polluter within two years. Already, 16 of the world's top 20 most polluted cities are in China.

The growth in energy consumption is extraordinary - up 60 per cent since 2000. And most of this demand is being met by coal. China devoured 2.2 billion tons last year to generate 80 per cent of its electricity.

Feeding this demand has led to a boom in power station construction (over 500 built in recent years) and mining activity. Coal production has doubled in five years, but the ravenous demand still encourages the operation of a plethora of illegal mines. The Governor of Shanxi province, Yu Youjun, has taken to employing spy planes to identify illegal operations to be blown up. And with good cause: nearly 6,000 miners died in these death traps last year.

The environmental effects are starting to raise alarm. Official concern has led to a number of so-called green initiatives by the Chinese authorities backed personally by President Hu Jintao. Environmental impact assessments are under way and the government's target is for 15 per cent of China's total electricity output to come from renewable sources by 2020.

All I can say is, China better get a move on. Nearly 80 per cent of its river water is now considered polluted. It was highly symbolic when a recent expedition to save the Yangtse dolphin (a beautiful creature, once considered a god in China) reported a few weeks ago that it was too late. None could be found.

Chinese pollution affects more than China. To my mind, the evidence of global warming is piling up with extraordinary speed - whether it is a London without rain, the Alpine ski resorts without snow or a New York where bankers wore T-shirts last week. The pollution clouds from China blow across Korea and Japan and are even thought to be reaching the US. If viewed from space, vast sulphurous clouds blank out where Beijing and Shanghai should be on the planet.

A Shanghai steel trader met me as I landed in China with the words "welcome to the future". His beaming face portrayed the boundless optimism that is propelling China forwards. But if this future is one of poisoned water and smog-filled skies - forget it. It won't work.

Wake up and smell the carbon.

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