The NYT’s Choking on Growth Series

Starting this summer, and continuing this month, The New York Times has produced “Choking on Growth,” a series of multimedia-enhanced articles on the environmental costs of China’s development. The first article in the series , written by Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley and released in late August, covered the usual topics, such as the desertification of the Hebei-Beijing region, provincial groundwater pollution, air quality in Beijing, and corruption. Though a few months old, some of the information in the article ties in with my previous posting on the potential advantages of “green subsidies” in China by raising the issue of Chinese energy efficiency:

Its [China’s] energy needs are compounded because even some of its newest heavy industry plants do not operate as efficiently, or control pollution as effectively, as factories in other parts of the world, a recent World Bank report said.

Chinese steel makers, on average, use one-fifth more energy per ton than the international average. Cement manufacturers need 45 percent more power, and ethylene producers need 70 percent more than producers elsewhere, the World Bank says.

China’s aluminum industry alone consumes as much energy as the country’s commercial sector — all the hotels, restaurants, banks and shopping malls combined, Mr. Rosen and Mr. Houser reported.

Considering that these industries obtain heavy subsidies from the state, it would seem a good guess that subsidization — aimed at production targets — is actually encouraging inefficiency. The writers continue,

Moreover, the boom is not limited to heavy industry. Each year for the past few years, China has built about 7.5 billion square feet of commercial and residential space, more than the combined floor space of all the malls and strip malls in the United States, according to data collected by the United States Energy Information Administration.

Chinese buildings rarely have thermal insulation. They require, on average, twice as much energy to heat and cool as those in similar climates in the United States and Europe, according to the World Bank. A vast majority of new buildings — 95 percent, the bank says — do not meet China’s own codes for energy efficiency.

In fairness, the new 8-to-10,000RMB/sq. meter apartments popping up in Tianjin and Beijing utilize such things as geothermal heating systems and Western-style insulated windows, and actually use this as a selling point, but, given the price, most city dwellers aren’t going to live in them. Instead, most people in big cities live in apartment blocks constructed in the 1990s and early 2000s, most which have the design flaws mentioned in the article. For instance, the apartment I live in, which was completed circa 2000, bleeds heat throughout winter and does little to keep the heat out in summer.

That said, I’ve also seen some progress during my nearly four years in China. The main building of the old campus of the university I work at, which was finished around 2003, has terrible insulation, whereas the buildings at the new campus, completed in late 2006 and fitted with insulated walls and window glass, are properly warm in winter and cool in summer. Unfortunately, the main downside of the new campus’ design is that the buildings utilize “modern” central air for heating and cooling instead of steam radiators and ceiling fans, a design choice that might render moot the effects of insulation improvements.

Returning to the articles themselves, one innovative thing about them is that each article features a Mandarin translation (in PDF) and a recording of someone reading the article in Mandarin. While I have doubts about whether Chinese people need to hear the articles for themselves to believe it — after all, they can see the effects with their own eyes — they nonetheless represent a form of outreach, and might also make the articles interesting as classroom discussion materials.

However, after reading through most of “Choking on Growth,” I’m left with a question. Are these articles and others like them in the Western press just intended as 2008 Olympics raspberries, or will the media keep up the scrutiny on China’s development after the Beijing Olympics?