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Can DU help save China’s environment?

garbage pile

Garbage collectors load recycled waste at a garbage dump site in southwestern China’s Chongqing municipality Jan. 9. PHOTO BY: Reuters.

Building a golf course in China is illegal.

Yet, a growing, monied class spawned by China’s superheated economy has become so desirous of the status and the luxury the sport bequeaths that illegal courses pop up despite the official ban. 

Only two of the nation’s 350 courses are open to the public and membership costs are as high as $181,250, but interest still surges. In November, a $5 million tournament in Shanghai lured golf legend Tiger Woods and attracted 25,000 spectators. 

That same month, the president of Xiamen University declared golf lessons mandatory for all management, law, economics and software engineering majors as a way of teaching “social communication” with elites. 

All this in a communist nation that has only had a market economy since 1978 but has exploded into the second-largest economy in the world. 

All this in a nation that has lost one-fifth of its agricultural land to erosion, urban sprawl and desert encroachment and that suffers dwindling water supplies, farmland degraded by pesticides and pollution, and grain production below state guidelines for “food security.” 

China is a country of 1.3 billion with pollution problems among the worst on the planet and as many as 500 million people poised to migrate into new cities and become middle-class consumers by mid-century. 

“There’s nothing in the history of the world that is anything like what’s happening in China,” says DU law Professor Edward Ziegler, who has written extensively on China and visited there in late 2006. “No place I went could you drink the water — and I was in the major cities.” 

“China’s economic miracle has come with a horrible cost,” echoes DU Professor Sam Zhao, a China watcher who edits one of the top-two journals of China studies in the world. “The air is so bad in [some cities] that you can rarely see blue sky.” 

Zhao is executive director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at DU’s Graduate School of International Studies, where for the last six years he has focused on aspects of what is politely termed China’s “unsustainable trajectory” and more familiarly “all hell breaking loose.” 

Zhao no longer labors alone. In January, China expert Banning Garrett moved into a tiny temporary office space in Cherrington Hall, where he and deputy director Jonathan Adams are spearheading a bold, new think tank called theInstitute for Sino-American Dialogue

Created in October with a $2.4 million gift from Trustee John Sie and his wife, Anna, the fledgling institute aims to fashion a major policy blueprint to rescue both China and the U.S. from the environmental peril that otherwise might lie ahead. 

Specifically, the group will focus on energy, water and environmental problems in both countries “before we fry the planet,” Garrett says.

“The U.S. and China are the biggest consumers of energy and the biggest polluters and creators of greenhouse gases. We’re the biggest problem on the planet,” Garrett says. 

“If we don’t get it right, it really doesn’t matter what Europe and Japan and other countries do because we’re gonna run out of energy. “If we do get it right, we’re in a position to have a huge impact on the future. But we both have to get it right, and we have to work together to do it.” 

Why Denver?
So, can a handful of policy makers on a Colorado campus actually harness the expertise to change the world? 

Yes, Garrett insists. 

“If we put together a comprehensive plan and get a high-level group of Americans and Chinese together, then take it to the top levels of government, you might actually see some action. We’re not gonna be a little Denver institute. The goal is really the bigger picture — to get the two countries working together.” There may not be a better place than DU to bring this together, Zhao says. 

Consider the expertise at hand:
• Water law: Colorado’s experience regulating scarce water resources can offer valuable lessons to the Chinese, and the environmental law program at the Sturm College of Law is among the best in the nation. 

• Urban planning: The Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, an affiliate of the law school, is developing a system of “green” zoning codes aimed at using local regulation to positively influence climate change, fossil-fuel consumption and sustainability. “It’s about saving the planet through zoning,” says James van Hemert, institute director. 

• Established bonds: The China cooperation center at DU has forged close links to the Chinese through a decade of conferences and scholarly activities. “[The Chinese] know us and trust us,” Zhao says. 

• Personal ties: Prior to arriving at DU, Garrett served as director of Asia programs for the Atlantic Council of the United States, building close bonds with high-level officials in both the American and Chinese governments over the last 26 years. Benefactor John Sie is a native of China who also has ties to high-level Chinese officials. 

• On-campus and off-campus resources: The Graduate School of International Studies and the Daniels College of Business offer scholarly and research options. Regionally based organizations such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory also could contribute. 

• American experience: Urban sprawl and dependence on motor vehicles lead the list of adverse development consequences the Chinese would like to learn to avoid. 

“Denver has successfully cured its pollution issue and is a very clean, rising urban center,” Zhao points out. 

Garrett agrees. 

“We’re kinda stuck together whether we like each other or not,” Garrett says. “You face the same challenges, and your fates are increasingly intertwined. That’s the strategic context of the U.S.- China relationship.” 

Environmental battles are never local

“If China in 2030 were to consume oil at the same per capita usage that [the U.S.] consumed in 2004, China would need 99 million barrels a day of oil. Right now the world produces 86 million for everybody,” Garrett says. “There isn’t another 99 million barrels of oil just for China. That future’s not possible. 

“We have to figure how to change course.” 

It isn’t enough to solve one country’s environmental problems if the same problems persist in other nations, he emphasizes. 

“We’re interdependent in a way that’s unprecedented in the history of the world. It’s not like the Cold War anymore where either we benefit or they do. We need China to succeed if we’re going to succeed. China needs us to succeed if they’re going to succeed because they’re dependent on us as an export market.” 

Thus, the idea that an environmentally conscious American should “think globally and act locally” may need to become “think globally and act locally and globally.” 

Garrett’s think tank intends to lead the way, enlisting a cadre of senior Americans and Chinese to craft high-level proposals that could go to both nations’ top leaders. The effort could yield benefits both nations need: a forceful energy plan for the United States and an energy plan with teeth for the Chinese. 

“I’ve consulted to the administrations of every president since Jimmy Carter,” Garrett says. “We’re going to build a high-level dialogue and I think we can do that.” 

Sources: “China’s Cities, Globalization, and Sustainable Development: Comparative Thoughts on Urban Planning, Energy, and Environmental Policy” by DU law Professor Edward Ziegler; China Daily; Knight-Ridder Newspapers;; The New York Times; The Jamestown Foundation; U.S. Department of Energy; Worldwatch Institute; Wikipedia; Central Intelligence Agency; Beijing Review; Los Angeles Times; Asia Times.

This article originally appeared in The Source, February 2007.

Related article: Just how bad is China’s environment?

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