China’s Problem of Lacking Capacity

Getting back to the roots of a problem can be a painful process, especially when it is known far in advance that the truth is going to hurt. It is in many ways perhaps the biggest inhibitor to growth, change, and progress around the world, and in China that is no different.

When discussing the differences between the US and China’s approach to the environmental issues they face , one of the points I made was that China’s approach to cleaning up industry was one of incentives over fines. That, due to China’s developing economic conditions and ultimately fears of job losses, Beijing often chose the path of least resistance, and largely would avoid using the law or fines as the main driver for change. IT was carrot over stick.

Continuing along that line however, it must be said that when Beijing makes up its mind to do something. It does it… and fast. the propaganda machine kicks in, and things change.

Until… they don’t… or until the next big event comes along to distract everyone away from the previous issue.

See, for China, the dirty little secret is really that there is a huge gap in capactiy for change. That, for as much as policy makers and environmentalists may agree that the environment is something to protect, that the people who will enact and enforce the laws that are sure to come are simply not in place.

It is a problem that is perfectly highlighted in the Forbes article China: Where Poisoning People Is Almost Free.  That as water was being contaminated by raw sewage, and officials stalled, there was not a system in place to warn or address the problems in time before hundreds of people got sick.  The same system that has recently seen numerous contaminations occur, the same contaminations occur, yet little change in terms of the overall system itself.

It was a system heralded by many last year (and stull quoted to this day) when the plastic bags were banned, a ban that certainly a step forward has not worked according to plan. It was a plan that I was skeptical of initially not becuse of the intent of the regulation, or of the progressive thinking that was behind it, but it was simply not possible to monitor and manage long term without significant education, steep fines, and a body willing to enforce the fines.  For me, it was a program that was just too good to be true.

Had they banned the manufacture and import of ultra-thin bags though, that would have been a different story, and wuld have ultimately removed the human factor that seems to always get in the way.

Going forward, steps towards improving the capacity of MEP, eNGOs, and industry as a whole will need to occur before real progress will be made.  It is THE missing element in many areas of the “sustainability” discussion, and it will be THE hurdle going forward as new building codes, energy efficiency standards, pricing tariffs, etc go into place.

For China to move forward, it must do so in such a way that it takes the variables out of the equation and creates true program structures within. The days of printing banners, chatting, and turning off the lights for an hour are simply not going to enough to bring sustainable change to China’s environmental issues, and it is my hope that we will begin seeing changes in attitude at the national levels towards those organiations who can create nationwide programming.

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