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Meet IIIEE researcher Philip Peck

Aiming for blue Beijing skies
philip_peck.jpg
IIIEE researcher Philip Peck Photo: Sara Bernstrup Nilsson

An increasingly ambitious environmental legislation has not reduced economic growth in the EU – indicating it will not do so in China either. This is good news for Chinese environmentalists, who have asked IIIEE researchers for evidence that supports their work for a greener China under bluer skies.

Over the past few decades China has experienced a remarkable period of economic growth as the country has shifted from centrally planned to a market based economy via rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. On the other hand, almost 100 million Chinese still live in poverty. They too need job opportunities and want to be part of the middle class. Some hold that China’s social stability depends on continued prosperity, so the ruling political elite has many reasons for wishing to continue its country’s economic development.

But along with this, rapid and devastating environmental damage is a parallel issue that affects all, even the political and economic elite.

“Anyone who has experienced the choking smog in major Chinese cities should be concerned, but for many Chinese it could be just another normal day. However, rare so-called ‘Parade blue’ skies over Beijing have shown the people how life could be if pollution were reduced. Blue skies like this occur when the Government orders polluting industries and power plants to shut down, and bans cars from the city – for political reasons. Many Chinese are increasingly aware of the health problems connected to pollution”, says IIIEE researcher Philip Peck.

Together with his colleagues Claire Lawson and Ben Fethers, Philip Peck has finished a report for the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning (CAEP), an organisation affiliated with the State Environmental Protection Administration. CAEP is tasked by the Chinese government to support the formulation of national medium and long-term environmental protection plans.

“In a nutshell, the Chinese question to us was: Could we provide them with evidence that the EU has driven pollution reduction with environmental policy without damaging economic growth and socio-economic development? In China, there remains widespread belief in industrial and political spheres that environmental protection will constrain economic development”, explains Philip.

When examining the details of the request from the CAEP, Philip Peck realised that he had actually never seen an overview of the development of emissions within the EU in relation to environmental legislation, and accepted the assignment. His team chose to frame the study to 1990 onwards, to concentrate on the EU15, and to use Sweden, Germany, the UK and Spain as four specific national examples that represent differing types of economies.

“Since that time the EU has made enormous environmental progress. While it isn’t always easy to find good records in earlier decades, it is broadly accepted that European pollution culminated in the mid-1980s. However, many of us have already forgotten the reports showing dead forests and rivers, and the smog-covered cities of those times. In just one generation we have actually cut emissions of some of the most serious EU pollutants by as much as 90 per cent. We still have a much to do, but a convincing start has been made.”

“And during that same period, our economic growth has continued steadily. We cannot claim that environmental protection drives growth, but we certainly can show that economic growth has continued throughout an era of intensifying environmental regulation. So when we met CAEP to present our draft report earlier this autumn, we certainly gave them plenty of material that strengthens their case: Yes, it is possible – an ambitious programme to shape and enforce environmental legislation is absolutely compatible with economic growth”, says Philip Peck.

Quite predictably, CAEP also asked for insights into how much of the EU’s pollution has simply been shifted to China as a result of closure of polluting industries in Europe and consumption of Chinese goods. A much trickier question, admits Philip Peck:

“It is clear that Europe now imports many products that it once manufactured. Because of this, a meaningful part of its polluting processes can be said to have moved to China. This results in both carbon leakage and pollution there instead of here. While we could present this in general terms to CAEP, the scope of the project did not allow us to go into so much depth. One thing we could highlight was that the manufacturing sector within Sweden has achieved about a 10% reduction in total emissions while still increasing production output by more than a third. This helps show China that they can do this too”, he says and continues:

“There is a growing awareness in China that ‘business as usual’ is not the road to follow and that reduction of pollution is better for both society and the economy when one counts all the costs. The Chinese have an increasingly clearer picture of the downsides of pollution; lost productivity, damage to infrastructure, reduced agricultural production, clean water scarcity – and of course massive costs related to human health issues. ”

But there are good news showing that China definitely is waking up to this and environmental legislation rapidly is being put into place.

“As one example, Chinese coal consumption actually dropped by four per cent this last year – this is at least in part due to pollution reduction demands placed on old coal-fired heat and power plants or their replacement with newer facilities. And a vital driver to keep this moving will be growing social demands for a cleaner environment, keeping pressure on the political sphere. So my expectation is that our report will serve as a tool for CAEP’s continued work. ”

Text and photo: Sara Bernstrup Nilsson

Economic, Environmental, and Social Development in EU countries and its relationship to environmental policy

  • IIIEE researchers: Philip Peck, Claire Lawson & Benjamin Fethers
  • Project period: March 2015 – Spring 2016
  • Budget: SEK 225 000
  • Funding body: EU China Environmental Sustainability Programme (ESP)
  • Business partners: Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning (CAEP)

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