Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

China environmental expert speaks to Bridges to the Future audience

China faces environmental challenges on every front, Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told a crowd of 660 gathered Feb. 9th for the second Bridges to the Future event of the 2009–10 academic year.

Economy, the C.V. Starr senior fellow and the CFR’s director for Asia studies, spoke through live video conferencing at DU’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts. She was unable to travel to Denver due to snow storms on the East Coast.

The author of The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future, Economy said the country is a major contributor to the challenge of global climate change. Economy explained how the environment is not China’s top priority, but Chinese leadership is interested in the topic because it affects issues it considers priorities such as public health, social unrest, the economy and the country’s global reputation. 

For example, she said nearly half the Chinese population — 700 million people — drink water contaminated with human or animal feces on a daily basis. Acid rain costs the country an estimated $13 billion a year. And, there were 51,000 environmental protests in China in 2005.

Economy said China’s government sets targets to improve the environment, but it faces huge obstacles. Since the government is decentralized, local environmental officials face tremendous political pressure. If a plant is a clear polluter and the company employs a large number of people from the community, the environmental official will face too much pressure to close the plant down.

In addition, Economy said, corruption is an issue.

“Half of the funds put into environmental protection are used for purposes other than environmental protection,” she said.

In closing, Economy said the best the United States can do is lead by example.

“We need to look at ourselves first,” she said. “The fact the U.S. has not passed climate change legislation lessens our capacity to serve as a leader on this issue.”

Bridges to the Future was created in 2002 to build a framework of programs that stimulate civic dialog and discussion among Colorado communities. All Bridges to the Future events are free and open to the public.

Look for announcements on the upcoming spring event at the Bridges to the Future site,

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