When means become goals


Guest post by chinadialogue intern Cao Jun

While overall expectation remains low for the ongoing Cancún summit, China, as the world’s largest energy consumer and largest emitter, is depicting a relatively optimistic picture in terms of climate commitment.

Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief negotiator in Cancún – who is also the deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission – said in recent interviews that not only did China manage to reduce major pollutants emissions by 10% in the last five years, it has also achieved its emissions-reduction goal ahead of schedule and would hit the overall energy target on time. In the meantime, even more ambitious moves might be introduced for China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, including favorable policies for investment in green industry, possible environmental tax and more pollution control and emissions reduction.

China’s achievement and commitment were also acknowledged by the global community. The World Bank said in a recent report that “China has achieved remarkable progress in developing renewable energy during the last three decades.” And many commentators such as Barbara Finamore, the China program director of the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), also welcome such comprehensive efforts aimed at creating a greener China. She said in her blog that “China’s carbon and energy targets are significant actions.”

However, two recent pieces of news remind us there might be a neglected side of the story.

Preliminary investigation of the Shanghai apartment blaze in October, which took at least 58 lives, indicates mishandled energy-saving renovation could be to blame. According to local media reports, the renovation was part of local government efforts to reach the energy saving goal of the 11th Five-Year Plan, however, fast-track scheduling and low-cost insulating materials cost a lot more than they save.

Another story, though not as devastating, highlighted something just as life threatening. In order to reach energy-saving targets, some counties in China started to have regular power cuts, affecting businesses, public facilities and even ordinary people. In such "non-discriminatory electricity restriction", rural families in these counties had to endure water scarcity as pumps stopped working and hospital patients deal with power cuts to medical equipment. On the other hand, many businesses turned to diesel generators, which, if anything, increase energy consumption and pollutant emissions.

While these are just two extreme cases, they offer harsh lessons. There were times when the main focus of China’s development strategy was solely GDP growth. But people realised that some of the country’s policies had mistaken means – faster economic growth – for the goal of a better life for the people, and a heavy price was paid.

Today, while it is very encouraging to see China showing strong devotion to environmental protection, even sacrificing GDP growth, the country should not slip into old mistakes and get lost between means and goals for development. A reliable accountability system must assess both means and goals. Because in many cases, we only have one chance to do things right.