Ga’er Monastery in the Sanjangyuan Region, Tibet. Photo by Kyle Obermann.

Godfree Roberts • October 4, 2020

Only those who are authentic, true and real can fully realize their own nature. If they can fully realize their own nature, they can fully realize human nature. If they can fully realize human nature, they can fully realize the nature of things. If they can fully realize the nature of things, they can take part in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth. If they can take part in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth, they can form a trinity with Heaven and Earth. Confucius, Doctrine of the Mean.

Though more numerous today than ever, the Chinese thrive on land that they have tilled for five thousand years, land that hosts ten percent of world’s plant species and fourteen percent of its wild animals, thanks to their assumption that, since man and Mother Nature are mutually dependent, man must care for his Mother.

The world’s first ecological legislation, banning tree-felling in Spring and fishing in July, was passed in 2000 BC. In 700 BC, the noted Taoist, Guan Zhong, advocated a state monopoly of natural resources, “A king who does not protect the environment does not deserve to be called king”. In 400 BC, the Law of Fields ruled that river courses must not be blocked and vegetation must not be burned off in winter. In 200 BC, Yang Fu advocated protecting an exhaustive list of endangered species and, in 200 AD, Taoists chose twenty-four mountain sites as the first nature reserves in history, set detailed rules for the protection of their animals, plants, water, and mineral resources, and taught local people survival skills so that they could live without hunting or large scale agriculture. Their practice of boiling water (for sanitation) and steeping leaves in it (for enjoyment) gave birth to tea.

In 1030 AD, Confucian Zhang Zhai[1] confessed, “Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore, that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters and all things are my companions”. By 1200 AD, China counted one hundred and fifty nature reserves that have served as the settings for legends of animal deities and immortals, and all of which still exist and still harbor rare and endangered animals and plants. Historian Jonathan Schlesinger says the First Qing Emperor practiced environmentalism five hundred years ago:

I think of Changbaishan. It’s a volcano on the border between North Korea and China and the Manchus considered the lake inside the crater to be holy territory because it was the birthplace of the Manchus. The court had special rules on collecting ginseng or trapping sable and other fur-bearing animals on the mountain. When British explorers first climbed the mountain in the late 1800s, they referred to its untouched and unspoiled nature. In fact, it was very much touched. People had poached on the land, but the court had been using its resources to protect that territory. The People’s Republic of China has now converted the space into a nature reserve[2].

In 1909, concerned about America’s deteriorating soil health, Franklin King[3], chief of the USDA’s Division of Soil Management, found Chinese farmers growing crops in the same soil year after year with no loss of fertility and called their technique ‘permanent agriculture.’ We call it ‘permaculture’.

In 1950, proclaiming that everyone has a democratic right to land since no one created it, Mao eliminated private land ownership. Thanks to public awareness of Western catastrophes, China avoided the environmental disasters that created our Superfund sites–on private land but repaired at public expense–and benefited from our fight for clean air.

In 1952, air pollution killed twelve thousand Londoners on one weekend and hospitalized one hundred thousand more, an London’s NOx levels still exceed Beijing’s. The Chinese devoured Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s depiction of the impact of chemical runoff on American wildlife and learned that the Cuyahoga River was once so polluted that it caught fire. They watched newsreels of Tokyo traffic police wearing oxygen tanks in 1970 and their sailors found Japanese seas oily black miles from shore. Though developing countries rarely focus on the quality of economic growth but China, forewarned by our experience, never lost awareness of its environment.

• • •

From seventy-four percent in 2006, coal now accounts for fifty-eight percent of their energy consumption and, though air quality in some cities once approached Western levels, it is falling twice as fast. Sulfur dioxide and NOx emissions and water pollutants like ammonia and nitrogen peaked ten years ago and are falling steadily. China’s share of global carbon dioxide emissions doubled from fourteen percent in 2001 to twenty-eight percent in 2011, but has not increased since and the country is on track to reach its 2030 Paris Climate Agreement goals before the West and will complete its postindustrial cleanup three times faster and, by 2060, the country will be carbon neutral.

Between 1980-2015, the economy grew sixtyfold while energy consumption grew fivefold[4]–an eighty percent decline in energy intensity–while renewable power consumption should reach twenty percent of total consumption by 2025. When London’s Environmental Investigation Agency reported that dozens of Chinese companies were still using toxic CFC-11 to make foam, the government phased out production of 280,000 tonnes of ozone-depleting substances and set quotas on the manufacture, import, and use of polluting chemicals like carbon tetrachloride. In 2015, the Pearl River Delta Industrial Trial Spot became the first region to reach America’s EPA air quality standard and, by 2017, ninety percent of China’s cities had reached their targets.

The World Health Organization says that, between 2013-2016, the sixty biggest Chinese cities lowered particulate emissions by thirty percent[5] and, between 2014-2017, wealthy Beijing used using ultra-Low Emissions (ULE) coal-fired power stations and natural gas plants to reduce[6] pollutant emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by sixty-five percent annually. In 2016, the mayor promised to reduce particulate density by one-third and deliver fifty-six percent good air quality days by 2020–and made it on schedule. Internal combustion engines will be gone by 2025 and, by 2030, renewables will provide ninety percent of Beijing’s energy.

The ecosystem has improved[7] too, since the government launched its ‘ecological civilization,’ reforms. The Loess Plateau, 250,000 square miles of yellow soil, had lost so much tree cover by 1902 that it was called ‘China’s Sorrow’ for its cycles of flooding, drought, and famine. Sparse vegetation, loose soil and intense, heavy rains made it the most eroded area on earth and its billions of tons of its yellow sediment gave the Yellow River its name. In 1978, volunteers began planting a hundred billion trees along the Great Green Wall[8], a three-thousand-mile windbreak to stop the encroaching Gobi Desert. By 2018, they had reduced[9] dust storm frequency and shrunk rocky desert by fifteen hundred square miles, cut local poverty by twenty percent annually, lowered sediment runoff by ninety percent[10], lifted forest cover from nineteen to twenty-five percent and welcomed the return of almost forgotten birds and animals.

Since 2015, the Environment Ministry has created ten pilot national parks[11] with two-thirds the area of America’s venerable system. Four zones of ‘protected areas with Chinese characteristics with national parks as the main body’ range from stringent–all human activity outlawed–to lenient, designed to spur ecological tourism and public visits. Each has 2025 goals ranging from concentrating flagship species, to increasing forest cover, to reducing the number of mines. At the headwaters of the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong rivers, Sanjiangyuan National Park, on the Tibetan Plateau, is stabilizing the population of nomadic herders, providing skills training, and encouraging them to live and work in townships while raising incomes inside the park’s borders.

In a 2017 TV address, President Xi referenced the environment eighty-nine times, “We want our modernization characterized by harmonious co-existence between man and nature–because any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us. Since limpid waters and lush mountain forests are invaluable, we must seek a simple, moderate, green, low-carbon lifestyle in eco-friendly communities”. He consolidated seven agencies into a Ministry of Ecological Environment, made it responsible for the entire natural domain, and promised not to export pollution through investment or foreign policy.

The new Ministry immediately placed a fishing ban on the entire Yellow River basin, its tributaries and lakes and, invoking[12] the new environmental standards, levied pollution penalties and initiated an immense emissions trading scheme[13] that taxes pollution at its source and recycles the tax revenues into sustainable projects.

China has embarked on what promises to be the world’s largest carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions trading system (ETS). When fully implemented, this nationwide system will more than double the amount of CO2 emissions covered worldwide by some form of emissions pricing. China will rely on a tradable performance standard (TPS) as its emissions pricing instrument for reducing emissions. This mechanism differs in important ways from the emissions pricing instruments used in other countries, such as cap and trade and a carbon tax. Our numerical model yields results that are consistent with the analytical model’s predictions, supplementing the qualitative results of the theoretical model with a unique quantitative assessment closely geared to China’s power sector. Key findings of the numerical model are as follows. China’s forthcoming nationwide CO2 emissions trading system has the potential to make a very substantial contribution to the world’s efforts to confront global climate change. The system will take the form of a tradable performance standard and will focus on the power sector in its first phase.

Iron ore from Australia, for example, will be taxed on the carbon used to extract, ship, smelt, and refine the ore, and to deliver the finished steel to consumers. Says Australia’s Peter Castellas[14], “Our energy-intensive exports sit directly in the supply chain of the world’s largest carbon market. Their regulations on supply chain emissions mean that Australians–and all of China’s trading partners–will have to clean up our emissions since they regulate and tax emissions that are generated outside the direct control of Chinese businesses”. Mining giant Rio Tinto struck a deal with Baowu Steel to reduce steelmaking’s carbon emissions and curb end-users’ emissions.

Energy-intensive industries, like smelting and cement, lost preferential electricity rates while eco-friendly businesses, like sewage treatment, electric vehicle charging, and water desalination, gained them. Wealthy Guangdong Province’s successful Trial Spot canceled all sewage charges and began levying environmental taxes on air pollutants and water contaminants and was quickly replicated across the country. Four hundred thousand companies have begun paying taxes on their noise, air, water, and solid waste pollutants since passage of the Environmental Protection Tax Act in 2018.

By 2019, the Supreme People’s Court had ruled on half a million environmental civil cases, eleven-thousand environmental damage compensation trials, fourteen-hundred public interest environmental litigation[15] suits, and NGOs filed hundreds of high profile cases[16], “A young environmental activist sued police for detaining her earlier this month after she spoke out about what she claims is illegal mining and water pollution. The district court accepted her case on Friday”. Friends of Nature, an NGO, won a landmark action against three soil polluters who were jailed and paid a multimillion-dollar remediation penalty. Three Xi’an officials were also jailed for tampering with air quality monitoring equipment and seven were sentenced for falsifying environmental reports. Both violators and those who fail to report violations now incur daily penalties that accumulate as long as the violations continue. A friend of the author[17] describes the environmental enforcement process:

China is the manufacturer for the world, not just the USA. In fact, the USA accounts for 11% of Chinese exports by value. So it should be no surprise that the concentration of factories would spew into the atmosphere, just like they did in Blackstone Valley in Massachusetts, and in the Love Canal in New York and Petrolia in Pennsylvania.

China had started to place restrictions on pollution, requirements on companies, and had regional meetings as early as 2003, but not too much was getting done. Then suddenly, in 2013, Xi Jinping started a ‘clampdown,’ and I had a front-row-seat. He sent out two teams of ‘specialists’ working in tandem. The first was the Pollution Police. They weren’t really ‘police’ as we would consider them, but rather government compliance inspectors. They would go to a factory, check the status of the factory on all numbers of pollution, social, environmental, and other issues. They would talk with the factory owners about making changes, and then they would come up with a timetable to implement those changes. Usually, it required immediate implementation of certain practices and, if large capital expenditures were required, a longer timetable, but one where the regulators would work with local banking and financial interests to assure that the funds for the capital expenditures would be obtained.

The second group was the ‘corruption police,’ a paramilitary organization. It had armored vehicles, trained police forces, SWAT teams, and detectives. They also (like the USA IRS) had their very own court system and enforcement techniques. Of course, as you might expect, when they first hit the ground, they were ignored. There were some minor wrist slaps and fines. Nada action, really. Then all Hell broke out around 2015. They started making one-on-one raids to selected non-complying factories. Not only did they shut the entire factory down, but arrested the owners, their top management, and the supervisory staff. They were then all carted off for re-education.

In 2016, they organized into teams and utilized Blitzkrieg tactics. They would descend on a manufacturing region and park there for two weeks. They would observe, interview, and set in place corrective actions. Their idea and intention was to work with factories. If the factories could not meet the requirements, they would be shut down. During this time, I saw many of my coating factories go underground. They only operated in the middle of the night. Factories conducting PPT coatings or metal finishing started to clean up their acts in order to meet the demand, as it increased for them as the lesser factories shut down. In general, they had about two years to meet the clean air standards or face shutdown.

Of course, these capital expenditures cost money to buy and implement. So, back in 2017, many factories started to increase their prices–often by 20%. I can name a number of factories that did this, and I well remember one in Zhongshan that was frustrated that they had to do it but their German and English clients would not go along with this increase–while at the same time praising them for their “green policies”. That battle continues to this day. The European manufacturing interests (our clients) want green-police but refuse to pay for it. Sigh. It’s my life, don’t you know?

All in all, the pollution in China is greatly abated. I live in Zhuhai and it’s almost always blues skies and fresh air. When I lived in Dongguang, it was always white skies and burning eyes. It’s a big difference and a big change. China is doing things. Things are happening. And this is what I have observed as someone in the industry. It’s a true shame that none of this is being reported in the West.

Since most Chinese understand that their competitive advantage depends on managing resources, waste, and pollution effectively, planners make environmental protection profitable by prioritizing clean technologies and economic growth simultaneously, with the result that China dominates research, sales and exports of all renewable technologies.

Stanford’s Professor of Environmental Science, Gretchen Daily says, “China has gone further than any other country–as strange as that sounds given all the devastation that we read about on the environment front there. In the face of a deepening environmental crisis, China has eagerly incorporated science into its environmental program and funded far-reaching efforts that could serve as models for other countries. It has become very ambitious and innovative in its new conservation science and policies and has implemented them on a breathtaking scale”.

Godfree Roberts publishes the weekly newsletter, Here Comes China!


[1] Zhang, who had studied Daoism, said all things are composed of a primordial substance, qi, that includes matter and the forces that govern interactions between matter, yin, and yang. In its dispersed, rarefied state, qi is invisible and insubstantial, but when it condenses it becomes a solid or liquid and takes on new properties. All material things are composed of condensed qi: rocks, trees, even people. There is nothing that is not qi. Thus, in a real sense, everything has the same essence.

[2] The 400,000-acre Changbaishan Biosphere Reserve is located in the northeast of China on the border with the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.

[3] Chinese Peasants Taught the USDA to Farm Organically in 1909. By Lina Zeldovich JSTOR Daily. May 21, 2019

[4] Energy intensity level of primary energy (MJ/$2011 PPP GDP) fell from 21.2 in 1990 to 6.7 in 2015 (World Bank)

[5] A Review of 20 Years’ Air Pollution Control in Beijing. United Nations Environment Programme, 2019 ISBN: 978-92-807-3743-1

[6] Clearing the air in China. Valerie J. Karplus. Nature Energy 2019

[7] Sugden, A. M. Chinas National Ecosystem Assessment. 2016. Science. Ecosystems services are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being.

[8] NASA reports, “China alone accounts for 25% of the global net increase in leaf area with only 6.6% of global vegetated area. The greening in China is from forests (42%) and croplands (32%).” Chi Chen et al., Nature Sustainability vol. 2, pp 122–129 (2019)

[9] China reduces total rocky desert area by 1.93m hectares By WANG KEJU | Dec 13, 2018

[10] Revegetation in China’s Loess Plateau is approaching sustainable water resource limits. Nature.

[11] China’s Attempt to Create the World’s Largest National Park System. Conservation China. by Kyle Obermann. May 22, 2020

[12] How China cut its air pollution. By J.P. The Economist. Jan 25th 2018

[13] China’s Unconventional Nationwide CO2 Emissions Trading System. By Goulder, Xianling Long, Jieyi Lu, Richard D. Morgenstern. NBER Working Paper 26537

[14] China’s emissions trading scheme puts Australian companies on notice. The Guardian. Bianca Nogrady.3 Oct 2017.

[15] Why the Supreme People’s Court is harnessing the NGO “genie”. January 26, 2015. Supreme People’s Court Monitor

[16] Environmental Whistleblower Sues Police for Unlawful Detention. Sixth Tone. Qian Zhecheng. Mar. 31, 2018

[17] Robert Vannrox, Executive Director / CEO Smoking Lion Contract Manufacture & Engineering.