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Environment under Stress as GDP Soars

Editor's Note: Balancing economic growth and environmental protection is a challenge for every nation on the globe. Chinese enterprises are under pressure to try to reconcile these two goals. Many of them are forced to suspend production in order to meet emission reduction quotas. Will China's ecological situation inevitably worsen during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-16)? How can science and technology support economic growth in an eco-friendly way? People's Daily Online ( PO) interviewed Yu Guirui (Yu), deputy director of Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese. Academy of Sciences, on this issue.

PO: What are the principal environmental issues we are facing?

Yu: First, we should note that ecological issues are long-term, systemic issues and that there are wide regional differences.

Ecology is complex and intricate. The ecological environment is particularly complex in China. The monsoon region in the eastern regions has abundant rain and is densely wooded. In the western regions, there is less rain and vegetation. There are huge regional variations.

In addition, the rapid development of coastal areas has ushered in new environmental problems. With the intensification of industrial and human activities, air pollution - due in part to automobile exhaust fumes - is becoming more and more severe.

There are more and more hazy days. There have been huge losses in biodiversity, particularly in water resources. Some places are desperately short of water. Some areas have sufficient water supply, but the water is contaminated. There is not enough high-quality water.

We have to deal with composite pollution involving a combination of air, water and soil pollution with a variety of pollutants, which is particularly complex. It takes a long time to control, so the problem is even more complicated.

PO: What is the relationship between economic development and environmental protection? To what extent are they compatible?

Yu: Environmental protection is a process that stretches from protection right through to management, repair and the development of new technologies. The relationship between technology issues and economic driving forces is complex.

Firms and individuals promote economic development according to economic criteria that change constantly. But the ecological environment is specific and also vulnerable.

Compared with technological tasks in other areas, environmental protection and governance is a social welfare problem.

As Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation, the environment cannot be commodified. A country needs to take a more proactive role in protecting and managing the environment.

If citizens have not reached a certain level of educational or environmental awareness, it is difficult for them to spontaneously adopt eco-friendly behaviors. Laws, regulations and education are needed to guide them.

We can also start from a different point of view. Environmental issues have been with us from the dawn of humanity.

Especially since the industrial revolution, people have been aware of the importance of these issues. More attention must be given to major environmental issues. Without good governance, environmental issues will become a major obstacle, a bottleneck constraining the development of the Chinese economy, people's living standards and social development. We need a breakthrough in attitudes.

PO: Environmental problems are complex and interlinked, but also regional and specific. How should they be handled?

Yu: We cannot just target specific problems, because they may generate new problems. A basic notion in environmental governance is that "symptoms are rooted." Rooted in a whole system.

To achieve systemic understanding, we need systematic methods. Attention must be paid to several aspects.

First, the environment is always changing. How can we perceive and monitor these changes? The ability to monitor is a basic issue in environmental governance.

Second, can the perceived changes be properly managed? Protection is one aspect, preventing further deterioration is another aspect. This is basic-level security work.

Third, how can we best repair and rehabilitate contaminated or damaged areas? These are all crucial.

PO: What level has China reached in environmental technology and research, and how much research funding is available?

Yu: China has done a lot of work and made big investments in this area. But there is still a gap between China and the developed countries in environmental monitoring and environmental control technology. We have to catch up.

PO: Compared with developed countries, how big is the gap?

Yu: Environmental problems are related to economic development. Western countries industrialized much earlier than China. Many of the environmental problems we are facing now appeared in Western countries 20 years ago, or even earlier.

With the rapid development of China over the last 30 years, these problems have come to the forefront. China has invested heavily to control environmental pollution and improve ecological management.

Overall, China has made rapid progress in environmental technologies. Being able to borrow applications from Western countries has been a big help.

PO: Are there conflicts in China between economic development, energy-saving and ecology?

Yu: Environmental problems are often the by-product of economic development.

In the absence of economic development, there are no environmental issues. But man has to eat and human society needs to develop. The challenge for us is to minimize the negative effects of economic development. This is the goal we are pursuing.

To be more specific, we have to look at four different aspects.

First, minimizing the environmental costs of economic development through rigorous scientific research and certification. We have to ensure that the consequences of economic processes are tolerable in the long term.

Second, the reduction of environmental damage. Are our actions effective? Are the processes we are using the optimal ones?

Third, future generations. Entrepreneurs, firms and individuals must not be allowed to damage the environment - which belongs to all of us - for their own selfish gain. We need a long-term view.

Finally, when we have detected and analyzed an environmental problem, how can we go about solving it in a timely, responsible and positive manner? Innovation is a key requirement in this regard.

By taking into account these four aspects, we will make progress toward balancing the tensions between economic development and the environment.

Source:Global Times

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