"The pen is mightier than the sword." For nearly a decade, Brahm has used newspaper articles, magazines and authored over 20 books to explain current affairs, reshape stalled negotiations, and provide a communication platform to Asian leaders and policymakers. His writings reveal underlying central challenges facing Asia over the past decades.

A Terrible Cost in Lives

Written by Laurence Brahm - Published by South China Morning Post on 03/14/2006

China’s frenetic push to have cities covered in concrete, glass and steel by the 2008 Olympics has created a spending spree unprecedented in human history.

The financial cost will exceed the total of the banking system’s nonperforming assets. Other costs will be counted in lives and medical care expenditure. As China’s leaders look ahead to their 11th Five-Year Programme, they may want to question their priorities for the nation’s future.

China is the world’s second-largest discharger of greenhouse gases, behind the United States. Beijing has joined the Kyoto Protocol, and has ambitious targets for reducing pollutants. The US has not joined Kyoto and couldn’t care less about its emissions. Many hope that Zhongnanhai will not follow the White House’s example of disregarding the environment. It would be all too easy a pretext for disregarding what is about to become a catastrophic problem.

The mainland accounts for 8 per cent of the world’s crude oil consumption; 10 per cent of its power, 19 per cent of the aluminium, 20 per cent of the copper, 31 per cent of coal and 30 per cent of steel.

Its dependency on energy imports is made worse by its inefficient use of those resources: the mainland’s discharge of pollutants per unit of gross domestic product is much higher than that of developed countries.

Mainland China – with one-fifth of the world’s population – accounted for only 4 per cent of the world’s total GDP in 2004. Yet its energy consumption per unit of GDP is currently seven times higher than Japan, six times that of the United States and 2.8 times that of India.

Economic growth has been driven by the same forces that are pushing up the waste of energy – hyper-investment and the production of steel and cement for construction, as well as other industrial products. For instance, it takes 1.6 tonnes of oil to produce a car on the mainland, but only 0.9 tonnes in the US. Energy efficiency in production must be the starting point for controlling environmental damage.

Energy inefficiency and its environmental impact are also perpetuated in most of the new property developments that clog mainland cities. More than 80 per cent of the buildings erected on the mainland every year consume about three times more energy for heating than such structures in developed countries that have similar climates.

Moreover, the mainland’s deteriorating environment is a growing concern for a population now living in a virtual cancer incubator. One-third of its land area is subject to acid rain.

Two-fifths of the main waterways have become seriously polluted – depriving hundreds of millions of rural people access to clean and safe drinking water.

In an official 2004 survey of air quality in 500 mainland cities, 290 failed to meet even the state’s own standards. So hundreds of millions of mainland urbanites do not even have acceptable air to breathe.

These conditions will soon present a big headache for the state – now preoccupied with showcase growth projects – because China’s health system is in a virtual free-fall towards collapse. The state has invested in roads, stadiums and buildings – anything that can have cement poured on it – but not in hospitals or training medical personnel.

Doctors are overburdened, and incapable of meeting the daily demands of patients. And the cost of treating the effects of China’s urban pollution problem will become astronomical within only a few years. The World Bank estimates that by 2020, China will have to cough up an additional US$390 billion to treat diseases among its population caused by coal burning alone. That does not even take into consideration other pollutant-caused diseases.

Who will foot the bill? Ticket sales from the Olympics won’t be enough.


Laurence Brahm is a global activist, international mediator, political columnist and author. He is the leading advocate of a fresh development paradigm - The Himalayan Consensus - an innovative approach to development.

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