CSR and China's Future as the Superpower

china_-_river_pollutionChina's Environmental Issues

China has been embroiled in several environmental controversies over the years. Recently, however there have been several efforts to reverse the situation and improve its image. Recently China's environmental minister Zhou Shengxian issued a stark warning about the effects of unbridled development on the country’s air, water and soil, saying the nation’s current path could stifle long-term economic growth and feed social instability.

“In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today,” he wrote. “The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to the nation’s economic and social development.”

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made similar remarks in the state media suggesting that China may seek to embrace tighter environmental restrictions during legislative sessions that begin this week in Beijing. "We must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless roll-outs, as that would result in unsustainable growth featuring industrial overcapacity and intensive resource consumption,”  he said.

Problems in Guangdong

In recent weeks, there has been a cascade of damaging news about the environment, from dangerously high smog levels in the capital to a study that found 10% of domestically grown rice contaminated with heavy metals. Hong Kong is one of the most polluted cities in the world and most of the air pollution is a direct result of blowback from mainland China's Guangdong province.

These have added to several concerns as most of the world's manufacturing is outsourced to China. Lax environmental control does not speak well on CSR for many companies. While poor working conditions exist in many industries and types of enterprises in China, there is substantial evidence that the problem is particularly acute in areas and sectors with a high level of foreign investment and a large number of migrant workers.

One of most prosperous areas in China is the Guangdong province and it enjoys the highest levels of GDP. Wal-Mart alone uses 4,400 factories in the province. Other major multinational investors in the province include Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Proctor and Gamble, Hewlett-Packards, Intel, IBM, General Electric, and Sony. This province also faces some of the toughest environmental and social challenges and is a hotbed for CSR regulations.

Looking to the Future as a Superpower

China has just emerged as the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels, and plans to be the world’s biggest builder of nuclear power plants in the coming decade. It invested nearly twice as much as the United States last year in renewable energy.

China has also become the leading emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because of the country’s dependence on coal, which feeds 70% of its energy needs, and its growing thirst for oil. Although the government has an ambitious program to cut energy use for each unit of economic growth, it refuses to place any outright caps on emissions.

Last summer, Mr. Wen vowed to use an “iron hand” to improve his country’s energy efficiency.  Since then more than 2,000 steel mills, cement plants and other energy-hogging factories had been closed. However in spite of all that is being done, there is growing social unrest due to direct and indirect environmental issues. Especially in the light of current North African unrest, if China ever has a future as the superpower these concerns must be addressed.

Photo Credit: A man fishing in a polluted river in China. www.asianews.it

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