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Delicate balance

China's autocratic approach to environmental issues may not always reap the desired rewards.

In an ironic twist, the decidedly authoritarian government of China has received much praise of late from Western environmentalists, who tend to cast themselves as anti-authoritarian types.

China has indeed made laudable efforts in many fields, ranging from wind energy to vehicle-emission standards and pollution control. It has even outlawed free plastic bags. The United Nations Environment Programme gave it rave reviews for its pollution reduction and green measures at the Beijing Olympics (see http://tinyurl.com/ckllzm). And now, China is planning to push wetlands conservation and restoration projects with a speed and lavishness that is making Western environmentalists envious (see page 134).

But any tally of China's environmental achievements requires a reality check. In some areas, for example, it is not clear whether China has been as successful as it claims. The government never really answered criticism that its much touted pre-Olympic increase in the number of relatively smog-free 'blue sky days' was achieved not by making the skies less polluted, but by moving the monitors to cleaner areas. Moreover, China tends not to listen to critics, which stops some of its well-intentioned projects from achieving their full potential. China could undoubtedly improve the efficiency and the effectiveness of its environmental projects if it opened itself up to more feedback, especially from scientists. A case in point is the nation's wind-energy initiative, which has been hampered by substandard turbine technology and poorly planned grid connections (see Nature 457, 372–374; 2009).

Similar caution needs to be exercised when evaluating China's wetlands projects. China's government is full of engineering prowess, and it can design projects that are beautiful and often breathtaking in concept. But once it has committed itself, other considerations fade — including some that shouldn't. It is worth remembering that neither the 1.24 million people displaced over the past decade by the Three Gorges Dam, nor the ecologists concerned about the dam's environmental toll, had much of a voice in the decision-making. If the government takes a similarly reckless approach to water diversion for wetlands restoration, the project could once again tarnish any environmental good with social harm.

But even in the West, a similarly delicate balance has to be struck. The United States, for example, has been anything but decisive in its efforts to repair the coast of Louisiana, where the bayous were badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That is because doing so would require the forcible seizure of land from thousands of private owners for the construction of weirs and other water-diversion systems. So one value — the common good, which in this case means saving the coast and protecting the millions of people in New Orleans — is in direct conflict with the values of property rights and individual autonomy.

The challenge for environmentalists is to find creative mechanisms to reconcile those values, while respecting all of them. The cap-and-trade approach now being embraced for controlling carbon emissions is a prime example. It uses the market system to achieve pollution reduction while allowing for flexibility and individual choice. The 'environmental services' idea of trying to put an economic value on the benefits provided by, say, coastal wetlands is an approach that is similar in spirit, if less mature. Such mechanisms hold the promise of minimizing or eliminating the need for authoritarian methods — East or West.

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Delicate balance. Nature 458, 126 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/458126a

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