The government of China proudly announced before this year’s Olympics that the athletes who lived in the Olympic Village would have access to safe drinking water. That's nice, but School of Law Professor Robert Percival says ordinary Chinese citizens will have to wait years until they can take for granted that they also have access to clean water.
Percival, director of the School's Environmental Law Program and the Robert F. Stanton Professor of Law, returned in July from a six-month trip to China as a Fulbright Scholar, where he taught environmental law at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing.
Even visitors who stay in Beijing's luxury hotels are told to use bottled water to brush their teeth. The World Health Organization estimates that polluted water kills nearly 100,000 people in that country every year, and the notoriously fouled air kills 656,000 residents annually. Rapid development, fueled largely by coal-fired power plants and an explosion of automobile traffic, has moved faster than the Chinese government's ability-and in some cases, its willingness-to regulate it, says Percival.
For instance, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection expanded in July from 250 employees to 300 employees. By comparison, its American counterpart, the Environmental Protection Agency, has 17,000 employees. Worse, Percival adds, because China's government is highly decentralized, the local officials who have to enforce environmental laws either look the other way or encourage polluters to pay the relatively small fines because they provide revenue for the local governments.
There is good news among the smog and swill, says Percival, who describes his Chinese environmental law students as talented and eager. China's government has adopted some new environmental laws and reports some successes in reducing dangerous emissions.
"It's moving in the right direction, it's just going to take them a long time," he says, placing China's regulatory environment about where the United States was in the early 1970s, when Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire and Los Angeles was more famous for smog than for movie stars.
In a letter to the editor that was published Aug. 9 in the Wall Street Journal, Percival also cited the role of citizens, nongovernmental organizations and an independent judiciary in ensuring that environmental laws are implemented and enforced.
"These features of U.S. law often are the targets of harsh criticism by the Journal’s editorial page (particularly when a court rules against big business or in favor of an environmental group)," he wrote. "But they are the envy of those who wish to clean up China’s environment."
China's battles against pollution are not only critical to that country's future, but to the rest of the world, says Percival. He notes that one third of all mercury in the western United States originated in China's coal-burning power plants, and China is now the world's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Percival has no doubts that better environmental regulations-along with industry adherence, government enforcement, a robust legal system, and a motivated public-will produce enormous benefits to society. He says the proof of that can be seen in the United States, where the cost of complying with environmental laws has paid off in better public health and a stronger economy. A stronger economy, he notes, will help liberalize Chinese society and push it toward more political freedom.