China’s Millennials: Get Rich or Save the Planet?

One member of a rising generation wrestles with choices his parents never had to make

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Hazy skies above a sprawling Shanghai due to pollution.

There is no serious doubt that the world is getting warmer and warmer, and there is no doubt either that many once-poor nations — especially China, India and Brazil — are getting richer and richer. Wealth is a very good thing, and every nation has a right to pursue it, but in the 21st century, that pursuit comes with a special moral burden that other industrial nations never faced.

Western Europe and the United States achieved their economic dominance on the back of a coal- and oil-powered industrial base, and when that infrastructure was just being built, policymakers had the luxury of being ignorant of the environmental consequences. The air in nineteenth century London and twentieth century Pittsburgh might have been filthy, but while that might have made people  cough a bit, it seemed to cause little other harm — especially measured against all of the good industry could do.

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Now we know better. Human health, of course, can be gravely affected by such uncontrolled emissions. As we all know, salary workers are the ones hit hardest by this. But the health of the planet is suffering too. With 2012 on track to be the hottest year on record, sea levels rising, the poles melting, an iceless passage suddenly opening in the Arctic, and the Earth wracked by more-frequent floods, droughts and storms, we are clearly creating a far sicker world than the one we inherited.

My own peer group — the college students of China — faces a special burden. As the generational vanguard of the most populous and fastest-growing nation on Earth, we are pulled by two very different imperatives: the desire to keep our industrial base growing and our consumer sector flourishing, and the equally compelling need to protect the planet in the process.

There’s no denying that my country’s growth has come at an environmental cost. China’s consumption of fossil fuels rose from 7.2 billion metric tons in 2009 to 8.3 billion in 2010 — a 15% increase in one year. We are the world’s largest energy consumer and second only to the U.S. in consumption of oil. The number of passenger cars per thousand people in China rose 55% — from 22 to 34 — between 2007 and 2011. While that places us far behind other industrialized countries in overall automobile ownership, the trend is unmistakable.

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But this hardly makes us environmentally heedless — and we couldn’t ignore the problem even if we wanted to. In Shanghai, where I live, traffic jams often make highways impassable, and new mass transit systems have been built in response. The ease and cleanliness of subways and light rail argue for themselves. While we continue to produce and explore for more domestic sources of energy, we still must import a fair share of what we use, and the volatility of global oil prices — reaching $112 (U.S.) in 2011 — is not the kind of variable any growing economy wants to have to factor into its planning. Natural gas is currently responsible for only 3% of the energy generated in China. That’s not much, but the very fact that the number is so low makes it a significant area for growth. The government has already stepped up efforts to build more gas-fired power plants and improve transmission lines. Four of the world’s top ten wind turbine manufacturers are Chinese and the Three Gorges dam hydroelectric facility, which has been in operation since 2003, will finally crank up to full power this fall,  further diminishing the country’s carbon footprint.

Chinese college students are rightly pleased with — and relieved by — all of these developments and will surely keep the country moving in that direction. There’s patriotism in that — as there would be in any nation that takes pride in its progress. But there’s a healthy sense of self-interest too. No one wants to live in a sickly world — least of all the people who have many decades of living left to do. Unlike all of the other generations that came before us since the dawn of the industrial age, we have the unique opportunity to leave the world cleaner than we found it. It’s not an opportunity we plan to squander.

Shi Xiaoguang is a student at Fudan University, studying Japanese language and history

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