Sunday, 10 January 2010

Capitalist roaders

Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower was the tallest structure in China, at 468 metres, until 2007, when it was topped by the city’s World Financial Centre (better known as the Bottle Opener because of the trapezoid opening in its upper floors). It’s a mere blade of grass now that the Burj Khalifa in Dubai has checked in at over 800 metres but its ‘space module’ viewing platform is still as good a place as any to watch the human race going to hell in a handcart.

Not so much a handcart, of course, as a motor vehicle. There are around three million of them now in Shanghai, clogging the city’s streets and expressways faster than China’s extraordinary engineering abilities can construct new ones to accommodate them. Looking down from the top of the Pearl Tower on the day that the Copenhagen climate talks crashed, I found it hard to imagine the world’s leaders ever getting to grips with the full enormity of the climate challenge. High above the car-choked metropolis that is in the vanguard of China’s economic miracle you can see only skyscrapers and smog and more skyscrapers and roads stretching out in an endless procession across the east China plain where the river Yangtse disgorges its polluted waters into the sea.

Spending a month in China at the end of last year, I was simultaneously torn between, on the one hand, an awestruck admiration at the sheer scale of the Chinese achievement in raising their cities, at least, to developed-world status in the blink of an historical eye; and, on the other hand, a deadening sense of impotence at the sheer scale of the environmental catastrophe that is following in its wake.

The air pollution in Shanghai, four-fifths of it caused by cars, is so bad that it’s been likened, in all seriousness, to smoking up to 70 cigarettes a day. For every one of the 3,000-plus skyscrapers that have gone up in the past two decades, there is an historic building or neighbourhood that has been flattened. And most of those skyscrapers, awe-inspiring and aesthetically-stunning though the best of them may be, are already showing signs of the design and maintenance flaws that blight high-rise developments worldwide. Cold in winter and blistering hot in summer, they consume energy like a panda gets through bamboo. And for all that the city planners boast that there are now nine square metres of open space per Shanghai resident for every four that existed 20 years ago, there is nowhere outdoors in the city that you can escape the constant drone of the traffic, see clear open sky or breath clean, fresh air.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those who believes that the people of China (or India or Brazil or anywhere else, for that matter) should forgo the development that has already raised 190 million people out of poverty in order that the west doesn’t have to worry about global warming. But there is a real dilemma here.

For all the obligatory green noises that accompany every official statement (the line in the Chinese media after the failure in Copenhagen was that China would continue to try to save the planet on its own), the kind of rampant capitalism on display in Shanghai is about as far removed from sustainable development as you can get. In the absence of cheap energy, the whole shebang would come – probably literally – tumbling down.

The problems arising from China’s huge-scale, top-down rush to development are unlikely to be solved other than by huge-scale, top-down environmental initiatives of the kind that can make small-scale, local environmental actions seem all a bit pointless. If this sounds like a recipe for inaction and despair, it isn’t meant to be. If even a part of the technological genius and socio-political will that transformed the paddy fields and marshland around Shanghai can be turned to environmental objectives, there is no limit to what might be achieved. In the meantime, it is good to be back breathing the clean air of England once again.

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