On watching the documentary “China: Between Clouds and Dreams’ I was introduced to the spoon-billed sandpiper. These charismatic migratory birds have been reduced to as few as 100 breeding pairs making them one of the most endangered birds on the planet. As well as facing threats from subsistence hunting, in China large-scale reclamation projects are draining the intertidal areas that provide important mudflat habitat along the Yellow Sea. These mudflats are also polluted and so the marine invertebrates the birds use to refuel for their journey ahead are sparse.
The five-part documentary, that recently aired on Channel 4, looks into China’s private relationship with nature and the environment amid increasing industrialisation. Amongst the stories told was that of 4 young children embarking on an investigative journalism exercise for their school newspaper. After learning from their school teacher about the plight of the spoon-billed sandpiper they were instantly inspired to “Save Spoonie”. With vigour and urgency they interviewed trawlers working on the mudflats, factory owners and local communities revealing the tensions and conflicts underpinning many of China’s environmental problems.
Despite a bleak picture being painted for the viewer one thing that remained constant was the resolve of the children that if they shared the story of Spoonie far enough they could save the bird that had captured their imagination from extinction. Watching their youthful optimism made me think about the power of people and public perceptions. In a country such as China, ever growing and ever polluting, can people make a change?
China is one of the 17 mega-biodiverse countries in the world, boasting 35,000 species of higher plants, 6,445 species of vertebrates and 10% of the world’s invertebrates. All this flora and fauna reside in a rich array of landscapes, from forests to deserts grasslands to mountains, China has it all. Yet, China is not only numerous in its wildlife and geographies but in it’s number of human inhabitants too. China’s 1.3 billion strong population compromises nearly 19% of the world’s total. Unsurprisingly, China’s environmental footprint is not small.
Market reforms in 1978 transformed China into one of the world’s largest economies but such rapid economic growth was not without cost. China ranks as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, air pollution and water pollution are of unprecedented levels, 90% of grasslands are degraded and the deserts are expanding. Furthermore, as the spoon-billed sandpiper shows its not just people that are affected, it is estimated that about 44% of wild animals are in decline.
Chinese citizens experience climate change and environmental destruction on a daily basis. They see the blackened air and the blackened sand, they report of poor health and poor water quality, they notice the thinning grass and thinning livestock. Urban and rural citizens alike are living with the change. Environmental problems are causing great unrest in these areas with people demonstrating against the construction of new factories and mines and the dumping of chemical waste in rivers and streams. In a country well known for state imposed restrictions, environmental problems can unite people in a common cause. After years of sacrificing the environment in the name of growth, pollution is now a key political issue. Perhaps from the viewpoint of the government, social unrest is the greatest cost of all.
In light of this all, China has emerged as the world’s leader in investment in renewable energy sources with vast sums of money spent developing wind and solar projects. China have stated that their greenhouse gas emissions would peak by 2030 and have pledged that by 2030 one fifth of its energy would come from non-fossil fuel sources. As the US President-elect Donald Trump has publicly disregarded the validity of climate change, the recent statements by the Chinese vice-foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, that climate change is not just a “Chinese hoax”, as spouted by Trump has opened a space for China to become a climate policy leader. Although China’s environmental problems are well documented let us find some comfort in the knowledge that China’s administration are investing in cleaner low-carbon technologies and at the very least acknowledge that climate change is real.
I also acknowledge that things are not this simple. Mining for coal continues, hydroelectric dam projects threaten rivers and streams, markets for traditional Chinese medicine are open and the growing number of ecological migrants show the attitude and treatment of China’s rural communities. Unfortunately such complexities are beyond the scope of this post. However, in an uncertain future, a better China is better for the world.
I return back to the 4 children out on the mudflats on the Yellow Sea. Does our ultimate hope lie in inspiring younger generations such as those 4 children in a school in Juegang. What struck me was the power of childhood wonder and spirit. With some encouragement and guidance from a dedicated teacher the children spoke so intelligently of the problems China are facing while retaining hope for the future. For many Chinese citizens it’s the cancer causing smog from factories and toxin filled water that are alerting them of the environmental destruction around them. In other nations will we have to wait until things are this bad and obvious for people to take notice? Many authors are writing on the importance of connecting with nature, let us also see the importance of capturing childhood spirit and not letting it wane. This could be the key to inspiring a long-term environmentally conscious public. It would be naïve to conclude that this alone will solve the world’s problems but I would argue this is somewhere we can start.
The future of the spoon-billed sandpiper is uncertain but the sentiments of one of the young reporters resonates, “the older generation…don’t realise how serious things are, it’s down to us to save the environment.”