China’s path to economic and environmental stability will rely on renewable energy and government regulation, according to Sheryl WuDunn ’81, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former journalist for The New York Times.
In a lecture, WuDunn — who is currently a senior managing director at Mid-Market Securities — discussed the trade-off China faces between economic development and environmental challenges.
China’s economy has been the fastest growing in the world for the past three decades, with its poverty rates decreased from 88 percent to 6 percent of people in poverty since the 1960s, according to WuDunn. However, she said the growing economy has created “environmental catastrophes” — including air pollution, lack of access to safe drinking water and hard metals contaminating growing crops.
In the country’s rice-producing region, rice irrigated with water has been polluted by industrial waste containing cadmium.
“Wastewater has toxic heavy metal and it bleaches into the soil, and therefore it creates real serious soil contamination,” WuDunn said.
Lack of clean water is another issue — 700 million Chinese drink contaminated water daily and 300 million people in rural China do not have access to safe water — according to WuDunn.
“The groundwater in most of Chinese cities and most of the rivers and lakes is polluted,” she said.
China’s authoritarian government may be able to mitigate the country’s environmental problems by enforcing actions that curb energy usage and investing in renewable energy, WuDunn said. She said a visit she made to a Chinese solar panel factory demonstrated the progress that the country has made towards developing solar energy.
“[The CEO] has a vision for improving at every step of the production process for making solar panels, and also he has a vision for creating solar cities,” she said.
Although China is a global leader in renewable technologies, overcoming its environmental problems will not be simple because regulators often do not have the authority to enforce laws, according to WuDunn.
“Fixing this challenge will require much more money, much more resources and political will as well as ingenuity,” she said.
However, WuDunn said there is still hope for China. She also said that the country surprised and impressed her while she was living there as a reporter.
“China is never what you’d expect it to be,” she said. “When you think that you know it and you’re proud of that knowledge, look out, because it is really hard to predict where and when China is going to be and do something.”