Brown touts progress but China's environmental issues persist

It’s easy to feel good traveling through China with Gov. Jerry Brown this week.

Multimillion-dollar business deals between Chinese and California companies have been announced, and cooperation on environmental policy is pledged at every turn from top Communist Party and California officials. At night, the state is celebrated at lavish dinners where the California wine flows freely.

Brown says his trip here is a first step toward improved relations between California and China that will be mutually beneficial for both. But it may be years before we know if those benefits will materialize, or whether this trip will be viewed simply as a collection of photo-ops and political promises.

Brown himself is visibly taken by what he has observed. He sees in the country’s recent construction boom a glimpse of the possible, and it seems to have focused his vision of California’s future -- thousands of miles of high-speed railway, factories that manufacture hundreds of electric vehicles.

He marvels openly at China’s progress and has vowed, only half-jokingly, that “bulldozers will roll” when he returns.

The governor has also celebrated non-binding environmental accords with the Chinese government, like the one he is expected to sign here on Monday, allowing both the governor and his Chinese counterparts to claim that progress is being made on fighting pollution and climate change.

But reality offers a stark reminder that many of Brown’s public victories remain aspirational. A haze hung over Shanghai Saturday as air quality reached unhealthy levels. Outside Brown’s hotel,  dozens of barges filled with coal drifted down the Huangpu River.

Nearly half the world’s coal is burned in China, which contributes to its production of roughly 25% of all global carbon emissions. For now, at least, as the governor and environmental leaders here vow change, China’s expansion remains fueled by coal.

Flying into Guangzhou, a think haze blanketed the city. The air was the worst Brown and his delegation have since in nearly a week in the country, and his environmental protection secretary, Matt Rodriquez, said the view from the air was sobering.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.


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