It is difficult to shake the images of China’s pollution problem: smoke-belching power plants and factories, clogged urban roadways, hazy skies and the continued use of coal for power and heating. These issues are the unfortunate side effects of the Middle Kingdom’s amazing rise from secretive backwater to global economic standout.

There are some frightening scenarios for the world’s future if China continues to put cars on the roadways and rely on coal to fuel its economy. The country recently passed the U.S. as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, accounting for 24 percent of the global total. And that's with an auto industry that can best be described as “fledgling” and a growing manufacturing sector.

But is there really cause for alarm? While the future may seem soot-colored at best, there are some stories that contradict popular opinion. These environmental successes show that perhaps China will not choke to death on its own fumes (while taking the rest of the world down with it). China’s green movement goes well beyond Beijing’s promises to green the country and its economy, which many people write off as a PR ploy.

But is it merely PR? There is more at stake than China losing face because of its dirty air. Pollution threatens the very workforce that has propelled China’s manufacturing miracle. The World Bank estimates there will be more than 600,000 premature deaths per year due directly to air pollution. Sixteen of the current 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. Cleaning up the air eventually will be an economic necessity, not simply “the right thing to do.”

Beijing was able to put on a clean face for the Olympics, cleaning its air, literally, by force. Government mandates took cars off the roads and forced factories to temporarily close. Such measures obviously worked in the short term, but, with nearly 1,000 cars being added to Beijing’s roadways daily, completely stopping traffic is a near impossibility. But smaller projects, like a plan to retrofit city buses with emissions control equipment, show that Beijing’s clean-up is continuing, if on a much smaller scale, even though the world’s media has stopped watching after the end of the Olympics.

And the public transit revolution goes well beyond clean-burning bus engines. Public transport is expanding rapidly in China’s biggest cities and may eventually become its saving grace. Shanghai, like Beijing, is rapidly expanding its subway system. It will be one of the most extensive networks in the world.

And Shanghai has taken other steps that make it one of China’s greener metros. The city caps the number of cars on its roadways by auctioning off license plates to the public. No plate, no car. This is not unlike the system in Singapore, which has successfully limited the number of cars by making it difficult and expensive to obtain proper license. Even though the system is littered with loopholes (people can simply license their car in another province), the rules have kept car growth somewhat in check.

The Shanghai car law is just one example of a rather dubious weapon that China’s policy-makers have in their arsenal: the complete absence of an opposition. Democracy advocates cringe at the thought of mandates that infringe on personal freedoms. At the same time, such mandates gave Beijing the cleanest air it has had in a decade and give municipal governments unquestionable eminent domain to expand subways at ridiculously fast rates. If China’s leadership decides to jump completely on the green bandwagon, there will be no one to stand in its way. Whether this will even happen is debatable (or is it doubtful?), but the powers are there.

And these unopposed changes were demonstrated by one of the most controversial projects ever in modern history: the Three Gorges Dam. The massive project swallowed entire cities and ecosystems. Over a million people were displaced. Pollution levels in the water are expected to rise because its flow has been interrupted. Endangered animals, like the migrating Siberian Crane, have lost their natural habitat.

But the Three Gorges is the world’s largest hydroelectric plant. When it is fully functioning, in about 18 months time, it will be capable of producing 22,500 MW of electricity. It is a major step toward reducing greenhouse emissions and the reliance on coal as a power source. Though the dam is a major move in the clean energy direction, in the minds of many environmentalists, it will continue to inhabit a moral gray area because of the destruction that was caused during its creation.

There are other dam projects in the works on the Yangtze as well. Though smaller, in combination, these other plants will produce more electricity combined than the Three Gorges.

But those who closely watch the press in China will see that the campaign for hydroelectricity is not stopping with the Yangtze. Hydro-power has been anointed as the alternative to coal. But coal is still part of China’s future plans. Its cheapness and availability makes it impossible to put it on the shelf completely. A novel project dubbed GreenGen could provide a partial answer to the problems created by the dirty-burning fuel. In these power plants, coal is converted to gas and its pollutants trapped and partially removed before it is burned. This cuts the sulfur and nitrous emissions significantly. However, there is no significant economic reason to remove the pollutants. That fact might keep GreenGen-type plants from becoming widespread.

While China’s mega-cities are suffering the effects of pollution, some of the country’s smaller cities are breathing easier. The northeastern town of Dalian and the southeastern port town of Xiamen have long topped the list of China’s cleanest, most livable cities. Citizens in Xiamen recently launched a grassroots effort that succeeded in moving the construction site of a large chemical plant to an area outside of the city.

Dalian is a model city because it does not rely on heavy industry as much as other cities in China’s Northeast. Yes, with the city’s growth, factories have begun popping up, but most of these are located on the city’s outskirts, making the air clean, especially by regional standards. For this reason, Dalian is a favorite tourist destination for domestic vacationers.

The attention to urban and suburban natural areas have made these cities models of what is possible, even with rapid economic development taking place. Even though China’s green movement has been characterized as slow to change and quick to attract controversy, there are numerous positives as well.

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MNN homepage photo: The-Tor/iStockPhoto

China's different shade of green
Though it seems China's green movement has its share of controversy, many positive aspects can still be found.