Heads up:

Experts from a range of fields converged on Columbia University on April 7, 2005 to discuss the enormous impacts of China’s booming economy as part of a symposium on “China’s Economic Emergence: Progress, Pitfalls and Implications at Home and Abroad.” The symposium featured Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Earth Institute Director Jeffrey D. Sachs and Economics Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, along with more than 25 other scholars, business leaders and government officials. The panel topics covered the environmental costs of economic development, public health needs in the era of economic growth, as well as the problems and progress of legal reform.

A panel discussion led by Sachs focused on a significant obstacle to the country’s rapid economic progress: the impact of human activities on the natural environment. “The Environment in Chinese Development” panel featured Klaus Lackner and Upmanu Lall, both professors of Earth Sciences and Engineering at Columbia University; Mike McElroy, Professor of Environmental Studies at Harvard University; and Yisheng Zheng, Deputy Director of the Center for Environment and Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Professor Lackner, who is currently researching methods of carbon dioxide capture, detailed how China, instead of depending heavily on oil, could be a leader in the development of alternative energy options such as solar power. “China is growing very quickly, and [the world] should be supportive of this,” said Lackner. “But if it continues on this path of unmitigated energy consumption, the world will reach its resource limit very fast. China must reduce its dependence on oil… It can be done.”

Another important environmental as well as social challenge is China’s water shortage. Professor Upmanu Lall, a Senior Research Scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction at The Earth Insitute, detailed several dimensions of this problem: groundwater depletion, seasonal flooding and drought. “There is great variability in access to water throughout the country, and this problem tends to be endemic to China and not climate induced,” he said.

Throughout the first day of the symposium, experts from a range of fields, including economists and public health experts, pointed to China’s increasing dependence on oil and coal as a primary cause of the country’s pollution and resource depletion problems. That China today is second only to the U.S. in terms of oil consumption– and may soon become number one — was a focal point of all three panel discussions.

It’s good to see that the Earth Institute is hitting the problem from a number of different angles. Establishing firm property rights and the rule of law generally, for instance, are an important part of environmental progress. If nobody owns anything, then nobody has an incentive to take care of it.

As the New York Times reports today, one of the problems is that China subsidizes its gasoline prices, which leads to artifically high demand (and also shortages). They’re going to liberalize prices soon, however, which is going to make some Chinese unhappy in the short term as their wallets are hit.