Ecological Tightrope in the Qilian Mountains
The Qilian Mountains serve as an important ecological shelter for northwestern China as well as the main water conservation area for Gansu and Qinghai provinces and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. However, after decades of extensive, disordered development, the local ecosystem has fallen into crisis. Human activities such as mining, tourism development, agriculture and animal husbandry have exerted an unbearable burden on the region’s fragile ecosystem. Moreover, worsening global warming has caused the snow lines of the Qilian Mountains to continue rising and the glaciers deep in the mountains to melt faster and faster, resulting in an exacerbation of the ecological crisis in the lower reaches.
In July 2017, the Chinese government issued a circular on ecological degradation of the Qilian Mountains National Nature Reserve, which lists prominent problems causing the devastation of local ecosystem such as illegal mining, illegal hydroelectric development, illicit waste discharge and inadequate environmental protection measures.
Essentially, the ecological crisis in the Qilian Mountains is a result of “market dysfunction” and “government dysfunction.” Either mining enterprises or hydroelectric projects will continue to cause more environmental pollution. From the perspective of market law, enterprises naturally must continue expanding their production scales. Without effective external regulation and the market interaction, disorderly development will only cause severe environmental problems over time.
Government dysfunction is a significant factor in the ecological crisis of the Qilian Mountains. According to the July 2017 circular, environmental problems plaguing the region are caused by operations and projects that received illicit approval. For instance, of more than 150 hydroelectric stations along the Heihe, Shiyang and Shule rivers in the Qilian Mountains region, 42 are located in protected areas of the nature reserve. Common illegal practices include improper approval, construction before approval and incomplete procedures. Most illegally approved and constructed projects neglect the importance of ecological protection. Compared to the damage a single private enterprise can cause, governmental malpractice in approving construction that lacks environmental awareness causes even greater damage to the ecosystem.
To a large extent, the environmental problems plaguing the Qilian Mountains are fueled by the local government’s thirst for economic growth. Due to a strong preference for extensive economic growth, the local government lacks the motivation to prioritize environmental problems. In fact, such preference has been the single greatest cause of ecological degradation of the Qilian Mountains, even greater than local enterprises and market factors. The local government’s error lies in sacrificing the local ecosystem for the sake of developing the economy.
The environmental crisis plaguing the Qilian Mountains must be solved by adjusting the economic growth mode. However, decision-making mechanisms of local government and policymakers are usually more complicated than the economy, resulting in delays in policy formulation and intervention.
What is the best way to solve the ecological crisis in the Qilian Mountains? According to traditional environmental economics, enterprises’ impact on the environment grows day by day with their operational activities. Due to dysfunction of both the government and the market, damage to resources and the environment has reached a tipping point after long-term accumulation, resulting in resource and ecological crises. Dysfunction of the market and the government needs to be overcome in earnest before it is too late. This should be the primary concern in policy designs to address the ecological crisis of the Qilian Mountains.
From the perspective of macro environmental economics, imbalance between the environment and economics is the primary reason for current severe ecological degradation. Only by addressing the imbalanced relationship and correcting the improper resource allocation between environmental protection and economic growth can we realize the simultaneous advancement of the environment and the economy and achieve “green development.”
Based on such logic, three major solutions could treat the ecological crisis of the Qilian Mountains: rectifying the market, regulating the government and promoting green development.
Rectifying the market refers to measures to strengthen environmental regulation of market behaviors such as production and consumption and formulate environmental standards in line with the environment carrying capacity of the Qilian Mountains. As a national nature reserve, the Qilian Mountains should set stricter thresholds for environmental protection than other regions. In fact, tightening environmental standards protects the economy from the threat of ecological degradation and improves it by promoting the development of better production and consumption means. To this end, diverse policy tools including laws, economic incentives and financial policies as well as public education on environmental protection should be employed to balance social costs and returns in ecological resource utilization, optimally correct improper resource allocation and maximize the efficiency of resource utilization.
Regulating the government refers to the eradication of government dysfunction. Currently, due to a preference for economic growth, local governments don’t do enough or even overtly harm the environment, which has become the heart of environmental problems. Not only should local governments perform their duties within the framework of laws to ensure they properly fulfill their responsibilities in environmental protection, but also local leaders should be assessed by a system that underlines the importance of ecological improvement so that local governments will be motivated to shoulder their obligations in environmental protection and properly play their role as “gatekeepers” of the market.
Promoting green development requires integrating economic growth and ecological improvement to better protect the environment while developing the economy. Both theory and practice have shown that economic development can bolster environmental protection because the latter cannot be achieved without the support of necessary manpower and resources. Economic development can enhance the capacity building for environmental protection and constantly inject “fresh blood” into the cause of ecological improvement. Of course, economic development must be eco-friendly. The Qilian Mountains National Nature Reserve presents a pristine example: The region’s economic development and environmental protection, in fact, do not conflict each other. The region can continue carrying out production and operating activities while adhering to relevant national environmental protection standards, and at the same time it can use its advantages as a nature reserve to develop specialized industries such as high-value-added forestry, high-tech animal husbandry and the “Internet Plus” economy to expand the market and increase revenues.
Since 2017, the provincial government of Gansu has taken action to address the ecological crisis of the Qilian Mountains. It formulated and enacted the strictest environmental protection standards, dismantled and closed enterprises violating relevant environmental regulations, shut down or renovated 42 hydroelectric stations and deployed video and data monitoring equipment to ensure adequate water discharge to the lower reaches of the rivers. In the upgrade from a nature reserve to Qilian Mountains National Park, the local government doubled the space of protected area. Gansu unveiled a blueprint for future development of 10 major green industries including energy conservation, environmental protection and cultural tourism to further promote green development. These measures are expected to balance economic growth and environmental protection and achieve green development in the Qilian Mountains.
The author is deputy director of the Research Center for Environmental Economics at Fudan University.