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Painting the map green

染绿地图

As China gets tough on pollution, will its economy suffer?

中国强力控制污染是否会损害经济

The received wisdom was that greener growth would be slower. So far, that hasn’t happened

过去普遍认为绿色增长比较缓慢,目前这种情况尚未发生



LEO YAO thought he had nothing to fear from the environment ministry. Before, when its inspectors visited his cutlery factory, he says, they generated “loud thunder, little rain”. After warning him to clean up, they would, at worst, impose a negligible fine. Not so this time. In August dozens of inspectors swarmed over his workshop in Tianjin, just east of Beijing, and ordered production to be halted. His doors remain shut today. If he wants to go on making knives and forks, he has been told that he must move to more modern facilities in a less populated area.

姚士弘曾认为环保部没什么好怕的。以前巡视员检查我的餐具厂都是“雷声大雨点小”,姚先生说道。他们警告要打扫卫生,最多开一张微不足道的罚单,现在变了。今年8月,在北京以东的天津市,数十名巡视员蜂拥而至,命令他的餐具厂停产,至今仍未开工。他被告知要想继续生产餐具,必须迁至人口稀少地区的更现代化设施内。

Mr Yao’s company, which at its peak employed 80 people, is just one minor casualty in China’s sweeping campaign to reduce pollution. For years the government has vowed to go green, yet made little progress. It has flinched at reining in dirty industries, wary of the mass job losses that seemed likely to ensue. But in the past few months it has taken a harder line and pressed on with pollution controls, hitting coalminers, cement-makers, paper mills, chemical factories, textile firms and more.

姚先生的公司员工最多时有80人,它只是中国全面减少污染运动中的一个小受害者。多年来中国信誓旦旦地要走一条绿色发展道路,但没什么进展。中国整治污染行业畏首畏尾,担心造成的大量失业。但过去几个月,中国采取了强硬措施,加紧控制污染,对煤矿、水泥厂、造纸厂、化工厂、纺织厂等造成了严重影响。
Tens of thousands of companies—mostly smaller ones, like Mr Yao’s—have been forced to close, according to Chen Xingdong, an economist with BNP Paribas. In the region around Beijing this winter, the government has ordered steel mills to run at half-capacity and aluminium-makers to cut output by nearly a third. Implementation, half-hearted in the past, has if anything been heavy-handed. In Hebei, a northern province, a ban on coal heating left thousands of residents shivering because the replacement, a switch to natural gas, was not yet ready.

据法国巴黎银行经济学家陈兴动透露,已有上万家企业被迫停产,多数是姚先生这种小企业。今年冬天,在北京周边地区,政府命令钢铁厂将产能减半,铝厂减产近三分之一。政府的实施力度很大,不像过去睁一只眼闭一只眼。位于北方的河北省禁止烧煤取暖,致使数千居民挨冻,原因是煤改气尚未做好准备。

For the wider economy, the question is how steep the cost will be. A sharp tightening of environmental rules in the world’s biggest polluter has the potential to be a shock, both to China and the global economy. Two worries are commonly heard: that it will drag down growth; and, at the same time, cause inflation as production cuts boost prices. Jiang Chao, an economist with Haitong Securities, a broker, says it could end up making for “classic stagflation”. So far, though, these worries are unfounded: growth has been solid and inflation subdued. A possible explanation is that the economic impact is lagging behind the pollution controls. Another is that, contrary to received wisdom, China may be able to raise its environmental standards without paying a high price.

问题是对整体经济而言,这样做会付出多大代价。世界最大的排污国收紧环境法规,有可能对中国和全球经济造成冲击。议论最多的有两个担忧:经济增长放缓;减产推升价格,进而导致通货膨胀。“海通证券”经济学家姜超指出,最终可能造成“典型的停滞型通货膨胀”。但目前为止,这些担忧是没有根据的:增长稳健,通胀放缓。原因可能是控制污染造成的经济影响具有滞后性。中国或许能够提高环境标准,同时避免付出巨大代价。

One thing is clear: China’s shift on pollution is real. True, some extreme measures are temporary, especially those aimed at keeping Beijing’s sky blue this winter. But many others will be lasting. As part of a “war on pollution” declared in 2014, China has detailed targets for cleaning up its air, water and soil. On January 1st it introduced an environmental-protection tax, replacing a patchwork of pollution fees. Last month it launched a market for trading carbon emissions, which, though scaled back from early plans, will be the world’s largest. Most crucially, the environment ministry, previously a political weakling, has clout at last—as Mr Yao’s cutlery business found to its chagrin. Besides fining companies, inspectors have disciplined some 18,000 officials for laxity over pollution.

有一件事是清楚的:中国确实改变了在污染上的立场。有些极端措施确是权宜之计,尤其在冬天保持北京蓝天的措施,但许多措施是长期的。2014年,中国“向污染宣战”,并列出清理空气、水、土壤的具体目标。1月1日,中国开始征收环保税,代替形形色色的污染费。上个月,中国建立碳排放交易市场,虽然比最初计划缩水,但规模仍为世界最大。最重要的是,政治上羸弱的环保部总算有了影响力,使姚先生的餐饮业务苦不堪言。巡视员不仅对企业罚款,还处罚了约18000名官员,原因是放纵环境污染。

The tougher tactics have already made a big dent in specific industries. Just 60% of steel blast-furnaces are now in use, down sharply since October and near a five-year low. Thermal-power output is now actually declining year by year, evidence of weakening demand. Companies are also feeling the pinch. Schaeffler Group, a German car-parts maker, warned in September that pollution controls would knock out its supplier of needle bearings. Taiwanese chipmakers in the city of Kunshan, an electronics hub not far from Shanghai, say the abrupt tightening of water-quality rules may lead them to move.

严厉措施已经对某些行业造成沉重打击。目前只有60%的炼钢高炉投入生产,从10月份开始急剧下降,达到5年来最低水平。火力发电量正在逐年减少,证明电力需求有所减少。企业也有切肤之痛,德国汽车零件制造商“舍弗勒集团”在9月份发出警告,控制污染可能使它的滚针轴承供应商遭受打击。昆山市是离上海不远的电子设备制造中心,据这里的台湾芯片制造商透露,中国突然收紧水质法规可能使它们离开此地。

Upward pressure on production costs has been intense. A surge in coal and steel prices has attracted most attention, as China has pushed companies to cut capacity (see chart). But similar trends affect a range of smaller industries. In July China banned imports of 24 kinds of waste such as paper and plastic; the ban came fully into effect on January 1st, but demand (and prices) for raw pulp quickly jumped. Restrictions on the chemicals industry have fuelled a 50% increase in the price of glyphosate, a popular weedkiller, over the past few months. Prices of rare-earth metals, notably two used in electric magnets, have also soared.

生产成本面临严峻的上升压力。随着中国推动企业削减产能,煤炭与钢铁价格上涨最受关注。但是,许多小行业受到价格上涨的影响。7月份,中国禁止进口包括纸和塑料在内的24种废料;该禁令在1月1日正式生效,但原矿浆的需求(以及价格)快速攀升。过去几个月来,化工行业的管控措施导致草甘膦价格上涨50%,草甘膦是一种普遍应用的除草剂。稀土金属价格也出现上涨,应用于电磁铁。

Yet the biggest economic surprise of China’s environmental campaign so far is not that it has had an impact; it is how muted that impact has been. Yes, industrial production has recently been weaker than forecast, but it is still expanding at more than 6% year on year. And yes, some commodity prices have shot up, but this has had very little effect on general inflation.

但目前中国环保运动最出人意料的不是对经济的影响,而是这种影响多么地微弱。工业产值确实低于预期,但每年增长速度仍超过6%。部分商品价格确实有所上涨,但对一般通货膨胀的影响微乎其微。

Three factors suggest that this benign trend may endure. First, despite the common assumption that industries such as steel or coal are vast, they in fact account for a small, shrinking share of the Chinese economy. Minsheng Securities, a broker, calculates that the full complement of industries affected by the pollution measures adds up to just 7% of total national investment. China has reached a stage of development where manufacturing is fading in importance. Nearly 4m people may lose jobs as a result of cuts in industrial capacity, but strong demand for labour in the services sector, from restaurants to health care, is cushioning that blow.

三个因素表明这种良好态势可能持续下去。首先,虽然普遍认为钢铁煤炭等行业规模庞大,可事实上它们在中国经济中所占比例较小,并且在不断缩小。据“民生证券”估算,受治污措施影响的所有行业仅占全国投资总额的7%。在中国目前所处的发展阶段,制造业的重要性正在下降。削减工业产能可能导致近400万人失业,但包括酒店、医疗在内的服务业对劳动力的强劲需求正在弥补损失。

Second, price increases have been concentrated and show little sign of spreading widely. Prices of coal and steel, the first to heat up, are already levelling off, making the increases seem big one-off changes rather than the start of inflationary spirals. For the economy as a whole, it amounts to a redistribution of resources. Companies that use commodities as inputs face higher costs. But producers benefit. And since metals and mining companies are heavily indebted, the rebound in revenues is helping to fortify their balance-sheets and, in the process, easing Chinese financial risks.

其次,价格上涨的行业比较集中,没有扩大化的迹象。最早上涨的煤炭钢铁价格已趋向平稳,这种上涨似乎是一次性的,而不是螺旋式通货膨胀的开端。对整体经济而言,这相当于资源的重新分配。将商品用于生产投入的企业面临成本提高,但生产商会受益。由于金属和矿产企业债务累累,收入反弹有助于加固它们的资产负债表,降低中国的金融风险。

Lastly, green restrictions can themselves generate growth and jobs. China’s drive for cleaner energy sources has gained momentum. Estimates suggest it installed nearly 55 gigawatts of solar-power capacity in 2017, more than the existing capacity of any other country at the start of the year. China accounts for about two-fifths of global production of electric cars. And in more established industries, companies feel pressure to upgrade. To stay in business, Mr Yao says he will move his cutlery factory to a new industrial park, where waste-disposal standards are higher.

最后,控制污染本身能促进增长和增加就业。中国清洁能源的发展势头强劲,据估计2017年中国太阳能发电装机容量约55GW,比年初任何国家的装机容量都要多。中国占全球电动汽车产量的40%。在其他成熟行业,企业面临升级压力。姚先生说他的餐具厂要想继续运营,必须迁往新的工业园区,那里的垃圾处理标准更高。

If the economic downside from China’s clean-up remains relatively mild, it prompts an obvious question: why did it take the government so long to get tough on pollution? One big reason is surely the uneven distribution of pain. Smokestack industries are based in a small number of provinces such as Shandong in the east and Shanxi in the north. So long as enforcement was in local hands, officials had little incentive to act. None wanted to throttle companies in their own backyard. But from a national perspective, the economic trade-offs of greener growth ought to be easier to stomach. China will both pay a price and reap dividends.

如果中国控制污染维持对经济较小的负面影响,就出现一个明显问题:为何中国政府花了这么长时间去强力控制污染?一个主要原因是污染的地理分布不平衡。烟囱工业聚集在少数省份,如东部的山东和北方的山西。只要执法权掌握在地方政府手里,地方官员就没有行动的动力,没人愿意扼杀家门口的企业。但从国家角度来讲,绿色增长的折衷经济方案更容易被接受,中国既要付出代价又能收获红利。