Quality School Construction is an Environmental Issue, too.

Now that it’s a fairly well established fact that most if not all of Sichuan’s collapsed schools failed to meet national or provincial construction standards, here’s another hypothesis worth testing:

None of the defective materials used in Sichuan’s collapsed schools were produced in factories that met China’s national environmental standards for air, water, and other types of pollution.

The connection is much more direct, and more logical, than it might seem, and it’s one that the relevant authorities might consider as they move forward with standards for re-construction in the quake zone.

As somebody who has visited well over 100 Chinese factories concerned with the manufacture of steel, aluminum, and copper, much of which is used in the construction industry, allow me to make one more claim: the more closely a factory hews to China’s strict environmental laws, the more likely its products are exported to markets that demand quality. Conversely, when I see a factory with an unfiltered smoke stack, or discharging effluent into waterways, I can almost guarantee that it’s a locally owned facility producing sub-standard products for the local market. And, since most of China’s native-owned industries violate environmental standards, most of China’s construction materials aren’t fit for export.

I will leave it to others to describe how and why relatively autonomous provincial and local governments can and do ignore and/or refuse Beijing’s environmental laws (an interest in job creation, lack of enforcement resources and expertise, corruption, among others). The point is, though: they don’t. And the result is that – in heavy industries ranging from steel to cement – the cost of actually starting a business is quite low compared to countries where regulatory barriers – environmental ones, in particular – must be met. For twenty-five years, then, there has been a strong and ongoing financial incentive for China’s budding industrialists, and revenue hungry local governments, to build technologically and environmentally backward factories (especially in regions where coal is a cheap and plentiful power source).

An important consequence, at least in the steel industry, is that China now has an excess of production capacity in low-quality “long products” like steel re-enforcing bars (re-bar), that are used in the construction industry. Some of this excess production is exported, but the exports are limited to countries that are willing to overlook the use of sub-standard structural steel (not many, believe me). Of course, this is good news if you’re looking for cheap rebar to use in your school construction project: there’s really no limit to the amount of this material available in China.

[And when I say throughout China, I mean throughout China. In March, the Shanghai Industrial and Commercial Administrative Bureau announced that fully half of the structural steel being used in Shanghai construction projects “failed quality tests.”]

I wouldn’t want to overdo this, but: among the many reasons that Japan produces some of the world’s finest steel and steel alloys are the tight enforced environmental requirements that push up the cost of production in that country. To survive, a Japanese mill can either shut down, or begin producing products worthy of higher prices. Which is precisely what’s happened in developed nations where the steel industry has continued to thrive in the face of Chinese competition (I realize that there are other factors in play, as well).

Beijing is keenly aware of the over-capacity problem, and regulators have been trying to shut down some of the smaller, polluting steel mills (and cement foundries) for several years now. They’ve had some success, too, though not nearly as much as they’ve projected. For the most part, the slow pace of shut-downs is related to the fact that China’s polluting industries often have deep, entrenched ties with local and provincial governments. So shutting them down is as much a political problems, as an environmental one.

This blog has always avoided the absurd exercise of making policy suggestions for the Chinese government. They don’t care; and I don’t know. That noted, it does seem as if the national government – as a steward of earthquake reconstruction – has the rather unique opportunity to insist that damaged manufacturing production be rebuilt to national environmental/quality standards (supported by subsidies, if necessary). Most important, as the new production comes online (presumably, most of which will be state and province owned), government subsidized contractors be required to purchase from them.

Of course, re-construction is already underway, and Sichuan can’t wait for technologically advanced steel plants. But one would hope – well, I hope – that reconstruction won’t move so quickly that Sichuan’s new schools are built with more of the same sub-standard steel and cement. In either case, the benchmark for whether or not Sichuan’s school reconstruction program was successful should NOT be the survival rate during the next earthquake. Rather, it should be a question: are Sichuan’s skies cleaner since Wenchuan?

4 comments

  1. In the cement industry it’s a chicken or egg comes first problem. Do the low expectations of Chinese contracters cause the cement makers to mix low quality cement, or is the surplus of cheap cement the reason that so many contacters use it instead of better stuff from lafarge?

    A good point that quality and environment rule following are connected. Maybe no so much elsewhere but in China for sure.

  2. Local government in Sichuan is starving for cash and there’s a zero percent chance that the central government is going to deny them the chance to start up production ASAP to make up the lost money. My own prediction is that pollution will be worse than before.

  3. Shandong_68: I’m a China optimist in my bones, but you’ll get no argument from me on that point.

  4. I don’t know if you can really make the quality=environment protection argument in China. There must be factories that produce high quality stuff that still expel crap into the atmosphere. Last time I was there I saw plenty of plants making stuff for export with open stacks.

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