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The incredible growth of China's economy has extracted an incredible price: the dirtying of its soil, its water and its air, thanks to the rapid extraction and use of its resources, and the often backward means of doing so.

The World Bank two years ago listed 20 Chinese cities among 30 of the world's most polluted, mainly because of heavy use of coal. Newspapers carry tales of environmental catastrophes daily, with terrible human impact: children poisoned by lead and cadmium released by unethical factories into local groundwater, a 28-year-old worker who volunteered to have his chest cut open to prove that massive amounts of coal dust had lodged in his lungs so he could qualify for compensation from a former employer.

Some 460,000 people die prematurely in China each year because of water and air pollution, according to a 2007 study. It's the cost of the country's rush to modernize itself into an economic superpower.

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But the Chinese are also beginning to discover the benefits of greener, more efficient technologies, which is creating opportunities for foreign firms.

Unlike many other developing countries, China has made progress in environmental concerns, largely because the fast pace of development - and the massive amounts of pollution produced - have left it with little choice, said Quentin Chiotti, a senior scientist with Toronto-based Pollution Probe.

"They're doing better than many other developing countries because they know they have to," Dr. Chiotti said.

In the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, authorities were desperate to clean up the city's air. Most visible at the time were the sweeping controls imposed just before the Games, including the closure of factories upwind of the capital and restrictions on the number of cars allowed in the city centre. These measures, combined with fortunate wind patterns, helped turn the city's sky back to blue, just in time.

But the cleanup effort had begun years before. A Canadian company, Vancouver-based Westport Innovations, was able to get in on those efforts in 2001 after putting in two years of research and reconnaissance. Its international joint-venture arm, Cummins Westport, landed a major contract to supply natural gas engines to Beijing's city buses, eventually selling 2,800 engines to Beijing and expanding sales to eight other cities.

"After five or six years of tough slogging, we've got some significant achievements under our belt, and we are not a large company," said Jonathan Burke, vice-president of international market development for Westport Innovations.

Since those initial sales in 2001, Westport has joined two Chinese companies in joint venture projects. One is with Beijing Tianhai Industry Co. to manufacture LNG fuel tanks for the international market, the other with Weichai Power Co., China's largest maker of heavy duty engines.

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It has not been an easy haul, Mr. Burke concedes. "It's a market that is absolutely, 100 per cent open for business. But we have to remember, not everybody does things our way. ... From the time you find the dance partner to the time you do the last dance on the dance floor can be an excruciatingly long time."

Consultants working with Canadian companies say smaller firms do not have the time to lay this groundwork, or do not have the time or money required to build relationships with Chinese officials and potential business partners.

"They are interested and eager to get these opportunities, but you know there are lots of challenges to get access to the Chinese market," said Liu Guangdong, a native of Shandong, China, and founder of Inteed Solutions, which has offices in Toronto, Beijing and Shanghai. He has been advising Canadian companies for about three years on how to break into the market.

Mr. Liu cites one firm that spent nine years investing in China before landing its first significant contract.

"Once they gain access to China's market they know it's easier to get the second, and third and fourth, contract," he said. "[But]to do business, you have to establish very good, personal, friendly relationships."

Consultants say some of the most significant opportunities lie not in China's major cities but in its provinces, where heavy industrialization has outpaced local governments' abilities to control pollution.

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"I see [the opportunities]as huge, especially for a small company with a niche product," said John Nicholson, president of Toronto-based Environmental Business Consultants.

Persuading local officials to undertake such improvements may be a challenge, however.

"The lower-level governments now do realize the environmental issues," said Mr. Liu, of Inteed. "But in China they have a different measure of success. ... They evaluate their success by how many buildings they have built, how many roads and highways they have built, and how much GDP they produce"

But here, too, there is progress. Harmony Foundation of Canada, a non-profit group based in Victoria, has been working in China's provinces for three years, training some 200 mayors on the benefits of sustainable communities.

"Out of a group of 50 to 70 mayors, you're going to have those who are sitting on the fence and need to be persuaded, those who sit with their arms crossed because they're too big and too important ... and that group who are more forward-looking mayors, who you really want to cultivate and hope they become future leaders," said Michael Bloomfield, the foundation's executive director.

The addition of environmental factors to Chinese authorities' methods of assessing a province or city's success has made his yearly seminars all the more popular, he said. His foundation is now lobbying for a permanent training centre.

"I think the leadership recognizes that economic development is not enough, if you are poisoning the environment and the food people eat," Mr. Bloomfield said.

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