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Opinion: Environment

China's Environmental Future

China's rise as an industrial and economic superpower hasn't come free: its forests, land, rivers and air quality are suffering dramatically as factories pollute and cars become every family's attainable dream. But as much of the world depends on China's natural resources in one way or another, the Chinese aren't the only ones who should be worried. Jianguo Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability at Michigan State University, explains why no matter what country you live in, you should worry about the state of China's environment.

China is the world's most populous country and has had the world's fastest-growing economy for almost three decades, with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that increased 12-fold between 1978 and 2005. While these economic gains have improved the daily lives of millions, the cost, in terms of the environment, is enormous and potentially catastrophic. China's environment is already among the worst of any major country. Air pollution, diminishing biodiversity, fisheries depletion, invasive species, land degradation, soil erosion, and water pollution and shortages all continue to be major problems.
towering high rises of Shanghai.

China's urban population has tripled during the last five decades and now accounts for approximately 40 percent of the total population. Photo courtesy: Jianguo Liu.

One can argue that many of China's environmental problems originate with other countries that demand goods from polluting and toxic industries, and from imported garbage, like old computers, and the introduction of exotic species like Fall Webworm from North America and Alligator Weed from Brazil. But China's environmental deterioration doesn't just affect China -- it affects the entire globe, spilling into other nations as pollutants drift through air and water, invasive species find homes in inappropriate places, and China's demand for timber -- many of its own forests long gone -- leads to deforestation elsewhere.

Environmental protection was declared as a basic national principle in China in 1983, and lately the Chinese government has been promoting the idea of harmony between man and nature, but the bottom line is that forces destroying the environment have been overwhelming environmental protection efforts. If this trend continues, China will face an environmental meltdown -- one that will affect the well-being not only of Chinese people, but of everyone on Planet Earth.

What might China's environment look like down the line?

Exactly how the future will unfold is of course unclear, and surely new environmental problems and solutions that we can't now anticipate will emerge, but in the next few decades, China's overall environment will get worse before it gets better. The economy will continue to heat up, and the population is expected to grow from 1.3 billion at present to 1.5 billion by 2030, despite the one-child policy. Furthermore, the number of households will grow two to three times faster than population size as a result of declining household size (number of people in a household) due to reasons such as increases in divorce, reduction in the number of multi-generation families, and a rise in the number of "empty nesters." By 2030, reduction in household size alone will create 250 million new households, more than the total number of households in all the countries of the Western Hemisphere in 2000. More households will mean less efficient use of resources, more demand for residential land and household products, more waste, and more urban sprawl.


Explore a map of China's top water problems

Water shortages will be a grave problem for China, especially northern China. Approximately two-thirds of the 661 cities suffer from water shortages now, and more cities will face this crisis in the future. The huge population and gigantic economic engine will suck rivers and lakes dry, foul wells, and lower groundwater tables. Pollution will make limited water useless and dangerous to human health in many areas. Even after the very expensive South-to-North Water Diversion Project is finished as projected by 2050, there will still be many battles over the last drop of water. Due to heavy pollution and overfishing, China's vast oceans (3 million square kilometers) may become empty as marine fisheries collapse.

Air quality will continue to deteriorate. Emission of greenhouse gases such as CO2 will rise rapidly, and China will surpass the U.S. and become the largest emitter of greenhouse gases around 2010. This is because China's consumption of energy will increase faster than its economic growth. Coal will remain the major source of energy for decades to come, even when additional energy sources like electricity generated from the world's largest dam (the Three Gorges Dam) become available. As a result of global climate change, China's average temperature will increase by more than 2 degrees by 2050. Big cities like Beijing and Shanghai will see a faster improvement in air quality thanks to high-profile international events such as the 2008 Olympics and World Expo 2010, but residents in middle-sized and small cities will breathe mostly bad air for the next 10 to 20 years because of rapid urbanization and heavy polluting factories moving from large cities to smaller ones.

exhaust spills out of three wheeled vehicle

Approximately 400,000 Chinese die prematurely from air pollution every year, mostly from lung and heart-related diseases.
More cropland and wetlands will be transformed into roads, highways and parking lots as the number of automobiles continues to increase explosively. More land will be occupied by houses, apartments, dumps, shopping malls, airports, industrial development zones and other human constructs. Land conversion will lead to more degradation of wildlife habitat, which will in turn cause continued loss of biodiversity, despite the establishment of over 2,300 nature reserves. While polluted air and water can be cleaned up in the future, lost species and genetic materials cannot be recovered.

On the bright side, forest cover has increased from 12 percent in 1981 to 18 percent in 2005, although much of it is through the planting of exotic species. If the current grand conservation programs (for example, the Natural Forest Conservation Program which bans logging in natural forests and the Grain to Green Program that provides grain and cash to farmers who convert cropland to forest or grassland) continue, forest cover will continue to increase.

Recognizing the environmental challenges the country faces, the Chinese government is hoping to build an environmentally-friendly society, and has set very ambitious environmental goals. By 2010, China aims to basically control the trend of environmental deterioration, improve environmental quality in some key regions and key cities, reduce the total emission of major pollutants by 10 percent, lower energy consumption per unit GDP output by 20 percent from the 2005 level, maintain cropland and increase forest cover from 18 percent to 20 percent. By 2020, China plans to significantly improve environmental quality and ecological conditions. Still, China's economic goal is to double its GDP by 2020, and we've seen from the past two decades that economic goals tend to be well surpassed while environmental goals are left largely unattended to.

What are China's most significant environmental obstacles and how might these obstacles be removed?

Many important and interrelated environmental obstacles block the way for turning China's environmental tide. Here are just a few, with proposed solutions:

Obstacle: China has developed numerous environmental laws and policies, but most of them are just on paper. Environmental protection agencies lack sufficient authority, financial resources and manpower. When there are conflicts between environmental protection and economic development, the former often loses to the latter.
The air is thick with pollution in Liangshan valley, Shandong.

The air is thick with pollution in Liangshan valley, Shandong. According to official Chinese figures, 116 million people in China's cities breathe air considered very dangerous to health.

Solution: Environmental protection agencies should have more authority, more financial resources and more manpower to implement and enforce environmental laws and policies, and to monitor environmental conditions nationwide in a timely manner. It is necessary to continue, improve, and expand the existing conservation programs, such as the Natural Forest Conservation Program and the Grain to Green Program. Those who provide ecosystem services and protect the environment should be appropriately rewarded and compensated. More investment in environmental protection can help gain sustainable economic return.

Obstacle: In the past, economic performance has overshadowed environmental protection as a criterion for selection and promotion of government officials.

Solution: Environmental performance should become one of the most important criteria in selecting and promoting government officials. Faster incorporation of environmental costs and benefits into the GDP calculation would be helpful to evaluate overall performance of government officials.

Obstacle: Environmental awareness is low among the general public, government officials and business people. Most people think that environmental protection harms economic growth and don't recognize that environmental problems have already caused huge economic losses, severe social conflicts, enormous health costs and increased "natural" disasters (such as dust storms, floods, droughts).
Due to heavy pollution and overfishing, China's vast oceans may become empty as marine fisheries collapse.

Solution: School children and the general public should be taught the importance of protecting the environment. Mass media, extracurricular activities, and non-government organizations can play important roles in environmental education.

Obstacle: Many technologies in China are outdated, inefficient and highly polluting.

Solution: More resources should be committed to developing environment-friendly technologies, and other countries should also offer assistance. Ironically, some political leaders in developed countries insist that China reduce environmental pollution (such as CO2 emissions), yet those same countries transfer pollution-intensive industries, such as the chemical industry, instead of the latest environment-friendly technologies, to China.

Obstacle: Lifestyles are changing rapidly. Although per capita consumption in China is still much less than that in developed countries, increases in consumption are accelerating. Diet is shifting more toward meat and away from grain. More cars are pouring into newly constructed and rapidly expanding highways. Divorce has become increasingly common, resulting in more and smaller households and thus lower efficiency of resource use. In 2004 alone, over 1.6 million couples split up.

Solution: Change needs to come with awareness of how lifestyles impact the environment. The environmental cost of divorce, for example, may require stricter policies to increase resource efficiency and ways to recover some of the divorce costs. Besides requiring a longer waiting period before divorce is approved, taxes on divorce that would be turned toward environmental protection should be collected. Prices for vastly under-priced ecosystem services, like water, should be increased to promote conservation.

An environmental revolution?

China's environment is at a crossroads. Inside and outside China, there needs to be far greater consciousness of how international market demands impact resources within China's borders, and how then those diminished resources have a ripple effect around the globe. The gloomy environmental picture for China -- both present and future -- demands nothing short of an environmental revolution, one that incorporates all of the strategies listed above. Environmental collapse, both in and outside of China, can only be averted by transforming the words "environmental protection" into immediate actions.


Acknowledgments: The helpful assistance from Meghan Laslocky, Sherrie Lenneman, Shuxin Li and Sue Nichols is gratefully acknowledged. Data and some ideas are from various sources, including documents of the Chinese government and the United Nations as well as the article China's Environment in a Globalizing World (Jianguo Liu and Jared Diamond, Nature, June 30, 2005).


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