Environment in the People's Republic of China

A Factory in China at Yangtze River

The environment in the People's Republic of China has traditionally been neglected as the country concentrates on its rise as an economic power. Chasing the political gains of economic development, local officials in China often overlook environmental pollution, worker safety and public health problems. Despite a recent interest in environmental reform, pollution has made cancer the leading cause of death in 30 cities and 78 counties, the Ministry of Health says.[1] Lead poisoning is one of the most common pediatric health problems in China. A 2006 review of existing data suggested that one-third of Chinese children suffer from elevated blood lead levels. [2] This lead comes mostly from manufacturing of lead-acid batteries for cars and electric bikes. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city inhabitants (2007) breathe air deemed safe by the European Union.

Chinese industry scores very poorly in energy efficiency. Chinese steel factories use one-fifth more energy per ton than the international average. Cement needs 45 percent more power, and ethylene needs 70 percent more than the average, the World Bank says.[3] China receives pollution from both ends of the supply chain: during production process and by allowing electronic waste to be recycled and dumped in the country.[4]

Speaking out to denounce environmental pollution and the related health consequences is difficult for Chinese people. A well-publicized example of a case where people spoke out involved 49 employees at Wintek who were poisoned by n-hexane in the manufacturing of touchscreens for Apple products.[5] In 2011, there were riots in the Zhejiang Haijiu Battery Factory from angry parents whose children received permanent neurological damage from lead poisoning. [2]

China is a signatory nation of the Stockholm Convention, a treaty to control and phase out major persistent organic pollutants (POP). A plan of action for 2010 includes objectives such as eliminating production, import and use of the pesticides covered under the convention, as well as an accounting system for PCB containing equipment. For 2015, China plans to establish an inventory of POP contaminated sites and remediation plans.[6] Since May 2009, this treaty also covers polybrominated diphenyl ethers and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid. Perfluorinated compounds are associated with altered thyroid function and decreased sperm count in humans.[7] It is a big challenge for China to control and eliminate POPs, since they often are cheaper than their alternatives, or they are unintentionally produced and then simply released into the environment to save on treatment costs.

China has achieved some improvements in environmental protection during the recent years. According to the World Bank, 'China is one of a few countries in the world that have been rapidly increasing their forest cover. It is managing to reduce air and water pollution.'[8]

As part of US $498 billion economic stimulus package of November 2008 (the largest in China's history), the government plans to enhance sewage and rubbish treatment facilities and prevent water pollution, accelerate green belt and natural forest planting programs, and increase energy conservation initiatives and pollution control projects.[9]

With $34.6 billion invested in clean technology in 2009, China is the world's leading investor in renewable energy technologies.[10][11] China produces more wind turbines and solar panels each year than any other country.[12]



Conservation in China has become an international issue due predominately to the fate of the Giant Pandas.

Climate change in China

China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, ahead of the United States of America. In 2008, China contributed 22% of global emissions, followed by the US with 20% of emissions. [13] As China rapidly industrialized, especially in its heavy industries, it created an overwhelming demand on the world’s energy supplies and raised environmental concerns. Hence, China needs to find less resource-intensive paths to growth. This issue can be viewed from three different perspectives: the Chinese government, the producers, and the consumers. At the macro level, the government wants to pursue economic goals which are to be traded off environmentally. China is still at the stage of development where massive investments go to heavy industries. Heavy industries promoted in the first five-year plan still enjoy tremendous privileges.[14] Such industries impact the environment adversely. At the micro level, to maximize profits, firms use coal, which is the cheapest yet dirtiest form of energy supply. Furthermore, with high economic growth, consumers pursue an affluent lifestyle leading to intensive energy usage. This exacerbates climate change problems.

The People's Republic of China is an active participant in the climate change talks and other multilateral environmental negotiations, and claims to take environmental challenges seriously but is pushing for the developed world to help developing countries to a greater extent. It is a signatory to the Basel Convention governing the transport and disposal of hazardous waste and the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the Kyoto Protocol, although China is not required to reduce its carbon emissions under the terms of the present agreement. On June 19, 2007, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency announced, on the basis of an analysis of fossil fuel consumption (including especially the coal power plants[15]) and cement production data, that China surpassed the United States as the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, putting out 6,200 million tons, in comparison with America's 5,800 million.[16] China is also the largest contributor to world levels of sulfur oxides, chlorofluorocarbons, and other ozone depleting substances. China can suffer some of the effects of global warming, including sea level rise and glacier retreat.

Impact of Climate Change in China

The implications of climate change, indubitably, impose serious setbacks on global health and will hinder the economic development of various regions worldwide impacting countries on more than just the basic environmental scale. As in the case of China, we will see the effects on a social and economic level.

China’s first National Assessment of Global Climate Change, released recently by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), states that China already suffers from the environmental impacts of climate change: increase of surface and ocean temperature, rise of sea level.[17] Rising sea level is an alarming trend because China has a very long and densely populated coastline, with some of the most economically developed cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou situated there. Chinese research has estimated that a one-meter rise in sea level would inundate 92,000 square kilometres of China’s coast, thereby displacing 67 million.[18]

There has also been an increased occurrence of climate-related disasters such as drought and flood and the amplitude is growing. They have grave consequences for productivity when they occur, and also create serious repercussions for natural environment and infrastructure. This threatens the lives of billions and aggravates poverty.

Furthermore, climate change will worsen the uneven distribution of water resources in China. Outstanding rises in temperature would exacerbate evapo-transpiration intensifying the risk of water shortage for agricultural production in the North. While because of the southern region’s over abundance in rainfall, most of its water is lost due to flooding. As the Chinese government faces challenges managing its expanding population, an increased demand for water to support the nation’s economic activity and people will burden the government. In essence, a water shortage is indeed a large concern for the country. [19]

Lastly, climate change could endanger human health by increasing outbreaks of disease and their transmission. After floods, for example, infectious diseases such as diarrhea, cholera are all far more prevalent. These effects would exacerbate the degradation of the ecologically fragile areas in which poor communities are concentrated pushing thousands back into poverty. [20]

Environmental protection

Pollution control

A large proportion of motor vehicles now sold in the cities of the Yangtze Delta are electric bicycles

Protection of forests and control of desertification

Although China's forest cover is only 20%,[21][22] the country has some of the largest expanse of forested land in the world, making it a top target for forest preservation efforts. In 2001, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) listed China among the top 15 countries with the most "closed forest," i.e., virgin, old growth forest or naturally regrown woods.[23] 12% of China's land area, or more than 111 million hectares, is closed forest. However, the UNEP also estimates that 36% of China's closed forests are facing pressure from high population densities, making preservation efforts that much more crucial. In 2011, Conservation International listed the forests of south-west Sichuan as one of the world's ten most threatened forest regions[1]

According to the Chinese government website, the Central Government invested more than 40 billion yuan between 1998 and 2001 on protection of vegetation, farm subsidies and conversion of farm to forests.[24] Between 1999 and 2002, China converted 7.7 million hectares of farmland into forest.[25]

Desertification remains a serious problem, consuming an area greater than that taken by farmlands. Although desertification has been curbed in some areas, it still is expanding at a rate of more than 67 km² every year. 90% of China's desertification occurs in the west of the country.[26]

Plastic bag reduction efforts

Beginning on June 1, 2008, for the entire country of China, all supermarkets, department stores and shops are prohibited from giving out free plastic bags. Stores must clearly mark the price of plastic shopping bags and are banned from adding that price onto the price of products. The production, sale and use of ultra-thin plastic bags - those less than 0.025 millimeters, or 0.00098 inches, thick - are also banned. The State Council calls for "a return to cloth bags and shopping baskets."[27] This ban, however, does not include the widespread use of cardboard shopping bags at clothing stores or the use of plastic bags at restaurants for takeout food.[28] Since the ban, there has been ten percent fewer plastic bags thrown away.[29]

Environmental ratings

See also



  1. ^ "Pollution makes cancer the top killer". Xie Chuanjiao (China Daily). 2007-05-21. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-05/21/content_876476.htm. 
  2. ^ a b "Lead Poisoning in China: The Hidden Scourge". New York Times. 2011-06-15. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/world/asia/15lead.html. 
  3. ^ "As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes". New York Times. 2007-08-26. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/world/asia/26china.html. 
  4. ^ Dirty Secrets ABC News Broadcast: 26/10/2010
  5. ^ "N-hexane Poisoning Scare At Apple Supplier In China". China Tech News. 2010-02-22. http://www.chinatechnews.com/2010/02/22/11610-n-hexane-poisoning-scare-at-apple-supplier-in-china. 
  6. ^ "The People’s Republic of China: National Implementation Plan for the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants". Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. 2007. http://www.pops.int/documents/implementation/nips/submissions/China_NIP_En.pdf. 
  7. ^ "Swimming in Poison: A hazardous chemical cocktail found in Yangtze River Fish". Greenpeace China. 2010-08-26. http://www.greenpeace.org/china/en/news/hazardous-chemicals-yangtze-fish. 
  8. ^ "Can China be green by 2020?". BBC. 2009-04-02. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7972125.stm. 
  9. ^ "China plans 10 major steps to spark growth as fiscal, monetary policies ease_English_Xinhua". News.xinhuanet.com. 2008-11-09. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-11/09/content_10332422.htm. Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  10. ^ China Leads Major Countries With $34.6 Billion Invested in Clean Technology
  11. ^ China steams ahead on clean energy
  12. ^ Bradsher, Keith, Jan 30, 2010, China leads global race to make clean energy, New York Times
  13. ^ Nersesian, R.L. Energy for the 21st century. A comprehensive guide to conventional and alternative sources. Second edition, 2010. M.E.Sharpe,Inc.
  14. ^ “A new epic”, The Economist, 21 Oct 2010
  15. ^ Coal power plants in China Map +oil use
  16. ^ "China now no. 1 in CO2 emissions; USA in second position". Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. 2007-06-19. http://www.mnp.nl/en/service/pressreleases/2007/20070619Chinanowno1inCO2emissionsUSAinsecondposition.html. 
  17. ^ http://www.die-gdi.de/CMS-Homepage/openwebcms3_e.nsf/(ynDK_contentByKey)/ENTR-7BDE2T?OpenDocument&nav=expand:Research%20and%20Consulting\Projects;active:Research%20and%20Consulting\Projects\ENTR-7BDE2T
  18. ^ http://stonybrook.digication.com/egimenez/Case_Study_Impact_of_Climate_Change_on_China
  19. ^ http://stonybrook.digication.com/egimenez/Case_Study_Impact_of_Climate_Change_on_China
  20. ^ http://www.oxfam.org.hk/en/climatepoverty.aspx
  21. ^ "China's forest coverage exceeds target ahead of schedule "
  22. ^ Liu, Jianguo and Jordan Nelson. "China's environment in a globalizing world", Nature, Vol. 434, pp. 1179-1186, June 30, 2005.'.' Retrieved April 2, 2008.
  23. ^ "International Effort To Save Forests Should Target 15 Countries," United Nations Environment Program, August 20, 2001.'.' Retrieved April 2, 2008.
  24. ^ “Protection of forests and control of desertification”. Retrieved April 2, 2008.
  25. ^ Li, Zhiyong. ”A policy review on watershed protection and poverty alleviation by the Grain for Green Programme in China”. Retrieved April 2, 2008.
  26. ^ HAN, Jun "EFFECTS OF INTEGRATED ECOSYSTEM MANAGEMENT ON LAND DEGRADATION CONTROL AND POVERTY REDUCTION." Workshop on Environment, Resources and Agricultural Policies in China, June 19, 2006. Retrieved March 26, 2008.
  27. ^ "China bans free plastic shopping bags", AP Press via the International Herald Tribune, January 9, 2008
  28. ^ Personal observation in Shanghai and Beijing, August 2009
  29. ^ David Biello, Scientific American, Does Banning Plastic Bags Work?, August 13, 2009.
  30. ^ a b c Qin, Jize (2004-07-15). "Most polluted cities in China blacklisted". China Daily. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-07/15/content_348397.htm. 
  31. ^ TIME, The World's Most Polluted Cities

Further reading

External links


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