China – A Global Warning About the Environment

The economic sleeping dragon has awakened, leaving trails of environmental disaster and pollution on its trail. With the immense and sustained growth of the People’s Republic of China since the 1970s and today’s modernization, environmental degradation and pollution becomes a normal issue in the country.

The New York Times in an article written by Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley describes China’s pollution problem as, “Environmental degradation is now so severe, with such stark domestic and international repercussions, that pollution poses not only a major long-term burden on the Chinese public but also an acute political challenge to the ruling Communist Party.”

Some facts and figures about China’s pollution:

  • According to the Chinese Ministry of Health, industrial pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death.
  • Every year, ambient air pollution alone killed hundreds of thousands of citizens.
  • 500 million people in China are without safe and clean drinking water.
  • Only 1% of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union, because all of its major cities are constantly covered in a “toxic gray shroud”. Before and during the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing was “frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological “deus ex machine”, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics.”
  • Lead poisoning or other types of localized industrial pollution are continuing to kill many Chinese children.
  • The pollution has spread internationally: sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides fall as acid rain on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo; and according to the Journal of Geophysical Research, the pollution even reaches Los Angeles in the USA.
  • The Chinese Academy of Environmental planning in 2003 had an internal and unpublished report which estimated that 300,000 people die each year from ambient air pollution, mostly of heart disease and lung cancer.
  • Chinese environmental experts in 2005 issued another report, estimating that annual premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution were likely to reach 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020.
  • China’s national environmental agency found that “…outdoor air pollution was already causing 350,000 to 750,000 premature deaths a year. Indoor pollution contributed to the deaths of an additional 300,000 people, while 60,000 died from diarrhea, bladder and stomach cancer and other diseases that can be caused by water-borne pollution”. World Bank officials said “China’s environmental agency insisted that the health statistics be removed from the published version of the report, citing the possible impact on ‘social stability’.
  • Scientists recently warned that air pollution in China has become so severe that it could lead to the equivalent of a nuclear winter across the country.
  • According to Greenpeace, Beijing experienced 2,589 deaths and a loss of US$328 million in 2012 because of PM2.5 pollution.
  • By 2030, China’s carbon dioxide emissions could equal the entire world’s CO2 production today, if the country’s carbon usage keeps pace with its economic growth.
  • Three quarters of Chinese cite environmental problems as a national security threat, according to a 2009 study by the Lowy Institute for International Policy and the MacArthur Foundation.
  • According to the World Bank, China is home to 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities.
  • According to the Asia Water Project, 90% of China’s urban groundwater is contaminated.
  • By its own governmental projections, China will have exploited all of the country’s available water supplies by 2030

Due to this bleak environmental status the economy of China is also highly affected by pollution. Below are basic annual data on how the environment decay affects Chinese economy:

  • A 2006 Chinese green gross domestic product estimate stated that pollution in 2004 cost 3.05% of the nation’s economy.
  • A 2007 World Bank and SEPA report estimated the cost of water and air pollution in 2003 to 2.68% or 5.78% of GDP depending on if using a Chinese or a Western method of calculation.
  • A 2009 review stated a range of 2-10% of GDP.
  • A 2012 study stated that pollution had little effect on economic growth which in China’s case was largely dependent on physical capital expansion and increased energy consumption due to the dependency on manufacturing and heavy industries. China was predicted to continue to grow using energy-inefficient and polluting industries. While growth may continue, the rewards of this growth may be opposed by the harm from the pollution unless environmental protection is increased.

The situation has finally made the Chinese government serious in battling the pollution problems. 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.’

The literature review in “Environmental Economics and Policy” by Vennemo et al. in a 2009, stated that “although China is starting from a point of grave pollution, it is setting priorities and making progress that resemble what occurred in industrialized countries during their earlier stages of development.” Environmental trends were described as uneven. Quality of surface water in the south of China was improving and particle emissions were stable. But NO2 emissions were increasing rapidly and SO2 emissions had been increasing before decreasing the last year (2007) for which data was available.

Still critics point out the PRC government’s lack of willingness to protect the environment as a common problem of China’s environmental policies. Even in the case of the latest plan, experts are skeptical about its actual influence because of loopholes. This is because economic growth is still the most primary issue of the PRC government that overrides environmental protection.

However if the measures to cut coal usage were applied strictly, it would also mean dismantling of the local economy that is highly reliant on heavy industry. Therefore the pollution problem is a complicated dilemma for the PRC government in terms of its people’s survival.

Environmental activists also charge the Chinese government with blocking access to the facts and are asking why they’ve blocked access to the popular documentary “Under the Dome.” A viral story of a successful journalist and news anchor in China named Chai Jing, and a mother of a little girl. When she was pregnant, she found that her baby had a tumor, which required removal soon after birth. Chai suspected China’s rampant air pollution to be a cause, and that sparked an investigation that became this documentary.

Whatever the cause, or the solution, the pollution of China must serve as a warning to the rest of the world about pollution and it’s devastating affect if we do nothing.

China’s pollution in pictures:


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