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Contrasting Realities: China’s Environmental Challenge

July 18, 2011

The easiest thing to do is to write about the severe environmental degradation in China. The broad picture is well-known – intolerable air pollution, sickening water contamination, massive deforestation, creeping desertification, substantial loss of cropland, and drastic reduction in biodiversity. This picture can be one of hopelessness. But against this grim picture, China has also made significant advances over the past three decades in reducing poverty and extending longevity. And in this context, it has become fashionable to write about how China is surging ahead to develop “clean” technology like wind and solar power, investing heavily to build sewage treatment systems, building the world’s most extensive high-speed rail network, and reforesting in many parts of the country. This picture communicates hope.

The difficulty in understanding China’s environmental story lies in the contrasting realities of desperation and hope. All forms of pollution have grown in tandem with rapid economic development. While economic success is accelerating pressure on ecosystems and the environment, there are also massive investments to clean up now and the current political rhetoric is all about achieving a green, low-carbon economy while increasing domestic consumption. And while Chinese government policy is increasingly taking environmental considerations into account, policy experts are only too aware that if firm actions are not taken, the consequences to the Chinese people will be dire. How can the two be squared?

This article aims at providing a bird’s eye view of the total picture – outlining the efforts being made to improve the environment as well as the constraints –which is necessary for a realistic assessment of the direction and time frame needed for China to step back from ecological destruction and arrive at a new equilibrium with the environment that is essential for the long-term physical well-being of the Chinese people. Moreover, China’s environmental condition will have an impact on the country’s social stability. The notions of the “economy” and “economic growth” are human constructs. These spheres of activities are in fact sub-systems of the biosphere, and therefore dependent upon the well-being of the biosphere. The degradation of the biosphere will eventually weaken the world’s capacity to sustain all human activities and, indeed, life itself. But shifting away from a destructive path will take time because of the fundamental parameters of China’s development – population, water, and energy.

China is not alone in its environmental experience – humans everywhere have altered natural ecosystems. Biodiversity has declined everywhere in the world, and releases of greenhouse gases arising from human activities are now altering the long-term composition of the atmosphere, resulting in climate change that may tip civilization from a climate “sweet spot” that is hospitable to humans into one that is much less so.

Historically, China’s long quest to accommodate its large population over many centuries can be seen in the legacy of denuded landscapes like the Loess Plateau, huge hydro-engineering projects such as the Grand Canal, and widespread terracing of slopes for agriculture. Today, China’s population is not only very large, its rapid industrialization and urbanization since the 1980s that have created a level of enviable prosperity are also leading to higher levels and a faster pace of material consumption that further deplete natural resources.

No economy can keep increasing material output and consumption without serious environmental consequences. Even with herculean effort, it will take time to heal past degradation. What is more, China will have to find a new material consumption equilibrium – something that the high-consuming developed economies in the West have yet to find – if it is going to be environmentally sustainable. What may be the best outlook for China?

Deciding Parameters


China’s population today is just over 1.34 billion, representing about 20 percent of the world’s population. There are only two nations – China and India – that have more than a billion people. It needs to be appreciated that a billion people is a very large number of people to support. The next most populous country, after India, is the United States. In contrast, it only has 312 million people but is slightly bigger in size than China.

Moreover, China only has about 9 percent of the world’s farmland. Of its 3.7 million square miles of land, only 15 percent is good for agriculture. While China has done extraordinarily well to increase domestic food supplies over the years, its population is estimated to rise to 1.5 billion by 2030, and providing enough food for close to an additional 200 million people is a very substantial task. The expansion of agricultural production is constrained by the availability of land – a key production factor – and yields cannot be raised so easily since they are already reasonably high in China. Farmland has been lost to rapid urbanization. And there have been numerous instances of illegal land grab from farmers with inadequate or no compensation that have led to protests. That is why the Chinese government aims to recover land lost to illegal usage, increase farmland for grains,1 and raise production capacity during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).2

Water Supply
Growing water scarcity is probably China’s biggest development constraint. China only has 7 percent of global water resources, and its per capita water resources are one-third of the world average. In addition, China’s water resources are unevenly distributed. Northern China has 45 percent of the population and 60 percent of cropland but only a 16 percent share of the water, while Southern China, with 55 percent of the population and 40 percent of the cropland, has 84 percent of the water resources.3

China’s water supply comes from surface water, groundwater, and glaciers. Surface water is the water in streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands, and groundwater is water located beneath the surface in soil and aquifers. In general, surface water is naturally replenished by rainfall and groundwater by surface water from rain, streams and rivers. China’s surface water is replenished by both glacier melting and precipitation. China has a large number of rivers and lakes, and as rivers flow across the plains, water seeps through the ground to become groundwater. Groundwater provides potable water for some 70 percent of the population and irrigation for 40 percent of agricultural land. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all water use in China. The country’s challenge is how to meet rising water needs of its large population and industrial sector without compromising its agricultural needs.

China is launching the first-ever national water census with field work beginning in 2011. Eight hundred thousand surveyors are expected to visit rural and urban areas to check the number and condition of lakes, rivers, and reservoirs; assess how conservation zones and irrigated areas are doing; and analyze the state of groundwater; etc.4 This vital information should help China make better evidence-based decisions.


China is now the world’s largest energy consumer – it surpassed the United States in 2010 – and also the highest emitter of global warming carbon dioxide. China’s combined electricity use in the 1st quarter of 2011 totaled 1.09 trillion kWh, up 12.72 percent from the same period a year earlier. The rates of increase in power consumption for the same period in other sectors are: 3.16 percent in agriculture, 12.31 percent in industries (representing 73.5 percent of China’s total electricity consumption), and 15.51 percent in tertiary services.5

Water and energy consumption and production are closely connected. Water is used in almost every aspect of energy production, and moving and treating water consumes energy. For example, China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, and large quantities of water are needed in every production process from coal mining to electricity generation. Burning fossil fuel also creates air pollution and carbon dioxide. Coal combustion produces lots of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and coal dust, all of which are harmful to humans and ecosystems.The total amount of coal dust is not easy to estimate but its effects are becoming better known. For example, a new study shows that 20 percent of the contaminating pollutants in the famous Lake Tai in Wuxi had come from coal dust. Furthermore, the sandstorms in North China spread coal dust which is particularly severe in Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, and Shaanxi, the key coal producing provinces.6

The increasing use of petroleum products to fuel transportation is creating dense smog in many Chinese cities. Just take poster-child Beijing as an example: it had 3.5 million vehicles at the start of 2009 and has 4.9 million today, just two years later. The additional quantity of fuel used to power them, increased congestion, and tail-pipe emissions are all very large. Of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, 20 are in China, a fact largely due to high coal usage and rising motorization.7 The Beijing Municipal Clean Air Action Plan 2011-15 aims to improve air quality by retrofitting coal-fired boilers and stoves that have yet to be upgraded, retrofitting coal plants, and imposing stricter standards for vehicle exhausts.

In its12th Five Year Plan, China pledges by 2015 it will cut energy intensity – a measure of energy efficiency – by 16 percent and carbon dioxide by 17 percent on a per-unit-of-GDP basis. This will help China to achieve its national target of 40 percent to 45 percent reductions in carbon dioxide intensity by 2020, using the 2005 level as a baseline.8 In addition, more will be done to reduce air pollution. Emissions standards may well be tightened in 2012, and this will force many coal plants to install pollution reduction equipment.

China’s substantial reliance on coal cannot be changed quickly. What China plans to do is to shift away from coal gradually by investing in other forms of power. Thus, it is importing cleaner burning natural gas – which it has little of domestically – to the coastal areas that can afford the higher costs. In the wake of the Fukushima accident in Japan, Beijing is reviewing safety procedures of its existing nuclear reactors and those under construction. But new plants are also being built in rich areas, such as Guangdong, to expedite those areas’ reductions in coal consumption.

China has rich hydropower potentials. During the next few years, there are many plans to increase generating capacity from about 210 gigawatts (GW, 1 billion watts) to 310 GW by 2013, representing the largest program in the world. Much of the potentials are in Southwest China in Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan. The problem is that some of the areas are not only ecologically sensitive but also tectonically active. Experts are calling for reconsideration of dam-building projects on Nujiang, Yunnan, for example. The Fukushima accident has created a new sense of caution about construction in earthquake areas.9

As for wind power, while generating capacity has doubled every five years – at 40 million kW in 2010, ranking first in the world – 34 percent of it is not yet connected to the grid. China’s ambition is to continue to add capacity and to connect 90 million kW to the grid by 2015.10

China is now the world’s leading producer and exporter of solar panels, although it only has 1GW of generating capacity domestically. Recent reports indicate Beijing is considering increasing capacity to 10GW by 2015, doubling its earlier target, in light of plans to slow down its nuclear expansion in the wake of the Fukushima accident.11

Contrasting Realities

Several huge domestic development plans raise concerns. For example, China is gearing up to build 55 new airports by 2015 (increasing the total to 230 airports nationwide) to handle 450 million passenger trips per year. Internal travel and the domestic tourism industries will grow – which will exert huge pressure on the environment. Another example is the continuous opening-up of remote areas. In Xinjiang, highways and roads are being built so that its rich mineral resources can be accessed. This will create 338,000 jobs in 2011.12 But mineral exploitation will also lead to extensive environmental degradation, even if the latest technologies are used for extraction.

On the positive side, China is prepared to spend massively in the next five years on desulfurization and denitration technologies to reduce air pollution from coal plants. In the past few years, China has already increased the municipal wastewater treatment rate by 24 percent to 75 percent,13 and it has substantial plans to further raise the level of waste water treatment in the next few years. After all, China is already generating about 60 billion tons of wastewater per year, not all of which is properly treated, and the quantity will rise to 80 billion tons in five years. The only option is sustained investment in cleaning-up. In terms of solid waste, some cities are investing in new treatment technology in the next couple of years, such as in Tianjin, where incinerators will burn thousands of tons of waste daily and produce energy at the same time.14

Dusk in Shanghai, with the sun dropping below the smog enveloping the city, 2008.  Photo credit: Suicap/Wikicommons.

Plans, targets, and money are essential for dealing with the problem, but other key challenges are supervision and strict enforcement of the law. Local officials more often than not know who the polluters are. Take Zhengzhou’s Xiliu Lake for example, where pollution reached 110 times greater than the permissible level. The nearby manufacturing facilities and polluters are well-known.15 It just needed the authorities to do something about it.

The recent case in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province, provides a good picture of what needs to be done throughout China. The manager of the Taizhou Suqi Storage Battery Company and three government officials, including the deputy head of the district environmental protection office, were arrested in March 2011, when many nearby villagers, including children, were found to have highly elevated lead levels in their blood. An inspection of the plant showed that lead readings in gas and water discharges exceeded the legal limits, and villagers were advised to avoid eating food grown in the neighborhood as the lead had probably contaminated the groundwater. The factory was ordered to halt production to fix the problem. This is just the latest reported case of lead poisoning. There have been many similar cases in many parts of the country. The Taizhou case led to tighter factory inspection in the district, as well as impositions of fines on polluters and arrests of industry heads and local officials.16

A sobering case is that of the Zijin Mining Group, China’s largest publicly-traded gold producer and a major supplier of copper. Its record in environmental protection has been poor – in 2009, it was cited for seven violations. On July 3, 2010, a leak of 2.4 million gallons of acidic copper waste from its mine in Fujian resulted in pollution that killed almost 2,000 metric tons of river fish and a probe by regulators into the delayed timing of the disclosure of the mishap. For nine days after the leak, the company said nothing. It finally disclosed the leak on July 12. The disclosure led to a large fall in the company’s stock price. The plant was ordered to shutdown operation to fix the problems, and a $1.43 million fine was eventually imposed. In light of much bad press, the company said it would improve its environmental and safety practices. One hopes Zijin has learned its lesson and that going forward it will clean-up its environmental act. But apparently, the incident did not hurt the company’s business: in 2010, it saw a 46 percent increase in profits and a 36 percent increase in income.

China’s NGOs publicized the Zijin case, as well as violations by other listed companies, and called upon the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, where Zijin Mining is listed, to require speedy disclosure of all environmental violations. 17 The Chinese government’s allowing more environmental data to be released has a positive impact on the work of NGOs and on the media in publicizing violations.

Another encouraging example is Zhang Zhengxiang, a farmer in Yunnan who fought industrial waste and pollution of Dianchi Lake in Kunming. He patrolled 125 kilometers of shoreline to determine what was happening, researched the relevant law, and collected evidence. Zhang and his family were pressured and harassed countless times. Zhang was physically attacked but survived. And his neighbors thought he had gone too far, bringing too much trouble upon himself. But he was responsible for closing 160 companies and quarries and exposing 100 officials. And his work forced 240 businessmen to cancel their projects. In 2009, CCTV named him one of China’s Top 10 people who moved society.18


The Chinese people inherited ecosystems that have suffered extensive abuse over millennia. With an ever-increasing population, further mistreatment may well become a check on China’s attempt to achieve the xiaokang[peaceful and prosperous] society promised by the government.

Scientists have now articulated that there are planetary boundaries.[FN19] In other words, there are ecological limits and humans cannot triumph over nature. Indeed, our long-term survival requires us to preserve the irreplaceable environmental services that provide climatic conditions conducive to human civilization – clean air, clear water, and healthy soils. The pursuit of GDP growth as the prime indicator of success ignores the long-term cost of degradation that weakens biosphere viability.

Western countries have yet to make the transition to achieving environmental sustainability because economic success is seen in terms of increasing material consumption. The more we all consume, the better it is. Yet, the West has the best circumstances to take a sustainable new path without having to sacrifice much on affluence. With high technical and management capacities, the West can choose to shift to a form of “growth” that is based on well-being rather than material consumption. China and the other large developing countries, where population are still expanding, will put additional claims on all kinds of natural resources. It is hard to see how China’s environment will not continue to suffer for possibly another generation.

So, what may be the best outcome? China needs to increase the pace of its slowing of degradation so that ecosystems can stabilize as soon as possible. The most ecologically rich areas, such as those in Yunnan and Sichuan, must be protected and preserved at all cost. If it means giving-up exploitation of hydropower and mineral resources, so be it. Degraded areas must be sensitively restored to revive ecosystems. Massive restoration projects can also provide jobs and development.

While China will continue to need a lot of energy and water, there are enormous opportunities to achieve much higher levels of efficiency. Achieving efficiency is not just about technical fixes – it is about a mindset change to prioritize efficiency as the desired policy and management outcomes. Thus, energy and water prices do need to be revised upwards to reflect their true value (and this is already appreciated by the Chinese government). A whole army of electricians and plumbers will need to be retrained and trained to optimize efficiency. These under-valued skills are also the kinds of professional services that we can “consume” to achieve higher well-being. Producing clean, safe, and healthy food for the people is another potential growth sector.

The Chinese government has already started to embark on releasing environmental data. This should continue on all types of data, and also improve the quality of data. Institutional overhauls to improve administration, regulatory oversight, law enforcement, and media freedom are also vital to building an environmentally conscious society. Allowing NGOs to play their role as watchdog of the public interest will improve accountability.


1. “China Recovers 18.63 Billion Yuan from Illegal Land-use Practices in 2010,” Xinhua News Agency, April, 19 2011, ^

2. Liu Xinyong, “China Should Maintain Grain Security by Boosting Domestic Production,” Xinhua News Agency, April 12, 2011, ^

3. Julian L. Wong, “The Food-Energy-Water Nexus,” Harvard Asia Quarterly, Spring 2010, ^

4. Liang Chao, “China to Launch First National Water Census,” China Daily, March 18, 2011, ^

5. “China’s Power Consumption up 13.4% in March,” Xinhua News Agency, April 14, 2011, ^

6. Chen Yingqi and Cang Wei, “Effort Afoot to Prevent Pollution from Sandstorms,” China Daily, April 14, 2011, ^

7. The World Bank, “China Quick Facts,”,,contentMDK:20680895~isCURL:Y~menuPK:318976~pagePK:141137~piPK:141127~theSitePK:318950,00.html. ^

8. “News Analysis, ‘China’s 1Q Power Consumption Indicates Emissions Challenges’,” Global Times, April 15, 2011, ^

9. Li Jing, “Experts Say Rush to Build Hydropower Poses Risk,” China Daily, April 19, 2011, ^

10. “China Grids to Connect 90 Million Kilowatts of Wind Power by 2015,” Xinhua News Agency, April 16, 2011, ^

11. Liu Yiyu, “China may Double Solar Power Capacity Goal,” China Daily, April 1, 2011, ^

12. “Xinjiang Invests Heavily in Road Construction,” Global Times, April 12, 2011, ^

13. “China’s Municipal Wastewater Treatment Rate up by 24% Points,” Xinhua News Agency, March 15, 2011, ^

14. “China’s Largest Trash-burning Power Plant to Start Operating before June,” Xinhua News Agency, April 15, 2011, ^

15. “Zhengzhou Xiliu hu wuran yanzhong wushui zhi zuigao chaobiao 110 bei” [郑州西流湖污染严重污水值最高超标110倍], Henan Business Daily [河南商报], March 15, 2011, ^

16. “East China City Cracks Down on Pollution after Lead Poisoning Scandal,” Xinhua News Agency, April 19, 2011, ^

17. Ma Jun et al., Hong Kong’s Role in Mending the Disclosure Gap (Civic Exchange and Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, March 2010), ^

18. “The Lake Defender,” Global Times, April 9, 2011, ^

19. Johan Rockstrom et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature, Sept. 24, 2009, ^

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