China: Ecological Collapse Threatens

When French president, Jacques Chirac, visited Beijing last October, a spectacular air show over the Chinese capital was to mark the beginning of China’s French culture year. To the embarrassment of officials, however, heavy smog grounded the French Air Force’s famed aerobatics team. With only three years to go before it hosts the 2008 Olympics, it seemed that Beijing still has a long way to go to present a clean and fresh image to the world.

The World Today Published 1 August 2005 Updated 9 October 2020 5 minute READ

Dr Robert Falkner

Research Director, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment, LSE

Anybody who has ever visited a major Chinese city will be familiar with the grey mist and sulphur-laden air. Sixteen of the world’s twenty most heavily polluted cities are in China. And according to a 2002 United Nations Development Programme report, 23,000 respiratory deaths, 13,000 fatal heart disease cases and fifteen million cases of bronchitis could be attributed to air pollution in that year. The combination of coal-fired power stations, the rapid rise in car use and a decade-long construction boom has contributed to some of the world’s highest concentrations of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in urban areas.

Polluted waste

Chinese city dwellers also face pollution on another front. Drinking water in major cities is contaminated with organic and chemical waste at levels that exceed guidelines. Because of a lack of water treatment facilities, cities pump most of the urban sewage straight into lakes and rivers. They also have to drill deep, or tap into distant water reservoirs, to supply a rapidly growing population.

In Shanghai, excessive pumping of underground water has led the city centre to fall by about three meters over the last eighty years, according to the Nanjing Geological Survey. Forty six cities are said to be suffering severe subsidence.

In the countryside, the situation is just as dire. Earlier this year, the ministry for water resources announced that a third of the rural population, an estimated 360 million people, lack clean drinking water.

Rivers are running dry, underground water levels are falling, and the remaining water reservoirs and lakes are silting up. The once mighty Yellow River in northern China no longer reaches the ocean for much of the year. Half of the over four thousand lakes that used to feed it are disappearing, leaving large sections without any water during the dry season. Building dams and diverting water over vast ranges has often changed regional water cycles for the worse.

Ferocious sandstorms

Excessive use of scarce water and intensive farming have accelerated soil erosion and desertification. Deserts now cover eighteen percent of the country, and officials estimate their annual growth to be 1350 square miles. Vast swathes of agricultural land are fast disappearing, threatening four hundred million people whose livelihoods depend on farming – and this in a country that has to feed one fifth of the world’s population on just seven percent of the arable land. The effects of desertification can be felt even in Beijing which is now plagued annually by ferocious sandstorms.

The spread of deserts is to a large extent man-made. Deforestation is a key factor. China has one of the lowest forest densities in the world – only sixteen percent of the land is covered by forests, compared to 74 percent in Japan – but has until recently failed to act on the deforestation threat. Only after two massive floods in 1996 and 1998, affecting one-fifth of the population, did the government ban the logging of natural forests and began seriously to invest in systematic tree-planting. To protect Beijing from the increasingly severe sandstorms, a Green Great Wall of trees is being planted in Yanchi.

It is encouraging that the government has finally started to act against some forms of environmental degradation. The gravity of the ecological crisis is now widely recognised by the political elite. In fact, recent official pronouncements on environmental issues suggest the ruling Communist Party under President Hu Jintao has adopted sustainable development as a new guiding principle in economic policy.

At the 2002 UN Environment Summit in Johannesburg, the then Prime Minister Zhu Rongji said sustainable development is ‘a crucial and pressing task facing all countries in the world’ and spoke of the ‘larger interest of harmony between man and nature’. These words may ring hollow when contrasted with reality. But in a country that declared a war on nature under Chairman Mao Zedong’s leadership and is now embarked on economic liberalisation at breakneck speed, even a rhetorical nod towards environmental sustainability is a step in the right direction.

The first shoots of China’s emerging environmentalism include a pledge to increase spending on environmental protection and campaigns to crack down on heavily polluting industries. The government has announced a $85 billion programme to plant trees over the next fifty years in an effort to prevent further soil erosion. Major investment is underway in new facilities to provide clean water, particularly in urban areas, where foreign firms such as Britain’s Thames Water have been invited to set up joint ventures in privately financed treatment projects.

The rise in spending has led to new business opportunities for environmental cleanup and pollution prevention. According to the China Association of Environmental Protection Industry, the total market in environmental goods and services is now at over $20 billion per year, with growth estimated at twenty percent. Other initiatives propose the closure of plants that violate environmental laws and the development of natural gas supplies rather than coal, which still accounts for nearly seventy percent of energy production.


But is this really the beginning of an environmental turn- around? Can China realistically ‘green’ itself and maintain its drive towards economic growth? And is the current political system capable of producing solutions to strike a balance between economic aspirations and ecological constraints?

With growth rates of around ten percent for over a decade, the recent economic history does not leave much room for sustainable development. All major economic indicators point towards continuous growth in the consumption of natural resources and unabated environmental pollution.

Take the unquenchable thirst for energy: in 2003, China surpassed Japan for the first time as the world’s second largest consumer of petroleum products. It accounted for around forty percent of growth in world oil demand over the last five years, and is projected to consume 12.8 million barrels per day by 2025, up from 5.56 million in 2003.

The boom in manufacturing, construction and transport is driving this energy demand. China has become the world’s largest producer of steel and cement and the biggest consumer of fertilisers. With annual vehicle growth rates of twenty percent, it is expected to exceed United States car ownership by 2030.

Given these economic mega-trends, it comes as no surprise that China is emerging as one of the world’s fastest growing contributor to the greenhouse effect. Its economic miracle is rapidly becoming the biggest threat to the Earth’s ecological balance.

Correcting these trends will require an unprecedented political effort. But it is in the field of political reform that an aching gap has emerged between green aspirations and the capacity for change. While China has created a range of environmental laws and regulations and bureaucratic machinery to implement them, all too often they are ignored and enforcement is notoriously weak. Environmental regulators routinely loose out against powerful corporations and local authorities.

Political reform, therefore, is needed at both the highest and lowest levels. The State Environment Protection Agency, China’s equivalent of an environment ministry, is no match for the powerful economic ministries at the heart of the state. And its local offices are hampered in implementing national laws by bureaucracies and courts that are subject to local party chiefs, whose main interest is in economic development. Corruption and political fragmentation combine to prevent a greening of state policy.

Treading carefully

One of the key innovations that would break through existing institutional inertia is greater public participation in environmental policy. Involving environmental experts, scientists, industrialists and local community representatives early on in the planning process would enhance decision-making and create more transparency. It would reduce the power of local officials and provide the basis for strengthening the rule of law.

But such a modest democratising of environmental planning is fiercely resisted, not just by local party chiefs but also by a national leadership concerned about threats to its position. Beijing has so far managed to control the rise of civil society and environmental campaign groups and limit their impact on the wider political reform agenda.

Environmentalism remains a localised phenomenon, and environmental nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have to campaign carefully so as not to overstep the boundaries of legitimate protest. Besides, the government has taken steps actively to shape and control civil society, requiring NGOs to register and creating government-organised NGOs (GONGOs). With political reform stalled since 1989, the chances of a fundamental shift in the balance of power between civil society and state are slim. But without changes in the political system, efforts to steer towards a greener future will be difficult to sustain. In a sense China’s ecological catastrophe is a crisis of governance, and ultimately of political reform. However committed the Hu government may be to the principle of sustainable development, lack of progress in strengthening the rule of law and democratising environmental policy will undermine its intentions.

What hope is there? Undoubtedly, the country will continue to seek to develop its economic potential, and ecologists’ calls for a ‘steady-state economy’ will go as unheeded there as anywhere else. But three factors may help to bring about a more environmentally conscious growth model, even if radical political reform is not on the agenda:

China’s ongoing opening to the outside world is exposing the country to international environmental norms and rules. China has already joined a number of multilateral environmental agreements, including treaties on ozone depletion, climate change, biological diversity and biosafety.

On the whole, it has a good record of compliance with international obligations, which some observers say is much higher than compliance with domestic environmental laws. And unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, when it dismissed environmentalism as a western luxury, the leadership has accepted the idea of sustainable development.

The more China becomes a ‘normal’ member of international society and gets involved in international co-operation, the more it will have to engage with the global environmental agenda. International links – among regulators, scientists and environmentalists – will become important channels for transmitting global ecological ideas into domestic politics.

With increases in prosperity and urbanisation the small but growing middle class will expect the government to pay more attention to health and environmental quality. As western environmentalism shows, rising income levels usually promote greater ecological awareness and a greening of the state.

Of course, China is still a long way from the kind of post-material values associated with European and North American environmentalism. But recent public reactions to health scandals, for example after the government’s belated response to the SARS virus, suggest that green issues will become more politically important. Last year, in an effort to shore up public confidence in health regulations, the government introduced genetically modified food labelling to give consumers greater choice, despite the fact that the country has invested heavily in developing biotech products for over twenty years.

Even if in the short run economic policy does not change fundamentally, China’s economy will eventually suffer from the direct and indirect costs of environmental degradation and resource depletion. In many ways, the ecological crisis has already become a constraint on welfare growth. A recent Chinese study put the human health costs of air pollution at two to three percent of national income per year and estimates that they are likely to reach thirteen percent by 2020 on the current growth path. Water pollution and chemical residues in food also take their toll on the population’s health and are a constant drain on the country’s productivity. Desertification and soil erosion continue to eat away at limited agricultural land.

The point of ecological collapse may not yet have been reached, but its symptoms can be felt. If welfare is to grow not just in the short term but also in the medium to long term, serious adjustments will have to be made to the country’s underlying approach. Enlightened leadership would recognise the ecological constraints today rather than wait until they have become undeniable and irreversible.