China’s environment: prospects and hazards

China’s industrialisation has created winners and losers. Great economic growth has been matched by the rising pollution of land, water and air, says Crispin Tickell. But can the country now leapfrog over the mistakes of others?

The industrial revolution came relatively late to China, and its effects have been most marked in the last 40 years. More perhaps than elsewhere, and certainly in a shorter time span, it has profoundly affected the Chinese relationship with the natural environment. With greater political stability, mass development, mass production, mass consumption, mass transport and mass discharge of wastes have transformed China.  

As in nineteenth-century Britain, industrialisation in China has created winners and losers, with rising pollution of land, water and air. The population of China has greatly increased, as populations did elsewhere in such circumstances: between 1953 and 2001 it doubled to 1.3 billion, and the urban population tripled in size to almost 500 million.  Increase in the number of households has risen by 3.5% a year since 1990. According to Chinese sources, in the 10 years between 1990 and 2001 the consumption of petroleum increased by 100%, that of natural gas by 92%, steel by 143%, copper by 189%, and aluminium by 380%. The transport network of road, rail and air facilities expanded many times and the demand for water, energy and food rose steeply. In the words of the World Watch Institute of Washington DC, “It is as if all of Europe, Russia and North and South America were simultaneously to undertake a century’s worth of economic development in a few decades.”

Not surprisingly, the impact on the environment has been dramatic. Even if the rate of population increase has slowed, the rise in population has led to increasing emigration to the cities, and the growth of cities has led to ever greater strains on urban infrastructure. Transport is a particular difficulty, with official encouragement of car manufacture and potential car use far exceeding the capacity of road systems.   Chinese cities face the problems and prospects which are already favouring trains and bicycles in Britain, and even rickshaws in central London.

Demand for fresh water may be constantly increasing, but the vagaries of the weather have not increased supplies, and some provinces such as Guangdong, with a population of 110 million, have recently suffered a 40% drop in rainfall.   Water tables have been falling, particularly in northern China, through exhaustion of aquifers and new irrigation schemes, and the Yellow River now reaches the sea only a few days a year.  

There is also a long term factor. Global warming is reducing Chinese glaciers as a source of water. They could all be gone by the end of this century. This also has the effect of diminishing the reflectivity of the Earth to solar radiation, and thus increasing warming. So far as climate is concerned, the predictions of the Chinese National Academy of Sciences are far from encouraging.   They suggest new patterns of rainfall, including less in certain areas of high population and more elsewhere. There should be no wonder that there are plans to build a major canal system to convey water from south to north.

The increasing demand for energy raises a host of environmental problems. China has large reserves of somewhat dirty coal, and still depends on them. But it has greatly increased its imports of other fossil fuels, and is now investing heavily in alternative energy sources. For example it is now building the world’s first major pebble-bed nuclear reactor, and has some thirty other nuclear reactors on order. It has shown interest in developing a variety of renewable energy sources. It is also trying, not always successfully, to improve its energy efficiency.  The Chinese have also spread themselves and their investments in energy sources all over the world: from Svalbard in the Arctic to Brazil and Mexico, to Zimbabwe and Angola, and to Iran and other countries in the Middle East.

Rising living standards are changing the Chinese diet and this too has environmental effects. There is a general move away from rice towards meat — not just pork, as in the past, but towards beef, lamb and chicken. Per capita consumption of meat, eggs and milk increased four fold between 1978 and 2001. This means different use of land, greater dependence on pesticides and artificial fertilizers, a big increase in agricultural waste, and a demand for feedstock, which cannot now be met from domestic sources. World grain prices have already been affected, and probably will be more in future.

The cumulative effect of these changes is beginning to affect the global environment in a variety of ways. A foreign complaint about China is the volume of pollutants China emits into the atmosphere, in particular carbon dioxide: the major greenhouse gas. As a country particularly vulnerable to climate change (a point reiterated by the Chinese National Academy of Sciences), the Chinese government, although not formally bound by the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, has made strenuous efforts to reduce its emissions, largely through increased industrial efficiency. The result was an absolute as well as per capita reduction in the last few years. But they are now rising again, and may eventually equal if not exceed those of the principal villain in this respect, the United States.

Another global environmental hazard are the sandstorms which may have their worst effects in north-eastern China, but still spread to Japan, to Hawaii, and even to the western seaboard of the United States. Soil deterioration and erosion in China inevitably affect all China’s neighbours. In addition, although the Chinese government has recently reduced its own timber cutting, Chinese demand for timber is strong and increasing, and China is a major importer of timber, some of it apparently illegal, from other parts of southeast Asia. The effects of changes in biodiversity, and in particular the import or export of alien species, has been fully explored in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report, and all this directly involves China.

There are also the less tangible effects of Chinese technological experiments which could easily spread to other parts of the world — experiments in genetic modification of food plants, for example, or in nanotechnology and the nuclear field.  For good or ill, technology is no respecter of frontiers. The President of the Royal Society, Lord Rees has calculated that, whether due to inadvertence, criminality or other factors, the prospects for our civilization surviving the end of this century are no more than 50%.

No-one is more conscious of this intimidating complex of problems than the Chinese themselves. Over the last 15 years, as a member of the independent China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development, I have been the witness of the growing concern of the Chinese leadership, and the efforts which have been made not only to take limited action, but also – perhaps more important – to think differently about the environment. Here is the greatest contrast between the positions of the Chinese and US Administrations.    

Thinking differently is well illustrated by the search for a better methodology for measuring economic progress than that represented by the classic – and highly misleading – Gross Domestic Product/Gross National Product mechanism. Successive Chinese governments have spoken of the need for a “socialist market economy” in which the framework is set by the public interest, with the free market functioning within it.  

These thoughts were well expressed at a meeting of the Chinese government on Population, Resources and Environment on 12 March 2005.   On that occasion the General Party Secretary Hu Jintao and the Prime Minister Wen Jiabao both spoke of the need to adopt a “new development mode” or “new economic growth mode” within the overriding objective of achieving an all-round harmonious society or xiaokung. Already the idea of “green clean growth” or “green GDP” is being tested in a number of Chinese provinces.   It means bringing in the externalities or hidden costs of change, and giving priority to human welfare and well-being rather than mere productivity. Some of these ideas are being explored in the World Bank and elsewhere.

Acting differently is already well advanced. On 5 June last year the Chinese government published a White Paper entitled Environmental Protection in China 1996-2005. It contains a detailed account of relevant legislation, the prevention and control of industrial pollution, measures to cope with water problems, re-afforestation and conservation, and Chinese participation in international bodies and commitments.   Perhaps most important, it admitted that the problems were very serious, and the condition of the country still “grave”. It still is.

There is a continuing tension between those who press for economic growth in the familiar sense, and those who press for better environmental protection and the long-term sustainability of society. There is likewise tension between the national government and local governments and communities.

There are also problems over respect for environmental laws and regulations. The price structure is often perverse. For example some people in China and others elsewhere think that access to water is a basic human right, and for that reason water should almost be free. The result is that there is little incentive to look after it properly and avoid waste. It has been calculated that a tonne of Yellow River water for use in irrigation costs less than one-tenth of a small bottle of spring water, thereby removing any incentive to conserve it. Those in cities can often afford to pay more for their water, and so win an advantage over those who may need water more. All this is now changing. 

There are many reasons for hope. As a relatively late comer to the industrial world, China has the opportunity to leapfrog over the mistakes of others. It is also recovering its self-confidence after its century of troubles, and the balance of power in the world is changing as a result. The most recent dramatic example was the destruction of the old Chinese satellite. Certainly the days of the single super-power dominating the world are already numbered in both political and economic terms. It has been calculated by Goldman Sachs that the proportion of the world economy represented by China and India in 1825 was around 40%. By 2025 that proportion may be restored.

Within China the environmental cost may be high, even unworkable. But the government seems well aware of the risks and hazards, and knows better than its critics that it has to do a lot more to look after the only China, indeed the only Earth, there is. They may turn out to be pioneers in doing so. As in technology, the rest of the world may soon be learning as much from the Chinese as the Chinese learn from the rest of the world.                  

Sir Crispin Tickell is a former diplomat, an academic and an environmentalist. He is director of the Policy Foresight Programme at the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization at Oxford University.

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