Briefing: opportunities and challenges

China’s handling of its environmental problems will affect the whole earth, writes Maryann Bird, in the first of a series of guides to hot topics in a warming world

China is poised to present the world with some of its greatest opportunities – as well as some of its greatest challenges – in the years ahead. The planet’s most populous country is now home to 1.3 billion people. It is also home to a rapidly developing economy that is fast becoming a major global player. The spectacular rise of China has lifted millions out of poverty. It has also alarmed many of its neighbours and competitors and prompted the question, “Is China a threat or an opportunity?” Its rapid development has come at a heavy environmental cost.

 The Chinese government acknowledges China’s environmental crisis. In a 2005 interview, Pan Yue, vice minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), the government agency with responsibility for the environment, said: “This [economic] miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace…Acid rain is falling on one-third of our territory, half of the water in China’s seven largest rivers is completely useless; a quarter of our citizens do not have access to clean drinking water; a third of the urban population is breathing polluted air; less than a fifth of the rubbish in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner.”

China’s need for energy and water to feed continuing urbanisation and industrialisation will only exacerbate this crisis if solutions are not found. However, the country’s environmental problems are of concern not only to China; they affect everybody in the world, directly and indirectly. As China expands its search for energy and minerals, timber and other raw materials across the world, the environmental impact becomes a global issue. According to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, China used 26% of the world’s crude steel in 2005, 32% of the rice, 37% of the cotton and 47% of the cement. While some of those materials are going into exported products, a good deal is going into building a Chinese infrastructure that is transforming the country’s landscape. And as China’s carbon emissions rise, the common problem of global climate change is affected.

Since the late 1970s, the country has moved from a centrally planned system to a more market-oriented one, with a burgeoning private sector. China’s economic restructuring, with its accompanying gains in efficiency, have led to a huge leap – more than tenfold — in gross domestic product (GDP) since 1978. Measured in purchasing power, then, China has become the second-largest economy in the world, after the United States. In per-capita terms, however, it is still lower middle-income, with large income disparities between regions and 150 million people falling below international poverty lines. The Chinese government has struggled to cope with both the consequences of past environmental policies and the challenges of the current economic transformation. With China’s growing national wealth, its rapid urbanisation and its economic weight in the world comes new responsibility regarding a tidal wave of environmental issues – issues of environmental protection, conservation of resources, power-generating capacity, fossil-fuel use and much more, which need to be urgently addressed.

Today, environmental issues are confronting every country in the world, large and small, powerful and weak. For China, with its huge population, colossal energy needs, growth in consumerism, expanding industrialisation and, soon, the 2008 Summer Olympic Games taking place in its capital, Beijing, the demands on its environment will be staggering. How will the country cope? And how will China work to ensure that it does no harm to places — and resources — outside its national borders?

Along with having the second-largest economy on the planet, China is the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO²), one of the major greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Although China has ratified both the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its 1997 Kyoto Protocol, as a developing country it is not legally bound to any emissions-limiting or emissions-reduction targets. Nor, notes the UN Environment Programme’s Global Environment Outlook 2006, have any targets been set under the 2005 Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which encompasses China and two of its regional, developing neighbours – India and South Korea – along with the US, Japan and Australia. (India and Japan are the fourth and fifth largest CO² emitters, with Russia in third place.) The partnership, however, aims to develop and utilise emerging cleaner technologies and practices, including renewable energy systems.

In 1990, according to UNEP figures, the Asia-Pacific region produced 435 million tonnes (8%) more CO² than did North America. By 2002, the disparity was 2.6 million tonnes (41% more). Figures cited by the Worldwatch Institute show China emitting one billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, or 14% of the world total (still only one-seventh of the level of the US, the world’s largest emitter). Pressure on China to limit its greenhouse-gas emissions, post-Kyoto, is mounting, both internationally and internally. The Chinese government is well aware that China is vulnerable, on many fronts, to the effects of climate change: rising sea levels, violent weather fluctuations, desertification, loss of habitat and biodiversity, health issues, and more.

San Francisco-based Pacific Environment, one of the organisations supporting China’s emerging environmental movement, says that “China’s contribution to global warming will impact the environment of every nation on earth.” Indeed, it adds, the country’s management of its environmental problems will have significant global repercussions. “The inability of China’s farmers to eke out a crop from drying land will force it to turn to the world food market, further intensifying the stresses on land in grain-producing countries like the US and Canada. And China’s consumption of over a third of the global fish harvest, a number that is certain to grow, is placing severe strain on our already overtaxed oceans. Simply put, anyone concerned about the global environment must be concerned about the capacity of China’s people to deal with the pressing threats they face.”