What happened to China’s environment in 2013?

Our London deputy editor Olivia Boyd looks back at the major Chinese environmental news stories from a turbulent year

Read also: Why 2013 was another year of disappointment for China and the environment

Severe smog blanketed swaths of central and eastern China in January, an apt start for a year in which air pollution became a national obsession. After a series of breakthroughs on public access to air-quality data, China’s “dirtiest spell” in history brought home the reality of the clean-up challenge. Of 74 Chinese cities to start reporting fine particulate levels on New Year’s Day, 33 took readings over levels considered hazardous to human health. In the capital, a new phrase “Bejing cough” caught hold, while city authorities issued their first “orange” smog warning, indicating visibility at less than 200 metres.

China also started building nuclear power stations again, following the lifting of a moratorium put in place after Japan’s reactor meltdown at Fukushima. But rows over the safety of the sector were set to rage on in 2013,  with former state nuclear physicist He Zuoxiu warning chinadialogue that a Chinese nuclear disaster was ‘highly probable’ by 2030.

Attention turned to China’s increasingly toxic water resources in February: soon after a chemical leak forced Hebei’s Handan city to switch off the water supply in some areas, factories in Weifang city, Shandong, were accused of secretly – and illegally – dumping wastewater in purpose-built wells underground. The result was a fierce debate about the quality of China’s dwindling groundwater reserves. Official figures released later in the year revealed that only a tenth of China’s groundwater deserves the top grade, while a study in the journal Science found 20 million people to be at risk of exposure to arsenic poisoning due to underground water pollution.

There was also public anger when a Beijing lawyer’s request to see the results of a nationwide survey of soil pollution was turned down on account of the data being a “state secret”.

If you only remember one China story from the past year, this may well be it – March was the month 16,000 dead pigs were pulled from Shanghai’s Huangpu River, a source of drinking water. Porcine corpses made the pages of newspapers around the world as investigators struggled to work out the cause of the grim apparition. A crackdown on criminals selling abandoned carcasses for meat on the black market – leading to widespread dumping – was eventually singled out as a cause, though experts pointed to wider problems like lethal overcrowding on farms. The incident brought the realities of China’s chaotic farming sector closer to home for urban elites, particularly when reports started linking the dead pig scandal to a bird flu outbreak in Shanghai.

Outgoing premier Wen Jiabao emphasised the environment in his final work report to China’s annual parliamentary session, but the formal departure of the Hu-Wen administration was for many environmentalists a moment to reflect on the rapid deterioration of China’s ecology during their 10-year tenure. The new leaders’ decision to keep widely criticised environment minister Zhou Shengxian in his job meanwhile triggered a rare show of public opposition to such an appointment.

China was accused by fisheries researchers of under-reporting its overseas fishing catch by as much 12 times, with disastrous consequences particularly for West Africa where the scale of secret extraction is crippling local fisheries and stymying efforts to assess the true state of the waters. A separate investigation in Mozambique revealed that a fishing industry equipped with increasingly sophisticated equipment threatens to wipe out local shark and manta ray populations to satisfy China’s demand for shark fin.

The spring also saw the launch of a new campaign to save the severely threatened rhino, targeting young Chinese consumers and fronted by the country’s most popular animal welfare activist – basketball player Yao Ming.

There were other signs Chinese citizens could prove a powerful force in animal protection: in the first half of the year the Canadian embassy in Beijing received 100,000 postcards protesting against Canada’s seal trade with China.

The public security ministry announced it had made more than 900 arrests since the end of January for trading fake or tainted meat products. Crimes included passing off rat meat as mutton and using highly toxic pesticide to grow ginger. The news was scant comfort to a public whose confidence in its food system has hit rock bottom, at least if the scramble for foreign baby milk powder is anything to go by: in March, Hong Kong set a hefty fine and even threatened imprisonment to anyone caught taking more than 1.8 kilograms of milk formula across the border after mainland parents stripped shelves bare.

The southern city of Shenzhen – famous as a place of experimentation since Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms – became the first Chinese region to launch a mandatory carbon trading scheme. More than 600 companies were slated to take part in the pilot, covering 38% of the city’s emissions, in a bid to reduce carbon emissions by 21% below 2010 levels by 2015. Shanghai and Beijing followed suit in November, with four more due to come online within the year. The trading pilots are a key part of China’s strategy to reduce emissions intensity (greenhouse gas emissions produced per unit of GDP) to 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020.

The agriculture ministry’s decision to give the go ahead to imports of three more strains of genetically modified (GM) soybeans prompted an outcry online, showing how tendentious a topic GM crops remain in China. Seventy-eight percent of respondents to a Sina survey said they thought GM food could have negative impacts on people’s health and a picture of mice with swollen bodies, said to be the effect of GM testing, went viral online.

Campaigners and lawyers reacted angrily to draft changes to China’s Environmental Protection Law constraining the ability of NGOs to use the courts for green causes. The amendment, part of a package of changes that has been moving slowly through parliament, would restrict the right to bring public interest environmental lawsuits to just 13 organisations, notably the quasi-official All-China Environmental Federation.

US tech giant Apple was in the firing line again when one of its Chinese suppliers was accused of violating labour rights by hiring underage workers, imposing excessive working hours and providing poor working and living conditions in an investigation by China Labor Watch. It was the latest in a long line of attacks on the company’s social and environmental record in the country and came in the year Apple’s CEO was forced to apologise to Chinese consumers for “arrogant” behaviour.

CNPC and Sinopec – two of China’s biggest oil companies – were banned from building new refineries or expanding existing ones for failing to meet emissions targets, the first time such restrictions had been used against these giants. The companies responded swiftly to the unprecedented moratorium, with Sinopec announcing a three-year, US$163 million environmental clean-up.

After months of wrangling between central and provincial governments, China released a five-year action plan for tackling air pollution, mandating sweeping cuts in PM2.5 levels – including a 25% cut in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area – by 2017. A ban on new coal-fired power stations in the three regions surrounding Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and incentives for cleaner cars won plaudits, but senior climate strategist Li Junfeng told chinadialogue the plan had failed to recognise the seriousness of China’s pollution problem. An emphasis on switching from coal to natural gas also raised questions about pressure on the country’s fragile water supplies.

Meat processing firm Shuanghui completed its US$4.7 billion takeover of US-based Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, in September. The deal signaled a new era of Chinese agribusiness, as well as a growing Chinese corporate presence in the developed world: in February regulators gave the go ahead for China’s biggest overseas acquisition to date, the US$15 billion purchase of Canada’s Nexen Energy by state-owned oil giant CNOOC, providing China with access to carbon-intensive tar sands.

After four years of talks, China – and about 140 other nations – signed a pact to limit mercury pollution. The Minamata Convention, named after the Japanese city that suffered a mercury-induced public health crisis in the mid 20th century, requires countries to remove products like mercury thermometers from the market by 2020, as well as restricting mercury emissions from coal plants, smelters and concrete factories and closing all mercury mines within 15 years. The agreement poses particular challenges for China, the world’s biggest producer, user and emitter of the toxic heavy metal.

In another deal, China and India pledged to strengthen cooperation over their shared rivers – an increasing source of regional tension thanks to escalating hydropower ambitions. Under the agreement, China will provide more flood data on the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Zangbo), which originates in Tibet and is slated to house a 48,000-megawatt dam at the Great Bend on the Chinese side – to the alarm of Indian policymakers. But the woolly terms of the deal and a failure to commit to making the data public, suggested this may not be the turning point some had hoped for.

China relaxed its one-child policy to allow families to have two children if just one parent is an only child, one of a list of reforms announced after the Third Plenum, a crucial meeting of China’s top brass. Though a promise to give markets more of a role in the Chinese economy was the focus of headlines following the plenum, the assembly’s final communiqué repeated a government promise to build an “ecological civilization”. President Xi Jinping also vowed to improve natural-resource management and provide better compensation for pollution victims.

Communist Party bosses weren’t the only ones to assemble in November – delegates from around the world also rolled into Warsaw for the annual climate talks, dogged by the usual commentary about the inability of the UN system to deal with global warming. China used the occasion to trumpet climate successes however – stating that it had reduced the proportion of energy derived from coal, plus emissions-intensity levels in an official report. Senior energy researcher Jiang Kejun meanwhile told chinadialogue that fast-moving domestic policies – including a possible carbon consumption cap in the 13th Five-Year plan – would allow China to be “more radical” in international talks.

The year ended much as it started with air pollution hogging the nation’s attention. Shanghai issued severe smog warnings and schoolchildren were ordered indoors as a filthy haze blanketed cities in northern and eastern China. In a bizarre twist, two state media outlets came under attack for putting a positive spin on smog – a useful defence against guided missiles, according to The Global Times.

China’s infamous “cancer villages” also hit the headlines thanks to a study linking pollution and cancer rates across the provinces of Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu, while government efforts to cut coal use led to expert warnings of natural gas shortages as the winter peak approached.