The world’s chimney: A pollution crises looms in a land of big statistics

Posted by Reading Time: 3 minutes

Chinese miners exiting a mine - EastSouthWestNorthMuch has been written lately about China’s environmental woes. From polluted lakes and rivers to air quality issues that are putting Olympic events in question, the spectacular growth the country has seen has resulted in a burgeoning environmental disaster. As Pan Yue, the vice minister for China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) warned in 2005 when talking about China’s booming growth, “The miracle will end soon because the environment cannot keep pace.”

For those in the China game, none of this comes as much of a surprise and coverage by the BBC or The New York Times can be relied on to report things that are generally already known here on the mainland. It is with that understanding that we highlight an excellently written article by Elizabeth C. Economy in Foreign Affairs, “The Great Leap Backward?”

Economy, the C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations presents extensive statistical evidence of China’s environmental woes – a scorecard of waste and pollution that stands out and asks to be written down. Here is what she has found:

By the numbers, China’s environmental cheat sheet

  • Coal provides 70 percent of China’s energy: In 2006 China consumed some 2.4 billions tons. In 2000, China predicted doubling its coal consumption by 2020; it is now expected to have done so by the end of the year.
  • As much as 90 percent of China’s sulfur dioxide emissions and 50 percent of its particulate emissions are the result of coal use, making China home to 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.
  • Transportation is also posing a growing problem to the air quality. China is laying more than 85,000 kilometers of new highway and some 14,000 new cars hit the road daily. By 2020, China is expected to have 130 million cars; by as early as 2040, it will have more cars than the United States.
  • China’s urbanization plans call for the relocation of more than 400 million people – more than the entire population of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the UK combined – to brand new cities between 2000 and 2030. To make this possible, China will have to put up half of all the buildings constructed in the world during the period.
  • The urbanization of China will also increase the amount of needed energy as city dwellers, with their air conditioners, televisions and refrigerators consume three and a half times more energy than Chinese in rural areas.
  • The Gobi Desert spreads by about 19,000 square kilometers annually, a growth that has hurt more than 400 million Chinese, turning tens of millions of them into what Economy calls, “environmental refugees.”
  • As much as 10 percent of China’s farmland is believed to be polluted, and every year 12 million tons of grain is contaminated with heavy metals absorbed from the soil.
  • Water is also a growing concern; 660 cities have less water than they need and 110 suffer severe shortages.
  • Aquifers in 90 percent of Chinese cities are polluted.
  • 75 percent of river water flowing through cities is considered unsuitable for drinking or fishing, the result, 700 million people drink water contaminated with animal and human waste.
  • The Yangtze River receives 40 percent of the country’s sewage, 80 percent of which is untreated.
  • Nearly two thirds of the Yellow River is considered unsafe to drink and 10 percent of its water is classified as sewage.

Most of the figures above are known and pose no new shocks, one only needs to look out a window in Beijing or Shanghai or a hundred other cities on the mainland to see the effects. It is the sheer amount of statistics that Economy uses to build a picture of the environmental degradation occurring in China today that becomes overwhelming.

The solution to the problem is a change in thinking Economy argues. China needs “to introduce a new set of economic and political initiatives” in order to “transform the way the country does business” and reign in local governments who often ignore serious pollutions problems out of self-interest. As she states:

Of course, much of the burden and the opportunity for China to revolutionize the way it reconciles environmental protection and economic development rests with the Chinese government itself. No amount of international assistance can transform China’s domestic environment or its contribution to global environmental challenges. Real change will arise only from strong central leadership and the development of a system of incentives that make it easier for local officials and the Chinese people to embrace environmental protection. This will sometimes mean making tough economic choices.