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China makes environmental moves as problems mount

China moves as environmental problems mount

China moves as environmental problems mount
September 19, 2006

China, the world’s most populous country and fastest growing economy, faces a host of environmental problems. Energy and water shortages, water and air pollution, cropland and biodiversity losses, and escalating emissions of greenhouses gases are all concerns as the country moves towards world superpower status. While these issues could threaten to destabilize the country and derail economic growth, it appears that it is taking steps to address some of these challenges.

Last week the government proposed a plan to curb sulphur dioxide emissions through a trading scheme that would require power plants to pay for the right to emit the pollutant. China is the world’s largest sulphur dioxide polluter, emissions of which have climbed by some 27 percent to 25.5 million tons since 2001. Sulphur dioxide emissions are blamed for worsening acid rain which affects one-third of the country according to Sheng Huaren, deputy chairman of the Standing Committee of parliament.

Dam construction in western China. Photo by Rhett Butler

China has some of the world’s most polluted cities and waterways. A December 2005 report from the Chinese government said some 300 million Chinese drink unsafe water tainted by chemicals and other contaminants, while a nationwide survey found that about 90% of China’s cities have polluted ground water. Meanwhile, a 2005 study by the World Health Organization (WHO), reported that seven of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China and almost two thirds of the country’s largest cities fail to meet the organization’s air quality standards. The World Bank estimates that pollution is costing the country 8-12% of its $1.4 trillion GDP in direct losses.

The proposal comes two months after China announced it would spend $175 billion protecting its environment over the next five years. The money will be used to reduce pollution, improve water quality, and cut soil erosion. The government has banned logging, spent $190 million on environmental protection along the new Golmud and Lhasa railway, initiated a reforestation project that would plant an area of forest the size of California, and invested billions in renewable energy technologies including wind, solar, and biofuels, setting a target of 12 percent of its power generation capacity coming from renewables by 2020 — up from a 3 percent in 2003. The government’s interest in reducing China’s use of petroleum products extends beyond environmental and health concerns; it sees both the strategic value of mitigating its reliance on foreign oil (currently about 10 percent of oil use) and the economic advantages of being on the technological leading edge of energy production. Nevertheless, the country is expected to become the world largest producer of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, before 2020. The country, like the United States, has refused to any binding limits on emissions.

“China’s extraordinary rate of economic development makes it a historically unique, grand-scale socioeconomic and ecological ‘experiment,’ and one that will have an unprecedented impact on the world as a whole,” write Jingyun Fang and China Kiang of Peking University, guest editorialists of the September issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment which focuses on China’s environmental challenges. “[Will China] continue down the same road as in the past two decades, or will environmental quality, energy efficiency, and the conservation of resources no longer be sacrificed at the altar of economic development?”

Whichever the answer, any environmental mobilization on the part of China will may be made easier by the government’s strict control over the country.

“When the government decides it wants to protect the environment, it doesn’t worry about the concerns of local people, it just goes ahead and does what it needs to suit its goals,” said Ling, a Chinese national who spoke on the condition that her full name not be used.

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This article used quotes and information from The Economist, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, and previous articles.

This article is based on a news release from NASA.

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