China has long been an example of what not to do to achieve environmentally sustainability. Ranking 133rd out of 146 countries in 2005 for environmental performance, China faces major environmental problems including severe air and water pollution, deforestation, water-issues, desertification, extinction, and overpopulation. A new article in Science discusses the complex issues that have led to China’s environmental woes, and where the nation can go to from here.
“During the past 60 years, negative impacts have been stronger than positive ones, with most environmental conditions worsening and few improving,” writes Jianguo Liu, MSU University Distinguished Professor of fisheries and wildlife who holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability.
Old Shanghai in the foreground, new Shanghai in the background. China’s economic policies have brought with them environmental woes. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Beginning with Mao’s Great Leap Forward, natural ecosystems were destroyed for agriculture, steel production, and more recently export goods. In 1994 ‘sustainable development’ became a national strategy, but economic growth still won out, according to Liu.
“The widespread ideology of ‘development first, environmental protection later’ or ‘pollute first, then clean up’ is a root cause of China’s low ranking in environmental sustainability,” Liu writes.
One of China’s boldest plans to deal with environmental problems and overpopulation was the ‘one-child policy’ implemented in 1979. It is estimated that this policy slowed China’s population growth by approximately 300 million people over twenty five years. Yet, changes in Chinese society have offset some of the environmental benefits one would expect from slowing population.
While China’s population growth slowed, the number of new households increased faster than the nation’s population. Between 1985 and 2000, China added 125 million new households due to social changes, such as increased divorces and less multigenerational households, cutting the average number of people living in each house.
“More households consume more resources and generate more waste, and smaller households lower the efficiency of resource use,” Liu writes.
A solar-powered yurt in China. China is currently the largest investor in clean energy. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
The lesson of the one child policy shows that “integrating natural and social science research can help us understand the complexity of the interactions among the forces that affect environmental sustainability so the desired results can be achieved,” Liu says.
Moving forward the government should enact new policies to stem the growth of new households, according to Liu.
“One idea may be to create government incentives such as tax credits or subsidies to promote multigenerational housing and housing shared by friends and other non-family members and to discourage divorce”.
Liu points out that there has been some sizable movement towards sustainability recently: just over 15 percent of China is now protected as natural reserves; logging of natural forests has been banned since 1998; and the government has pledged to cut CO2 emissions intensity per unit of GDP by 40-45 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. China is moving aggressively on clean energy, outpacing both the US and the EU in green investments.
Still, while the nation has put in place many environmental laws, Liu says these regulations need better implementation and monitoring.
“China is the most populous country with the fastest growing economy in the world—everything it does has a big impact,” Liu adds. “Environmental sustainability in China is crucial, not just for China, but for the rest of the world.”
Citation: Jianguo Liu. China’s road to sustainability. Science. April 2nd, 2010, Volume 328. 10.1126/science.1186234.
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