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China and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released August 2007)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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With a rapidly growing economy, and as the world's most populous nation, China faces great stresses on its resources and environment. Old paradigms of growth will not work in an increasingly fragile worldwide environment for a country where 1.3 billion people are squeezed into an area smaller than that of the United States. China therefore presents a paradigmatic test case for environmental sustainability in the 21st Century.

Like many developing countries, China has emphasized economic growth over environmental issues. "The gross value of industrial output has nearly tripled over the period 1998-2004" (Poon 14) and growth continues at a prodigious pace. A heavy reliance on coal, one of the dirtiest energy sources but one that China possesses in great abundance, adds to the environmental stress. In addition, China's centralized government and lack of democratic processes has made for a paucity of environmental watchdog groups that might alert policymakers to environmental problems and trigger mitigating action. This situation is beginning to change, as awareness of environmental problems has spread to numerous levels of government and society. (Wang)

satellite photo of dust storms
A dust storm from China impinges on neighboring countries, April 2002

In controlling human population, which many environmentalists and other thinkers, dating back to Garret Hardin (and even earlier Thomas Malthus) believe to be one of the keys to sustainability, China's "one-child" policy has largely succeeded. Ironically, China's authoritarian government can simply decree measures that might be considered draconian in democratic states. For example, when India's Indira Gandhi tried to institute strict population control in the 1970s, her party was swept from power in the ensuing elections. Still, China suffers numerous environmental degradations, notable in the highest rate of respiratory diseases in the world (Economy, 102), and in heart and lung diseases. Of course, China is still considered a developing country, and most developing countries struggle with mortality caused by AIDS, malaria, and other infectious, communicable diseases. That China leads the world in chronic diseases of the lungs and heart makes the case for sustainable development all the more compelling.

By 2020, and probably earlier, China is also expected to replace the United States as the number one generator of global warming emissions (Poon 2). Indeed, although estimates vary, a study by Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency shows that China has already become the predominant source of carbon dioxide, the main global warming emission (Netherlands). The 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), which ranks countries based on such measures as health, governance, technology, and international cooperation, places China 133rd out of 146 countries. The ESI, is intended to"quantif[y] the likelihood that a country will be able to preserve valuable environmental resources effectively over the period of several decades. Put another way, it evaluates a country's potential to avoid major environmental deterioration." (Esty, 23)

2005 Environmental Sustainability Index Building Blocks - Components
Environmental Systems
A country is more likely to be environmentally sustainable to the extent that its vital environmental systems are maintained at healthy levels, and to the extent to which levels are improving rather than deteriorating
Reducing Environmental Stresses A country is more likely to be environmentally sustainable if the levels of anthropogenic stress are low enough to engender no demonstrable harm to its environmental systems
Reducing Human Vulnerability A country is more likely to be environmentally sustainable to the extent that people and social systems are not vulnerable to environmental disturbances that affect basic human wellbeing; becoming less vulnerable is a sign that a society is on a track to greater sustainability
Social and Institutional Capacity A country is more likely to be environmentally sustainable to the extent that it
has in place institutions and underlying social patterns of skills, attitudes, and
networks that foster effective responses to environmental challenges
Global Stewardship A country is more likely to be environmentally sustainable if it cooperates with other countries to manage common environmental problems, and if it reduces negative transboundary environmental impacts on other countries to levels that cause no serious harm
The Environmental Sustainability Index, on which China performs poorly

Another measure of environmental impact is the ecological footprint, which estimates the amount of biologically productive land used per capita. One source places the amount of such land at 2.0 hectares per person on planet earth (encylopedia). However numbers vary depending upon the source consulted. For instance, gives the United States an ecological footprint of 12.22 hectares, with China's at 1.84 hectares as of 2000 (Nationmaster). The Worldwatch Institute, by contrast, estimates China's footprint at 1.6 hectares and the United States' at 9.7 hectares. (Flavin & Gardner, 16) Whichever numbers one accepts, if every human on earth behaved like the average Chinese today, it seems that the environment would be able to sustain itself. Yet the trends are extremely disturbing. According to Asia-Pacific 2005: The Ecological Footprint and Natural Wealth, "since 1961 China has grown faster than any other country in the region, nearly doubling its population and its per person footprint" (World Wildlife 11). With an enormous, and still growing, population, and an economy growing even faster, China's swelling environmental impact is simply not sustainable. Certainly, if China were to come close to the per capita environmental footprint of the most developed countries, the impact on the global environment would be catastrophic.

distorted map
A map of the world according to ecological footprint. The United States appears swollen due to its large consumption per person, China due largely to its enormous population.

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