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

  by Ethan Goffman  


Key Citations





Industrialization has brought unprecedented air pollution to China, so that, "of the 20 cities worldwide with the most polluted air, 16 are in China" (Cann et al, 7). Coal is the primary pollutant, although in recent years automobile use is having a larger effect, especially in cities. As the World Bank explains, "In recent years, air pollution in urban areas in China has been transformed from coal-smog air pollution into a mixture of coal-smog and automobile exhaust. Emissions of SO2 have decreased gradually and particulate matter has become the principal pollutant of concern in most cities in China" (27).

Soot, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter fill the air of China's cities, enormously damaging human health. Lung cancer, pulmonary heart disease, and bronchitis are common, while women in industrialized areas "are reported to have the highest rates of lung cancer ever recorded" (Cann et al, 7). The World Bank estimates that "300,000 to 400,000 people die in China every year due to respiratory illnesses triggered by air pollution" (Kim 3).

smokestacks fill the sky with blackness
Smoke from a metal alloy factory, northwest China

Illustrating how environmental spheres are connected, China's air quality has affected vegetation and agriculture. Sulfur dioxide has given China "some of the world's worst acid rain. An estimated 30 percent of China's cropland is suffering from acidification, and the resulting damage to farms, forests, and human health is projected at $13 billion" (Flavin & Gardner, 7). One-quarter of China's land is desert, and desertification is proceeding at a pace of more than 1,300 square miles per year (Economy, 102). While desertification can be a natural occurrence, in China human action has greatly accelerated it and changed its character. Practices such as "overcultivation, overgrazing, and firewood collection," along with the destruction of natural vegetation, have intensified desertification (Tao & Wei, 238). Ground cover destruction "reduces the capacity of soil to hold water, suppresses airflow rise and convergence, enhances surface albedo, intensifies downward airflow, and ultimately leads to climatic aridification" (Tao & Wei, 237).

man digging against vast desert
A villager plants trees to fight desertification in northern China
Destruction of vegetation and land character, in turn, affects water quality through erosion and runoff, and air quality through severe dust storms, familiar in the United States through the dust bowl of the Great Depression. The current host of dust storms "have played havoc with air quality and transportation in China and neighboring countries such as Japan and the Republic of Korea. Plumes of dust from these storms have been identified even in the mainland United States" (Ferris & Zhang, 68). Environmental challenges become multifaceted and international.

Water is another element, central to human life, to agriculture, and to industry, suffering degradation in today's China. Water is a scarce resource in a country that "has just 8 percent of the world's fresh water to meet the needs of 22 percent of the world's population" (Flavin & Gardner, 7). Surface water is polluted, with an over-reliance on groundwater, and aquifers are depleting in northern China (Cann et al, 6).

While China has produced enough food for its population in recent decades, water scarcity may threaten this achievement. Recent analysis suggests that a decline in wheat production "can be attributed to the rapidly declining groundwater resources in arid northern provinces" (Flavin & Gardner, 14). The days in which China was unable to feed itself are returning. Of course, with its greatly increased economic resources, China is easily able to compensate by buying food from abroad. As with oil, however, China's needs are likely to increase prices in an already stressed world market, while land degradation and water shortages may be harming the global food supply.

Nowhere is the international character of environmental problems more evident than in global climate change. Efforts to cut back on greenhouse emissions, notably in Europe, will likely not compensate for China's growing emissions. According to one projection, "if sustainable policies for energy development are not pursued, energy-related carbon emissions could more than double between 1998 and 2020 (Zhu, 2). And global warming in turn enhances other aspects of environmental damage: desertification, air quality degradation, coastal erosion, species loss, and so on.

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