The greening of China

Posted: 12 April 2002

Author: Changhua Wu

China, one-fifth of humankind, is at a crucial juncture. The economic reforms of the late 1970s have propelled China to the forefront of the global economy. This has come at a steep environmental cost. The country is one of the most polluted in the world. As China strives to expand the economic growth of its eastern coastal belt to its untapped western parts, Changhua Wu, expert on China at the World Resources Institute, Washington, DC, analyses the state of the country's environment and what it is likely to be.

It is difficult to avoid superlatives while talking about China. Be it the 1.3-billion-strong population, the country's stunning economic growth after the reforms of the late 1970s, or the enormity of environmental pollution.

The country now faces a multitude of environmental threats including air pollution and acid rain, water shortages and pollution, desertification and soil erosion, the destruction of ecosystems and severe deforestation.

Environmental protection and sustainable development have now been identified as national priorities and part of the development strategy in China. Yet the country's development and current economic growth are not environmentally sustainable.

During the first half of the 21st century, China is likely to face the challenges of another population growth peak, inadequate natural resources to satisfy its growth, continued environmental deterioration and food safety and security needs. The plan to develop the Chinese west, if not handled carefully, could bring about disastrous repercussions for the already degrading environment.

That said, there are tremendous opportunities for China to develop along a sustainable path - technological advancement in several major sectors, improved making and enforcement of policy and regulations, increased public awareness, infotech and increased accessibility to information, and a stronger, alert civil society. The environmental challenges can be outlined in three categories:

Population Between 2020 and 2040 China will experience three population peaks: in total population, in surplus in the labour force and in the number of the aged. The one-child-per-family policy has helped control the fertility rate in the past 20 years, but even at the current rate, China is likely to have 1.6 million people by 2030. While urban people have taken to the one-child policy, rural population continue to value a large family. The growing population will only increase the pressure on already stressed natural resources.

Urban growthAlthough a majority of China's population is in rural areas, the urban population is growing rapidly - it more than doubled in the past 20 years. The urban population has risen to more than 30 per cent of the total population, and this is likely to go up to 40 per cent by 2010. Urban areas, offering the opportunity for higher paying job and better education, are increasingly burdened to provide a social infrastructure that has yet to be adequately developed to support the pace of growth.

Cost of economic growthA pattern of economic growth without adequate consideration of the potential environmental consequences is a chief contributor to China's environmental pollution. Between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, the economy grew at a remarkably high growth rate of 10 per cent per year. Some regions, like the Guangdong province in southern China, grew at twice that rate. Between 1978 and 1997, the gross domestic product grew four and a half times.

The bad news, point out some Chinese economists, is that in recent years the economic costs of ecological destruction and environmental pollution reached as high as 14 per cent of the country's gross national product (GNP). Two years ago, the World Bank had estimated that air and water pollution alone cost China about eight per cent of its GNP.

Answering the callChina has been late in addressing environmental concerns. But the Asian giant is not oblivious to them any more

China has been the seat of philosophies like Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, which have often been touted as espousing the belief that humans should coexist in harmony with nature. This creates an impression that Chinese culture, rooted in these philosophies, would lead to a predisposition towards environmentally friendly policies. This assumption may not hold water.

"The more I learn, the more I see traditional culture is so unfriendly to nature," notes Liang Congjie of the Chinese NGO Friends of Nature. The common perception seems to be that the heavens have provided the natural resources and these are here for the taking. Not much seems to have changed in the modern day and age.

Environmental problems were visible as early as the middle of the 20th century. Deforestation and mismanagement of the timber sector, water resource challenges, soil erosion, and urban and industrial pollution already challenged the new nation. But these problems weren't attended to. Mao Zedong's plans for achieving rapid industrial growth during the Great Leap Forward further undermined environmental concerns. What followed was the exploitation of natural resources without a care for the consequences.

A Chinese delegation attended the UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. The following year saw the Chinese government holding the first National Conference on Environmental Protection. In 1974, the State Council's Commission on Environmental Protection was established. Yet the government's priority remained economic growth. Even when the Environmental Protection Law was promulgated in 1979, no clear link was made between official recognition of the problems and government policies.

Some changes happened in the late 1980s - 1989 saw 12 special laws regarding protection of the environment and natural resources, 22 administrative decrees from the State Council, 26 regulations from the National Environmental Protection Administration (NEPA), about 1,000 local laws as well as 263 national standards issued by the government. This led to a more in-depth, structured legal system for environmental protection. In 1998, NEPA was elevated to a ministerial level, and the Commission on Environmental Protection was merged with it to create the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), the top environmental protection authority at present.

Is it enough?Notwithstanding the government's efforts, China is far from being 'green', particularly for a country in the throes of development. While the Chinese public is increasingly aware of environmental concerns, it continues to view environmental protection as the government's job. Many policies that appear promising on paper are never properly implemented. This has something to do with the decentralised nature of economic reforms. This has limited the central government's ability to coordinate and communicate with local governments, which are too close to the industries that they are supposed to regulate.

With the elevation of SEPA to a ministerial level, its influence has increased. Yet its staff has been reduced from about 400 to about 200 - compare that to the 6,000 employees at the headquarters of the US Environmental Protection Authority.

This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in Down to Earth, published by the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi. To read the full article, click here.