China's Environmental Crisis

Carin Zissis; Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer
Council on Foreign Relations
Thursday, August 7, 2008; 3:11 PM


China's heady economic growth continued to blossom in 2007, with the country's gross domestic product (GDP) hitting 11.4 percent. This booming economy, however, has come alongside an environmental crisis. Sixteen of the world's twenty most polluted cities are in China. To many, Beijing's pledge to host a "Green Olympics" in the summer of 2008 signaled the country's willingness to address its environmental problems. Experts say the Chinese government has made serious efforts to clean up and achieved many of the bid commitments. However, an environmentally sustainable growth rate remains a serious challenge for the country.

What has China's economic boom done to the environment?

China's economy has grown tenfold since 1978, and its focus on economic development at breakneck speed has led to widespread environmental degradation. "China has gone through an industrialization in the past twenty years that many developing countries needed one hundred years to complete," said Pan Yue, vice minister of China's Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in a 2007 report in Germany's Spiegel. Yue was then the deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), which became the MEP in March 2008. But Elizabeth C. Economy, a CFR senior fellow and expert on China's environment, says the argument that China is experiencing the same growing pains as any other industrialized nation "fundamentally mischaracterizes" the issue. The "scale and scope of pollution far outpaces what occurred in the United States and Europe" during their industrial revolutions, she says. Moreover, China's environmental woes have hurt its economy. The damage to the ecosystem costs China about 9 percent of its GDP, according to the United Nations Development Program.

What are some of China's major environmental challenges?

  • Water. China suffers from the twin problems of water shortage and water pollution. About one-third of China's population lacks access to clean drinking water. Its per-capita water supply falls at around a quarter of the global average. Some 70 percent of the country's rivers and lakes are polluted, with roughly two hundred million tons of sewage and industrial waste pouring into Chinese waterways in 2004. As part of its effort to harness the nation's water supply, China has a large dam-building program with over twenty-five thousand dams nationwide -- more than any other nation. The dam projects are not only a high cost in terms of money, but also in farmland loss, ecological damage, and forced migration of millions of people, says the Woodrow Wilson Center's Jennifer L. Turner, director of its China Environment Forum, in a report for the Jamestown Foundation.
  • Land. Desertification in China leads to the loss of about 5,800 square miles of grasslands every year, an area roughly the size of Connecticut. The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental watchdog and research organization, reports that excessive farm cultivation, particularly overgrazing, is one of the leading causes of desertification. The cultivation stems from a policy followed from the 1950s to the early 1980s that encouraged farmers to settle in grasslands. As the deforestation grows, so do the number of sandstorms; a hundred were expected between 2000 and 2009, more than a fourfold increase over the previous decade. Desertification also contributes to China's air pollution problems, with increasing dust causing a third of China's air pollution.
  • Greenhouse gases. In 2008, China surpassed the United States as the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases by volume. (On a per capita basis, however, Americans emit five times as much greenhouse gas as Chinese.) The increase in China's emissions is primarily due to the country's reliance on coal, which accounts for over two-thirds of its energy consumption. It contributes to sulfur dioxide emissions causing acid rain, which falls on over 30 percent of the country.
  • Population and development. China's inhabitants number more than 1.3 billion. The country's growing economic prosperity and rapid development mean increasing urbanization, consumerism, and pollution. One example of this can be seen in car production: As Kelly Sims Gallagher notes in her book, China Shifts Gears, China produced 42,000 passenger cars in 1990. By 2004, the number hit one million, with sixteen million cars on China's roads. By 2000, motor vehicles were the leading cause of China's urban air pollution, though China adheres to stricter mileage standards than the United States.

How has the Chinese public responded to the environmental threat?

The government received six hundred thousand environment-related complaints in 2006, a figure that has risen roughly 30 percent each year since 2002. Aside from economic concerns over the cost of environmental degradation, the government recognizes that environment-related social unrest threatens central authority. In May 2006, China Daily reported that roughly fifty thousand environmental disputes took place during the prior year. This mirrors an overall trend of a rise in the number of protests over the past decade, fueled by a sense of individual rights related to increasing openness and prosperity. In June 2007, the citizens of Xiamen, a city on the southeastern coast known for its ecotourism industry, demonstrated (SFGate) against the construction of a chemical factory slated to be built nearby. In May 2008, citizens in Chengdu demonstrated against the construction of a petrochemical factory and oil refinery (Reuters), citing environmental concerns.

What has China done to improve the situation?

Chinese government agencies do target offenders and pass regulations aimed at raising environmental standards. One example: As of January 2007, new apartment and office buildings must meet energy efficiency standards and owners of existing constructions will be expected to spend an estimated $200 million to improve efficiency before 2020, by which time the number of buildings in China is expected to nearly double. Also in January 2007, the State Environmental Protection Agency banned four major power firms and four highly polluted cities from embarking on new developments until existing projects comply with environmental standards. The crackdown came after China reported it had not only failed to meet energy consumption and emission reduction goals in 2006, but that energy consumption had actually increased during the first half of the year.

CFR's Economy says the passage of such laws and accompanying pressure to comply -- are used mostly to send a message: "'We're serious and here's what's going to happen.'" But such moves often serve as public relations rather than affecting real environmental protection outcomes. "If the incentives aren't there they won't use them," says Economy.

Is China's national environmental agency an effective watchdog?

No. Various agencies share the role of managing environmental protection, depending on the pollution problem. "The lack of coordination and poor delineation of public duties between pollution and protection of natural resources results in conflicts of interest between government bodies, especially at the local level," says a July 2008 research brief from the U.S.-based Woodrow Wilson Center.However, responsibility rests primarily with the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), formerly the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) at the national level. SEPA experienced a broad expansion of power to enforce regulations in the late 1990s as environmental protection grew in importance for the central government. The agency also releases an annual report on the state of China's environment (PDF). The agency became a ministry in March 2008. "Elevation of the MEP to the cabinet level is a promising step, but this does not guarantee results," says a July 2008 article in EarthTrends, the online database of the World Resources Institute. It points out that environmental administration is still comparatively weak in the Chinese cabinet.

Economy notes in her book, The River Runs Black, that SEPA has seen its mandate weakened by "the low level of funding accorded environmental protection" as well as the funneling of power and international environmental funds to other state agencies.

Which government agencies monitor the environment at the local level?

Environmental protection bureaus (EPB) monitor environmental conditions at the local level. Their relative weakness obstructs environmental protection in China despite the bureaus' seemingly large manpower. China's roughly 2,500 EPBs employ some sixty thousand people. While the MEP maintains a supervisory role, the EPBs report to local governments for budget and resource support. Not only are the bureaus beholden to local authorities, but their monitoring teams are typically ill equipped and inadequately staffed to handle regular inspections of factories and other industrial facilities. The bureaus are also responsible for collecting pollution-related fines, which some experts say is a corrupt system in which the underfunded bureaus use the fees to pay their own wages and face obstacles when collecting fines, particularly from state-owned enterprises. In some cases, the process results in "a perverse incentive for EPBs to encourage the persistence of pollution problems," writes Economy.

Given the inefficiency of the bureaus, SEPA often relies on small, local environmental organizations to monitor environmental conditions.

What is the role of local non-governmental organizations?

With the limitations of environmental success at the local level, the central government began a registry for environmental organizations in 1994. China's roughly two thousand independent environmental NGOs now form the largest segment of the country's civil society. At the same time, the number of student environmental groups on campuses has been on the rise, reaching approximately two hundred across the country. These NGOs make crucial environmental information available to the public, "a remarkable achievement for a society whose access to information is often restricted," writes the Wilson Center's Turner. The groups also work with SEPA, serving as the agency's "eyes and ears at the local level," testified Economy at a 2005 Congressional Executive Commission on China roundtable.

However, as the "green" groups become more vocal and identified with social unrest. The NGO's and associated lawyers have faced "major obstacles or backlash from local governments and industries," says the World Watch Institute's State of the World 2006. Another limitation for many Chinese NGOs is financial dependence on international organizations.

What role does the international community play in China's environmental policy?

U.S. and European foundations have been active in supporting both local and international environmental projects in China. International organizations not only provide funding to local environmental organizations, but also draw Chinese NGOs into projects to assist with shaping environmental policymaking in China. With the effects of China's greenhouse gas emissions serving as a growing concern, in February 2007, the United Nations and China planned to launch a pilot carbon credit exchange (FT) in Beijing. Beijing has ratified the UN's Kyoto Accords aimed at curbing global greenhouse gas emissions. However, as a developing nation China does not have to comply with the agreement's standards until 2012. At the July 2008 G8 summit in Japan, member states agreed to adopt a goal of reducing emissions 50 percent by 2050. But China and India, along with six other major developing countries, refused to sign on to that goal. Several nations, including China, India, Mexico, and Brazil, had an alternate proposal for developed nations to cut emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020, in exchange for developing nations agreeing to cuts of 80 percent to 95 percent by 2050.

What is the U.S. position on China's environmental troubles?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed a 2003 agreement with SEPA through various programs targeting China's air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. China's environmental record also has become an issue for some in the U.S. labor movement who believe Washington should demand higher standards for environmental, worker protection, and human rights in exchange for the access Beijing enjoys in the U.S. market. But Economy says despite international anxiety over global warming, other nations are "far more likely to use encouragement than pressure" when it comes to China's environmental challenge. Given the United States' poor record on environmental issues such as climate change and importing illegally logged timber, Washington "is in no position to say anything to China," she says.

What impact has the 2008 Olympics had on China's environmental policy?

As part of Beijing's bid to host the summer games, China promised a "green" Olympics. Since then, Beijing has witnessed some improvements, with air quality improving each year since 2001. From 1998 to 2007, Beijing spent $15.7 billion on environmental initiatives. According to the Chinese government, the city saw only 100 days with good air quality in 1998, while there were 241 such days in 2007. To cut down pollution, Beijing temporarily moved or shut down factories (AP), decided to take more than 1.5 million cars off the road during the Games, revamped its mass transit system, and built new wastewater treatment plants, among many other things.

An October 2007 report by the United Nations Environment Programme said China achieved many of its bid commitments (PDF). Another report by the NGO Greenpeace lists key achievements to improve Beijing's environmental standards before the Games, but says they need to be broadly applied to other cities (PDF) in China beyond 2008.

© 2008