Increased environmental degradation in China

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China is currently suffering from a number of poor environmental conditions including air pollution, acid rain, loss of agricultural land, forest deficiency, poor water quality, water scarcity, ocean coastline pollution, and loss in biodiversity. Three out of four city dwellers live below China’s air-quality standard. Acid rain fell on a quarter of its cities for more than 60% of rainy days per year in the 1990s and now affects a quarter of China’s area, making it among the world’s most severely affected countries. Water quality in most Chinese rivers and groundwater sources is poor and declining. About 75% of lakes are polluted. The percentage of industrial waste water treated has been increasing, but only 20% of domestic waste water is treated, compared with 80% in the developed world. Almost all coastal seas are polluted, mainly by pollutants from the land, plus oil spills and other marine activities. These environmental problems have been caused by explosive economic growth, an increase the number of households, increased urbanization, increased affluence and consumption, failure to execute environmental policy, lack of public awareness and prioritization of economic growth over sustainability.[1]

Potentially more important then the aforementioned environmental impacts is a further consequence of what China's continued economic growth and subsequent increase in consumption means for the rest of the world. China currently has the world's largest population. Total production or consumption is the product of population size times per capita production or consumption rate. China’s total production and consumption are already high, because of its huge population, despite its per capita rates still being very low. But China is rapidly becoming a developed-world economy. If China’s per capita consumption rates do reach such levels, and even if populations, production and consumption rates everywhere else remained unchanged, those rate increases alone would translate into a 94% increase in total world production or consumption in industrial metals, and a 106% increase in the case of oil. In other words, China’s achievement of developed-world consumption standards will approximately double the world’s human resource use and environmental impact. This is why China’s environmental problems are the world’s.[1]


  • Among the 45 kinds of principal mineral reserves that China possesses only six will be sufficient to meet the country's needs in 2020. [8]
  • Approximately 300 million people lack access to clean drinking water and 400 million people live in areas with dangerously high levels of air pollution. [8]
  • One-third of China's land has been polluted by acid rain. [8]


  • Increased economic growth: China’s real GDP is estimated to have grown at about 9 percent in 2008, while the country has registered average growth of 10 percent between 2000 and 2008. [2] This growth has fueled prodigious consumption of energy, including its own abundant supplies of coal, and, increasingly imported oil and natural gas. China is a large consumer of fertilizer and pesticides. The consumption of these industrial and agricultural products leads to air, water and land pollution and other forms of environmental damage. With increasing affluence, China’s per capita consumption of meat, milk and eggs increased four-, four- and eightfold, respectively, between 1978 and 2002. This means more agricultural wastes, animal droppings, fish droppings, fish food and fertilizer for aquaculture, tending to increase terrestrial and aquatic pollution. Additionally, China’s transportation network and number of vehicles have grown explosively. [1] In short, China's explosive growth has been a leading driving factor in its environmental degradation.
  • Increase in the number of households: The number of households in China has grown almost three times as fast as its population during 1985-2000. The average household has decreased from 4.5 to 3.5 people and because smaller households consume more resources per person, China’s rapid increase in household number and reduction in household size have had significant environmental consequences.[1]
  • Increased urbanization: China is becoming more urban. The urbanization rate of the country is projected to increase from 39% in 2002 to 60% by 2020. [8] Increase urbanization indicates increased new construction and development of new homes which in turn means increased consumption of building materials.
  • Failure to execute environmental policy: China has developed numerous environmental laws and policies, but most of them are just on paper. Moreover, many environmental laws and regulations were written largely piecemeal, lack effective implementation and evaluation of long-term consequences, and need a systems approach. In addition, environmental protection agencies lack sufficient authority, financial resources and manpower.[3]
  • Use of out-dated, polluting technologies: Many technologies in China are outdated, inefficient and highly polluting. [3]
  • Lack of public awareness and environmental education: Public environmental awareness is low, in part because China’s investment in education is less than half that of developed countries as a proportion of gross national production.[1] Low public awareness and environmental education mean that people are not aware of the extent of polluting activities and how increased consumption is harming the environment.
  • Prioritization of economic growth over sustainability: In China, when there are conflicts between environmental protection and economic development, the former often loses to the latter. Economic performance often overshadows environmental protection as a criterion for selection and promotion of government officials.[1] Most people think that environmental protection harms economic growth and do not recognize that environmental problems have already caused huge economic losses, severe social conflicts, enormous health costs and increased "natural" disasters (such as dust storms, floods, droughts). [3]


  • Alternative energy sources: China is increasingly looking to add add emission-free energy sources such as nuclear power and hydropower.[4]
  • Increased participation in environmental treaties: The Kyoto Protocol contains a provision that allows companies in developed countries to meet their emissions limits by investing in new, clean factories in developing countries. As a result in Kyoto's implementation, China is making huge investments in environmental projects and increasing the sustainability of its industries.[4]
  • Government environmental initiatives: Recognizing the environmental challenges the country faces, the Chinese government is hoping to build an environmentally-friendly society, and has set very ambitious environmental goals. By 2020, China plans to significantly improve environmental quality and ecological conditions.[3]
  • Increased public awareness: Public awareness for the environment has improved in China and the country has been pushing hard for cleaner production and sustainable development.
  • Adoption of green accounting: China is also designing and adopting a green accounting system that includes environmental costs in the calculation of gross domestic product (or Green GDP). [3]
  • Slowed economic growth: The global recession has caused the Chinese economy to slow down as the world's demand for its exports decrease. This slowed economic growth could slow down environmental degradation caused by export production activities.


  • China's poor environmental situation will continue to cause great socioeconomic loss, increase the nation's health costs, cause more frequent and damaging natural disasters, and increase social inequities. Moreover, the country's explosive economic growth has drained much of the country's natural resources. Going forward the country must take the condition of its environment into consideration otherwise rising health concerns and an onslaught of environmental refugees may create great social unrest and major disruptions to the country's progress as a world economic power.
  • Having the world's largest population and fastest-growing economy means that China's actions heavily affect the rest of the world. China’s achievement of developed-world consumption standards will approximately double the world’s human resource use and environmental impact. Therefore China's continued economic growth and consumption activities will become a primary concern for the rest of the world. It is possible that international organizations may try to impose sanctions on China's development activities as these activities start to really impact the environment of neighboring countries.



  • 1998 - China signs the Kyoto Protocol.[7]
  • 2005 - Kyoto Protocol went into effect.
  • 2007 - China unveiled a 62-page climate change plan and promised to put climate change at the center of its energy policy and insisted that developed countries had an “unshirkable responsibility” to take the lead on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and that the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility", as agreed up in the UNFCCC, should be applied. [6]
  • 2008 - China surpassed the United States as the biggest emitter in the world of CO2 from power generation.[5]
  • 2012 - The first phase of Kyoto's implementation which runs through 2012.
  • 2020-2025 - Some scholars in environmental studies believe that China may need to deal with 20 to 30 million environmental refugees every year by the year 2020 or 2025. [8]

Web Resources:

  1. Liu, J. & Diamond, J.. (2005). China's Place in the World: Environmental Impact of a Giant.
  2. “China Country Analysis Briefs 2004,”
  3. PBS. (2006). China's Environmental Future.
  4. “Domestic Oil and Gas Production: Pursuing a Principled Approach,”
  5. Center for Global Development. 2008. China Passes U.S., Leads World in Power Sector Carbon Emissions - CGD
  6. BBC. 2007. China unveils climate change plan.
  7. [ China's Approves Kyoto Protocol
  8. Xinhua News Agency. 2001. China's Urbanization Rate to Grow to 60 percent in 20 Years

Revision History:

  1. "Chinese Pollution Problems by Rapid Growth" created by Skparkb on 17-11-2005
  2. Renamed "Increased environmental degradation" and updated by Johanna Little 18-09-2009