China's environmental battle

Vancouver, Canada (GLOBE-Net) – China’s rapid economic expansion is causing severe environmental problems. Political leaders at all levels are aware of the enormity of the challenge, and while the will exists to provide cleaner air, water and more sustainable cities, many believe the country is losing ground.

An economic juggernaut, the Chinese economy has been growing at a rate of about 10 percent per year and this rapid expansion has placed enormous pressure on the country’s ecological resources. “The conflict between environment and development is becoming ever more prominent,” says a recent document from the State Council, reports China’s national news agency. “Relative shortage of resources, fragile ecology and insufficient environmental capacity are becoming critical problems hindering China’s development.”

Zhu Guangyao, deputy chief of the State Environmental Protection Agency, estimates that damage to China’s environment is costing the country more than US $2 billion per year, representing roughly 10 percent of its gross domestic product. These costs stem from damages to water and air quality, soil contamination, and other biological resources, as well as from mounting costs associated with health problems from pollution.

Public unrest is widespread, and several instances of community uprisings against environmental contamination by factories and mine owners have been reported. As well, several high profile environmental disasters have drawn attention to worsening environmental conditions, particularly in smaller rural centres that have suddenly become host communities to factories that have been relocated from more populous urban centres that are cleaning up their environment.

Many of the environmental protection goals of the country’s 10th Five Year Plan have not been met. For example, the plan stipulated that discharges of sulphur dioxide should be cut by 10 per cent by 2005. But compared with emissions in 2000, levels of the pollutant had increased by 27 per cent during that time.

A number of other goals such as reducing the discharge of carbon dioxide and industrial solid waste, and increasing the capabilities of wastewater treatments, also have not been fully realized.

According to the State Environmental Protection Administration, forty-five percent of the country’s chemical and petro-chemical plants pose “major environmental risks”, noting the “trend of surging environmental incidents in the country”. In an internationally publicized event, an explosion at a petrochemical plant last year left residents of the city of Harbin without water for nearly five days as a toxic slick 80km long flowed through the Songhua River.

In response, China’s government has shown an increased willingness to enact and to enforce environmental regulations and has set ambitious targets in areas such as renewable energy and provision of clean water. In public declarations at least, the government has made the environment a matter of national importance, making increased energy efficiency and more sustainable economic development major components of the country’s 11th Five-Year Plan, which runs from 2006-2010.

The government plans to invest US $175 billion in environmental protection for the plan, with top priority given to water pollution control, focusing on providing clean drinking water to rural and urban inhabitants. This represents an increase of the $100 billion that was pledged during the previous five-year plan.

Energy efficiency is also being targeted, and the government hopes to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 percent by 2010. A goal has been set to cut water consumption per unit of industrial value added by 30 percent.

Urban environmental protection and clean up also will be given high priority under the plan. Air pollution in China’s major cities has become a major economic and health issue. Beijing, site of the 2008 Olympic Games, has been named the world’s most polluted city by the World Bank. The Bank also reports that China is home to 16 of the world’s 20 most air-polluted cities. Sulphur dioxide and particulate matter emissions have been targeted as particularly troublesome.

Further tasks identified by the state’s environmental chief include rural environmental protection, particularly soil pollution control; enhancement of nuclear and radioactive source management; and strengthening of state environmental conservation areas.

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