China’s environmental crisis

China, China, China… All global issues of concern as well as hopes and aspirations for “next big thing” find themselves to one extent or another expressed, influenced by or influencing this country.

Environmental awareness has been steadily gaining prominence ever since we have started exploring the outer space, and thus gaining a bird’s eye view of our planet. With this increasing awareness we came to realize that human intervention in the natural cycles of our planet in such a way as to tip the balance. Henceforth,  with the dawn of New Age and emergence of theories such as Gaia, and glaring affect of (human activity emitted) greenhouse gazes (and subsequent effect of global warming causing gradual increase in average temperatures) on the homeostasis of our planet, we are more than ever before aware of the environment we live in.

China has been at the forefront of global economic and industrial boom witnessed by the 20th century. Its economic and industrial expansion and impact it had on global economy, politics and climate cannot be overstated. Especially in matters of (negative) environmental impact, China stands above others by being considered the world’s bigger polluter recently overtaking the US. CFR has a comprehensive summary of issues, which contribute to environmental crisis not only in China but, due to its sheer size and energy-related policies, have a huge environmental impact around the world.

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 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.

What has China done to improve the situation? Read here..

It is not yet clear as to how the recent economic recession will affect this equation.