Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Just how bad is China’s environment?

China is hip deep in environmental problems. 

News reports, eyewitness accounts and official Chinese sources provide a daily record of the downside of what The New York Times calls “the world’s fastest growing major economy.” 

Seven of the 10 most air-polluted cities in the world are in China, acid rain falls on 30 percent of the nation, and respiratory and heart diseases related to air pollution are the leading causes of death. 

Almost all of China’s rivers are considered polluted, half of the nation’s largest cities face water deficits, nearly one-third of cities dump untreated sewage into waterways and available water per capita is only a fourth of the world’s average. 

News reports speak of higher-than-normal rates of tumors, cancer, spontaneous abortions and diminished IQs in groups living near polluted bodies of water. 

Pollution-driven protests or demonstrations number in the tens of thousands each year, and riots involving violent clashes with police are not uncommon. 

China has only 7 percent of the world’s arable land and two-thirds of that is considered “poorly productive,” while one-tenth has been polluted by chemicals, pesticides, plastic or dirty water. 

For the first time in history, China has begun to import food. China is the world’s second-largest importer of oil and the second-largest source of greenhouse gases. It is expected to overtake the U.S. in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. From 1995 to 2005 the number of automobiles in China rose from 10 million to 100 million, and General Motors has said it expects China to become its second-largest market for Cadillac. 

The explosion of economic growth in China has brought an estimated 300 million people to its cities over the last 25 years, with 500 million more expected to resettle in urban areas by 2050. 

Four coal-fired power plants begin operating in China every week, including some constructed illegally. 

Chinese consumers discard 2 billion plastic bags per day; and by 2020, the amount of garbage generated by China’s urban areas will equal the amount generated by the entire world in 1997. 

On the positive side, China is investing $87 billion in pollution control projects, has upgraded its state EPA to ministry-level status and has strengthened its environmental legislation. The nation is spending nearly $40 billion to improve air and water quality in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics Games and will undertake a first-ever inventory to identify how much pollution the nation is producing and what’s causing it. 

This article originally appeared in
The Source, February 2007.

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