Global Connections Edition
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Labor Article

Problems and Their Origins

State Policies and Urban Industrial Growth

Before former President Deng Xiaoping set China on a course of market-style economic growth in 1978, China’s environment had already suffered from what Elizabeth Economy calls a “legacy of exploitation.” Decades of drought, flooding, misuse — especially during the Great Leap Forward in 1958, when farmland and forests were abused in an agricultural and industrial collectivization movement — have all contributed to degrading the natural environment.[1]

But few would argue that it is in the last 30 years when China finally opened up and embarked on its far-reaching economic reforms that would transition it from a communist society to a market-based economy that the greatest toll has been taken on its air, land, and water. To achieve the economic growth envisioned by its leaders, the Chinese built roads, buildings, factories, power plants, and other infrastructure on an unprecedented scale to bring about one of the greatest economic booms in modern history. However, the Chinese leadership’s emphasis on economic growth in the last three decades has given cover, if not a legitimate excuse, to everyone from local officials to factory owners to farmers to focus single-mindedly on reaping as large a profit margin as possible no matter the cost to human health and the environment. In the process, China has also ended up with one of the most degraded environments in modern times.

The Problems

I. Heavy Pollution

The biggest contributor to China’s air pollution is coal, which is abundant in China, but also the dirtiest type of energy. About 70% of China’s energy is derived from coal, which helps to generate electricity for many of the country’s factories, especially in heavy industries such as steel, iron, and petrochemicals. Consumption of coal is so large also partly because energy use in China is highly inefficient, sometimes requiring up to six times the resources used by the U.S., and even three times that used by India, to produce the same amount of goods.[2] Because of China’s reliance on coal, 16 of the world’s 20 most air-polluted cities in 2006 were in China, according to the World Bank.[3]

Coal burning also produces sulfur dioxide and combined with particulate matters (dust, soot, and aerosol) and nitrogen oxides from factories, cause acid rain and many respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

According to the World Bank, air pollution is costing China 3.8% of its GDP.[4] Although official statistics on the toll of pollution on human health are difficult to come by, the former State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), now the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), estimates that 70% of China’s more than 2 million annual deaths from cancer are pollution-related.[5]

II. Greenhouse Gases

The burning of oil to heat buildings and gasoline to power the millions of cars and trucks also emits carbon dioxide, which contributes to pollution and global warming. The rising income and higher standards of living of many Chinese consumers have turned China into the second-largest car market in the world.[6] (Beijing alone has 3.1 million motor vehicles with around 1000 new ones added everyday.[7]) In 2008, China leads the world in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, ozone[8]) emissions. Several international studies in 2007 indicate that China’s emissions are growing at a rate that is outpacing other wealthy industrial nations’ ability to lessen theirs. Together, the U.S. and China account for 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emission,[9] though each country usually demands that the other take responsibility for climate change.

III. Water Crisis

Many of China’s lakes and rivers are also polluted from sewage, industrial waste, toxic chemicals and agricultural runoff (including pesticides), killing fish and making water undrinkable. To exacerbate matters, China, which only has 7% of the world’s water resources, but 20% of its population[10], is facing a major water shortage, partly from the worst drought in a decade at the beginning of 2008, the inefficient use of water by industries, and a rapidly falling water table. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water,[11] with about a third of all river water and vast sections of China’s great lakes unfit for industrial or agricultural use, let alone for drinking. Many experts think water shortage will be the biggest environmental challenge for China in the near future as China estimates that its available water supplies will be exhausted by 2030 when its population reaches 1.6 billion.[12] The recently reported accelerated melting of glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau in western China also portends future water shortages for the half a billion people the waters serve downstream.[13]

Some major water and marine related incidents in recent years:
• In 2005, a chemical plant spill in northeastern China’s Songhua River cut off the drinking supply for millions of residents in Heilongjiang province.[14]
• In 2007, an outbreak of toxic pond scum in Lake Tai, China’ largest and most famous lake, deprived at least 2 million people of their main source of drinking and cooking water.[15]

IV. Desertification

Water shortages, and deforestation from logging have turned what was once forest and arable farmland, especially those in Northern China, into desert, stirring up dust that’s now spreading not just throughout China, but also to Japan, Korea and the United States. Despite Chinese government reforestation programs, about one-quarter of the country is now desert, according to some reports. Desertification has caused tens of millions of Chinese to move in search of new homes.[16]

1 Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004, 27.

2 Elizabeth Economy, “The Great Leap Backward?,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2007, http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070901faessay86503/elizabeth-c-economy/the-great-leap-backward.html (accessed 12/10/07).

3 “The Most Polluted Places on Earth,” CBS News, June 6, 2007, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/06/06/eveningnews/main2895653.shtml (accessed 7/17/08).

4 “World Bank says air pollution alone costs 3.8% of China’s GDP,” Xinhua, November 19, 2007, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2007-11/19/content_7106825.htm (accessed 1/28/08).

5 “Don’t Drink the Water and Don’t Breathe the Air,” The Economist, January 24, 2008, http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10566907 (accessed 1/25/08).

6 Geoff Dyer, “Chinese lose enthusiasm for smaller cars,” Financial Times, January 13, 2008, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0487c65c-c201-11dc-8fba-0000779fd2ac.html (accessed 1/14/08).

7 “Cars sold in Beijing to meet new emission standards,” Xinhua News Agency, February 15, 2008 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-02/15/content_7611371.htm (accessed 7/17/08).

8 Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, “China Now no. 1 in CO2 Emissions; USA now in second position,” Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency Dossier, http://www.mnp.nl/en/dossiers/Climatechange/moreinfo/Chinanowno1inCO2emissionsUSAinsecondposition.html (accessed 7/10/08).

9 William Chandler, “Breaking the Suicide Pact: U.S.-China Cooperation on Climate Change,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Policy Brief No. 57, March 2008, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=19991&prog=zch,zgp&proj=zusr (accessed 4/14/08).

10 Chris Buckley, “China Says Water Supplies Exploited by 2030”, Reuters. December 14, 2007. http://www.reuters.com/article/environmentNews/idUSPEK13275320071214?feedType=RSS&feedName=environmentNews&pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0&sp=true (accessed 7/1/08).

11 Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley, “As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes,” New York Times, August 26, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/world/asia/26china.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 (accessed November 10, 2007).

12 Buckley, “China Says Water Supplies Exploited by 2030.”

13 Crystal Davis, “Global Warming to Exacerbate China’s Water Crisis,” World Resources Institute update, December 21, 2007, http://earthtrends.wri.org/updates/node/271 (accessed 7/17/08).

14 “The Songhua River Spill, China, December 2005,” United Nations Environment Program Field Mission Report, http://www.unep.org/PDF/China_Songhua_River_Spill_draft_7_301205.pdf (accessed 7/17/08).

15 Joseph Kahn, “In China, a Lake’s Champion Imperils Himself,” New York Times, October 14, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/14/world/asia/14china.html?scp=1&sq=in%20china%20a%20lake%27s%20champion%20imperils%20himself&st=cse (accessed 12/2/07).

16 Economy, “The Great Leap Backward”.