Jun 25, 2020 in Environment

Environmental Pollution in China


The environmental crisis facing China is one of the most significant problems in the country following its rapid industrialization. The unprecedented economic growth witnessed in China – of about 10% annually – has been realized at the cost of its public health and environment. The quality of air in its key cities is below the international health standards, which is significantly reducing the life expectancy of residents there. Water sources are increasingly becoming contaminated and scarce. Consequently, the degradation of the environment is threatening to reverse the economic growth gains. This paper explores the problem of environmental pollution in China including the evidence and heart of the issue, general factors that gave rise to the problem, views in relation to it, its predictability, and possible ways of its resolution.

The Evidence for the Issue

Valid evidence of environmental pollution exists in China. Statistics illuminate a worrying trend regarding the state of the environment and its impacts on the country. For instance, China is the largest emitter of GHG globally, surpassing the US in 2007 and accounting for 27% of GHG emissions globally in 2014. More than 80% of the 367 cities in the state did not satisfy the small-particle pollution standards in 2015. Moreover, 16 out of the 20 most polluted cities are found in China. The indicators of environmental pollution in China are vast. The concentration of particles in the air exceeds the safe levels. In January 2013, Beijing documented a high concentration of small particles of about 993 micrograms per cubic meter, which is much higher than the safe levels of 300-500 micrograms per cubic meter set by the World Health Organization. Evidence also exists of water pollution with at least 60% of groundwater supplies classified as either bad or extremely bad. Lastly, desertification in the country is also rising at an alarming rate.

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The Heart of the Issue

At the heart of the environmental problem in China lies coal. The deteriorating quality of air can be attributed to the increasing coal consumption. The state is the largest producer of coal in the world, and it uses about 50% of it globally. Coal is primarily burned in northern China, and contributes to about two thirds of the country’s energy mix; nevertheless, its demand is falling. In 2014, China’s National Energy Agency reported that the consumption of coal declined to 64.2% of the energy mix, which denoted a decrease by two percentage points relative to 2012. Despite the fall in coal use, many doubt the commitment of China to forego its overreliance on coal. This is because, in 2015, the capacity of coal power plants in the country increased by 55% following the approval of 155 new plants fuelled by coal. Moreover, the state has admitted to underreporting its yearly consumption of coal since 2000.

The pollution and depletion of water resources is another key environmental challenge in China. The country hosts 20% of the global population but only 7% of the fresh water sources. Contamination and excess use of water has resulted in extreme shortage, with about 70% of China’s water supplies allocated to agriculture and 20% to the coal sector. As a result, about two thirds of the 660 cities in China experience frequent lack of water.

To continue, the ineffective waste processing and removal systems have worsened the environmental problem. Together with the careless farming practices, global warming effects, and overgrazing, the water crisis in the country is converting the bulk of the arable land in China into a desert. Desertification, shortage of water, and pollution are posing a significant threat to China’s ability to maintain its economic and industrial output and at the same time ensure adequate supply of water for its enormous population.

General Factors that Have Given Rise to the Issue

Whereas the economic boom in China has played a significant role in exacerbating the degradation of its natural resources, the roots of the environmental crisis in the country can be traced to centuries before. Leaders of dynasties who embarked on consolidating territories and developing the economy placed a lot of emphasis on the exploitation of natural resources in a manner that resulted in natural disasters and famines. As Eleanor & Beina have explained, the present environmental crisis in China is not only attributed to the policy decisions but also to institutions, approaches, and attitudes that have grown in the past centuries. Environmental institutions in the country were established only after the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. China sent its representatives to the conference held in Stockholm; however, its environment was already in bad condition by then.

Another factor that contributed to the present environmental crisis in China is the economic reforms adopted by Deng Xiaoping during the late 1970s. They were aimed at diffusing authority to the provincial administrations, resulting in an increase in the number of township and village enterprises (TVEs). As of 1997, TVEs accounted for about 33 percent of China’s national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, monitoring local governments was a challenge; as a result, they rarely adhered to the environmental standards. Presently, China is a transitional economy supported primarily by large state-owned corporations. This still poses a challenge of enforcing environmental policies since the primary concern of officials is on achieving the economic targets with little concern for the surroundings.

The increased industrialization in China has increased the coal consumption levels, which is further contributing to the environmental issues in the country. Li & Zhang point out that the state relies significantly on coal for the production of electricity, with coal accounting for about 65 per cent of its energy mix. This is because it is readily available and cheap; nevertheless, it is one of dirtiest power production methods. China requires vast amounts of electricity for the 1.3 billion people and the industry, which makes the county the largest consumer of coal globally.

Other factors that have contributed to the present ecological crisis in China include lack of knowledge, absence of civil responsibility, and overpopulation. With respect to lack of knowledge, Carter and Mol claim that environmental awareness among the Chinese is low. They further state that the citizens are accustomed to unclear skies; hence, they are likely to view air pollution as a normal occurrence. Moreover, the government tends to censor inflammatory reporting, which reduces the level of environmental consciousness among the Chinese even more. Regarding lack of civic responsibility, the Chinese are less concerned about the public good, which can be attributed to the decades of communist system that has resulted in people having a pragmatic mindset characterized by exploiting opportunities. As a result, the inhabitants of the country feel that they are not liable for any environmental effect of their actions. Overpopulation also contributes to the environmental problem by increasing the energy, transportation, housing, and food demands – all of which have devastating impact on the surroundings. In 2014, there were 17 million novel cars on China’s roads, which further aggravated the already high levels of GHG emissions. Car ownership in China has risen to 154 million compared to 27 million documented in 2004.

Lastly, the growing pace of urbanization in China has also been mentioned as another factor worsening the environmental problem. The government has the goal of seeing at least 60% of the Chinese people living in cities as of 2020, which is an increase from the 36% in 2000. In 2015, about 53.7% of the Chinese lived in urban areas. According to Carter & Mol, the rapid pace of urbanization increases the demand for energy needed to fuel newly established industrial and manufacturing centres.

Opinions in Relation to the Issue

Environmental pollution has resulted in citizen outrage characterized by an increasing social unrest targeting the Communist Party since the Chinese have become aware of the health risks. Kay, Zhao and Sui have revealed that environmental problems in China are the key reason for the mass incidents witnessed in the country. They usually originate from unofficial gatherings of at least 100 people that change from peaceful demonstrations towards rioting. The frequency of environmental protests in urban and rural areas in the state is rising. In 2013, there were 712 instances of occurrence, which means a 31% increase relative to 2012.

Researches also indicate that the Chinese learn about the threats posed by the environmental pollution. A 2015 survey conducted by the PEW Research Center revealed that 35% of the participants considered air pollution a very big problem; 41% viewed it as moderately big; 18% indicated it was a small one whereas only 4% stated that it was not an issue. Regarding air pollution, the same examination showed that 34% of the respondents believed water pollution was a very big problem; 41% considered it a moderately big issue; 18% felt it was a small problem, and only 4% were of the opinion that it was not an issue. Consequently, the author of the research has concluded that environmental awareness among the Chinese is growing.

Furthermore, environmental pollution in China is rapidly evolving into a social problem that poses a significant political challenge for the government. The latter reacted to the outcry from the public by declaring war on pollution in 2014. At the same time, it has embarked on strengthening its environment protection law, which is an indication that the understanding of the association between societal wellbeing and economic development is changing in China. Moreover, the Internet has been instrumental in providing citizens with an opportunity to spread the environmental information, which is increasing the political pressure on the ruling party.

Finally, apart from attracting domestic attention, the environmental problem in China has also drawn the international one. Reports indicate that the GHG emissions from the export industries in China are causing air pollution in far regions such as the US. The neighbouring countries including South Korea and Japan have raised concerns regarding the smog and acid rain posing health risks to their citizens. As a result, in 2014, environment ministers from the three countries in the northeast Asian region met and agreed to work collaboratively to prevent air pollution and safeguard the maritime environment and water quality.

Predictability of the Issue

The progression of the environmental crisis in China has been largely predictable after it was acknowledged as a problem in 1972. Li and Zhang point out that no nation in history has developed into an industrial power devoid of leaving behind a legacy of environmental destruction that might take decades to undo. This was the case with the industrial revolution, and China was expected to follow the same path. Essentially, the unprecedented economic growth in the country was expected to come at the cost of environmental damage. The case for the state under consideration was worsened by the lack of government commitment to address the problem; it only resorted to measures to reverse the issue after it had reached dire levels. Kahn and Yardley assert that China is choking on its economic success. The economy of the country is growing rapidly; however, this development is characterized by an expansion of urbanization and industrialization that increase the demands for energy. As for China, the power demands could be met easily by the use of coal, which is readily available albeit the dirtiest. Therefore, the environmental problem unfolded in a predictable manner. Experts once predicted that China may surpass the US as the leading GHG emitter as of 2010. However, the country overtook the USA in as early as 2007.

Resolution of the Issue

The Chinese government has developed an ambitious plan to address the environmental problem although it has been criticized by experts because of having flaws. In 2013, National Development and Reform Commission in China, the leading agency for economic planning, published the first plan for tackling the climate change. This scheme outlined a comprehensive of list of objectives to be achieved by 2020. From January 2014, the central government demanded the 15000 factories and state-owned corporations to report on water discharges and GHG emissions. Additionally, the state authorities promised to spend $275 billion in the following five years aimed at cleaning the air and another $ 333 billion for dealing with the water pollution. In 2014, the Chinese government reiterated its commitment to achieve its emission targets by 2030 and ensure that renewable energy accounted for 20% of its energy mix as of 2030. Moreover, recently, the government has announced intentions to adopt a national cap-and-trade program in 2017.

What is more, China has made considerable investments in renewable energy, investing about $90 billion in 2014 in order to reduce its carbon emissions. Some experts have projected that the country is likely to surpass the US as the top producer of wind power by the end of 2016. At the same time, Chinese companies are investing and partnering with global companies in order to adopt renewable energy technologies.


The environmental problem in China is presently attributed to the high consumption of coal. However, the issue can be traced back centuries before. China leads the consumption of coal globally. It is also the biggest emitter of GHGs in the world, surpassing the US. Numerous factors have contributed to the present environmental crisis, which include centuries of blatant disregard for the environment; economic reforms adopted during the late 1970s; increased industrialization; lack of knowledge; absence of civil responsibility; overpopulation, and the rapid pace of urbanization. The environmental crisis in China has been met by social unrest from citizens, which has compelled the government to adopt measures to fight the problem. The strategies adopted by the authorities in an attempt to deal with the environmental pollution include adopting punitive environmental protection laws and fiscal investments in renewable energies.

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