In recent years, the environmental situation in China has become a global issue. For decades, China has been focused on the industrial development of the country without any regard to the environment. Such negligence has led some areas of the country to the brink of natural disaster. Other countries neighboring China, especially the ones to the north-east of the country, which is the most polluted area of China, also suffer from the consequences of air, water and soil pollution. Therefore, the ecology of the country is an issue for the entire region and even for the whole world. Ecology of China affects the rest of the world as it uses the same oceans, the same atmosphere, and as a result of globalization, mutual influence of China and other countries is becoming more tangible.
China is the most populated country in the world, with a population of about 1.3 billion people. The economic growth of the country is also the fastest one in the world. On average, the GDP of the country grew by 10% annually in over a decade (Albert and Xu, 2016). Sadly, the price of such economic boom of the country became the environment and public health. Currently, the environmental situation in China is one of the most serious ones in the world and it is continuously deteriorating. Moreover, environmental issues in China are the main reason of health issues among the local population. For instance, respiratory diseases such as lung cancer and asthma and even heart disease can be caused by air pollution and smog. According to studies, air pollution in China causes premature death of 300 thousand to 1 million people annually (Philips, 2016).
For decades, while China was intensively developing the economy of the country, negligence towards the environmental pollution and the lack of environmental regulations have led to the current poor ecological situations in the country. Moreover, up until the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, China did not have any environmental institutions. However, even with the newly established institutions and newly adopted environmental legislations, the country started showing awareness towards the environmental situation of the country only recently.
One of the main environmental concerns of China is the poor air quality. The main reason behind the air pollution of the country is the coal-fired power plants used for electricity generation. China is the largest coal producer and consumer in the world. China became world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter in 2007, overcoming the U.S. In 2016, China was responsible for 28.21% of global carbon dioxide emissions, once again, becoming the largest emitter in the world (Statista, 2016).
Only one fifth of the cities in China meet air quality standards set by the Chinese government. In order to tackle the issue of air quality, emergency response program for air pollution in China was adopted in 2013. Four-tier, color-graded alert system is used for air pollution in China, red alert being the highest one. Red alert is issued when the air quality index is above 200 for over four days in a row, above 300 for over two days in a row or over 500 for 24 hours. It is worth mentioning that air quality index above 200 is considered unhealthy, above 300 – hazardous (Perlez, 2016). Red alert causes schools to close and the local population to remain indoors until the smog is cleared. The first red alert was issued in Beijing in December 2015. Another red alert due to the heavy smog was issued at the end of 2016.
In addition, the amount of vehicles on the roads have increased. For instance, 154 million cars, 17 million of which were new, were owned in the country in 2014 (Albert and Xu, 2016). In this light, the government is planning to develop rail system within the city limits. Investments in the amount of $120 billion were already made (Seligsohn and Hsu, 2016).
China has taken some steps to overcome the issue of air quality in the country. For instance, carbon dioxide emissions related to electricity generation via coal-fired power plants and the cement industry dropped by 0.5% in 2015 (Wong, 2017). Since 2013, coal-fired power generation has declined in China; however, this fact is mainly due to the slowdown of the Chinese economy. Further, China is planning to limit its coal-fired power generation capacity to 1100 GW by 2020. As of January 2017, China cancelled construction of 103 new coal-fired power plants which were to produce up to 120 GW of electricity (Forsythe, 2017). China’s 13th five-year plan adopted in 2016 calls for action on environmental issues, the main one being quality of the air. According to the plan, total energy consumption of the country, including energy generated from renewable energy sources, is to be limited to 5 billion tons of coal equivalent. Moreover, China is planning to reduce energy intensity by 15% and carbon intensity by 18%. The new five-year plan requires 80% of cities to score below 100 on China’s Air Quality Index of 0-500 (Seligsohn and Hsu, 2016).
While the world community is concerned with reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and air quality, the issue of water quality in China is another major environmental concern. China contains only 7% of global fresh water sources, and being the most populated country in the world, it has long suffered from the lack of clean water supplies as most of this water is being used to meet the needs of the agricultural and industrial sectors. According to the Nature Conservancy April 2016 report, tens of millions of people suffer from the lack of clean water, as 75% of water in China’s 30 biggest cities are highly polluted (Leng, 2017). In the most industrialized northern region of the country the water resources constitute only 200 cubic meters per year per person, only 20% of which is safe to drink (U.N., 2014). Moreover, it was reported that two thirds of groundwater and one third of surface water is unsuitable for human contact. In addition, land development along with illegal liquid waste dumping have caused pesticide and chemical contamination of waters. Illegal waste dumping and runoff of untreated water causes a long-term environmental damage to the local waterways that take years to recover. In this light, in August 2016, the Chinese Government announced its plans to spend a total of 430 billion yuan ($499 billion) on projects aimed at improving water quality caused by unregulated liquid waste and untreated wastewater runoffs (S.C.M.P., 2016). In addition, according to the 13th five-year plan new limit of water consumption was set at 670 million cubic meters of water. It is worth mentioning that the previous limit of 600 billion cubic meters was not met (Seligsohn and Hsu, 2016).
Nowadays, the environmental situation in China is one of the most pressing challenges confronting the global society. Even though China has taken steps to tackle the poor ecological condition of the country caused by rapid industrialization, years of abuse of the environment will require to make some major changes in order to overcome the current disastrous situation.
Albert, E., & Xu, B. (2016). China’s Environmental Crisis. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from
Forsythe, M. (2017). China cancels 103 coal plants, mindful of smog and wasted capacity. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Leng, S. (2017). Dumping of untreated acid in Chinese canal highlights nation’s water pollution woes. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from
Philips, T. (2016). Beijing smog: pollution red alert declared in China capital and 21 other cities. The Guardian. Retrieved from
Perlez, J. (2016). Beijing, bracing for 5 days of heavy pollution, issues red alert. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Seligsohn, D., & Hsu, A. (2016). How China’s 13th five-year plan addresses energy and the environment. ChinaFile. Retrieved from
Statista (2016). The largest producers of CO2 emissions worldwide in 2016, based on their share of global CO2 emissions. Statista. Retrieved from
S.C.M.P. (2016). China to spend 430 billion yuan on cleaning up its water supply. South China Morning post. Retrieved from
U.N. (2014). Water and energy sustainability. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/pdf/01_2014_sustainability_eng.pdf.
Wong, E. (2017). China wants to be a climate change watchdog, but can it lead by example? The New York Times. Retrieved from
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Saule Akhmetkaliyeva was a research fellow in the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. She holds a BS in petroleum engineering from the Kazakh National Technical University named after K.I. Satbayev and a MS in Environmental Science from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi with a GPA of 4.0. Saule has conducted research on new methods of matrix acidizing of carbonate formations in Karachaganak field, Kazakhstan for her bachelor’s degree, and a research on advanced sedimentary analysis of sediments from Marmara Gölü, Turkey for her master’s thesis.