China’s Environmental Problems, Policies and Prospects
The economic transformation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has come at a tremendous environmental cost. In the wake of increasing public concern, serious policies have been put forth to revitalise the environment and to introduce a more sustainable economy.
These ideas are being exported by PRC companies and through infrastructure projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, resonating in parts of the world, such as the South Pacific, that view climate change mitigation and adaptation as a key priority, but at the same time recreating many of the environmental problems that China itself has witnessed. As both the worlds largest carbon emitter, and a country that is investing heavily in sustainable development, China will be pivotal to any long-term global action.
There has been a long decline of China’s natural areas over the last 3000 years of economic and social development. In more recent decades, nature has retreated at an astonishing rate. High population density, limited arable land, rapid industrialisation and lax environmental regulation have left a legacy of environmental damage that will take decades to clean up. The environment has paid a terrible price for China’s impressive economic transition.
For everyday Chinese, the signs are all around. The availability and quality of fresh water is low. Air pollution suffocates urban dwellers and has created major health issues. The loss of biodiversity and forestry reserves and the pollution of rivers and fields as urban areas expand have destroyed well-needed agricultural spaces for local communities. Public debate of these issues has grown steadily. Critical documentaries like River Elegy appeared from the 1980s. More recently, Up the Yangtze chronicled the environmental impact of the Three Gorges Dam and Under the Dome provided so effective a critique of contemporary pollution issues that it was banned in less than a week.
Concerns about the environment have spurred a societal shift toward greater environmental protection, small-scale environmental protests, the growth of nature tourism, campaigns to clean up the cities and greater personal consideration of one’s environmental impact. In Shanghai, for example, it is now common refrain from security guards to hear them yell at residents as they throw out their trash “What rubbish are you?” as mass recycling programs are instituted across the city.
Policymakers have responded with “green” policies to try to deal with the growing environmental catastrophe, poor environmental living conditions and growing public sensitivity to the issue. Government hesitancy has turned to urgency and in parts of the PRC state resources have been mobilised to construct large-scale projects to restore nature and wean the economy off its reliance on coal and oil.
But like many large-scale state-directed projects in the PRC, there have been mixed results. The creation of eco-cities and environmental regulations has been patchy and the creation of sponge cities has run into many engineering and standards challenges. While China has pledged to reduce its reliance on coal, consumption of coal and other carbon producing energy resources are yet to peak leading to a massive spike in its carbon footprint since the turn of the century. Analysts forecast that coal imports will rise by ten percent this year. The PRC is already the largest national emitter of carbon into the atmosphere.
More positively, economies of scale are developing in the renewable energy sector, solar and wind power in particular. The PRC leads the world in generation of renewable energy and is investing heavily in research and design. Massive reforestation projects have turned around centuries of deforestation and are starting to have a positive impact on air quality and biodiversity. Policymakers have incentivised the purchasing of electric vehicles, moved towards putting a price on carbon, banned the import of foreign rubbish and introduced disaster adaptation plans for vulnerable urban areas.
The government has also committed to nationally determined contributions in the Paris Agreement and to measurable environmental targets in the National Plan on Climate Change (2014-2020), such as increasing the share of non fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 15% by 2020. Work on the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25) suggests there will be a commitment to peak carbon emissions and to realising a low-carbon transition.
Many policies, such as sponge cities, eco-cities and the overarching “ecological civilisation” concept, are now being exported as PRC companies “go abroad” through state directed projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In our own backyard, South Pacific countries have implored China, as well as Australia and New Zealand, to make greater efforts to combat climate change. At the 3rd China – Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in October this year, Dame Meg Taylor stated, “the highest priority for our region is climate change mitigation and adaptation”, signalling this as a central area of engagement with China.
PRC companies have worked on seawall projects, hydropower stations, energy-saving LEDs and the provision of disaster relief material to aid adaptation to climate change in the South Pacific. Chinese politicians have utilised their continued involvement in international agreements and agencies like the UNDP and UNEP as well as the large investment in renewable energy to present the PRC as part of the solution for the Pacific’s climate change concerns.
At the same time, concerns around the environmental impact of overseas PRC infrastructure projects have been raised. In response, Chinese politicians committed to “greening” the BRI at this year’s BRI Forum as well as avoiding unsustainable debt levels. This will remain a key area of concern as Chinese SOEs and companies develop more infrastructure and connectivity across the world.
As the world’s largest carbon emitter and a signatory to the Paris Agreement, engaging the PRC in its efforts to implement sustainable development (at home and abroad) and to limit carbon emissions is central to realising global ambitions to mitigate and adapt to climate change as well as to avoiding the worst environmental damage that China and the advanced economies experienced during their own development.
New Zealand and China already hold high-level dialogues on environmental issues and this year they co-led the “Nature-Based Solutions” action area at the Climate Action Summit in New York. Much more can and will need to be done, however. After all, China, by its sheer size and population alone, will be key to our success or failure to improve global environmental outcomes and address the issue of climate change.
Jason Young is Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre and Associate Professor of International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
For further reading, see also:
- Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants, Yale UP, 2004
- Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black, Cornell UP, 2004
- Sam Sachdeva, China’s ‘business of greening’ and what it means for the world, Newsroom, 2019
See also previous articles in China Series:
JOCELYN CHEY. Pearls and Irritations China Series.
DAVID WALTON. China finding its place in the world.
YINGJIE GUO. China finding its place in the world.
WANNING SUN. China finding its place in the world.
MOBO GAO. China’s enduring core values.
JAMES LAURENCESON. China in a time of change.
GEOFF RABY. China in a time of change.
HAIQING YU. China in a Time of Change