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China’s Environmental Crisis : Special report

Posted by Author on August 7, 2008

by the Council on Foreign Relations, USA, Aug. 4, 2008-

Introduction

China’s heady economic growth continued to blossom in 2007, with the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) hitting 11.4 percent. This booming economy, however, has come alongside an environmental crisis. Sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China. To many, Beijing’s pledge to host a “Green Olympics” in the summer of 2008 signaled the country’s willingness to address its environmental problems. Experts say the Chinese government has made serious efforts to clean up and achieved many of the bid commitments. However, an environmentally sustainable growth rate remains a serious challenge for the country.

What has China’s economic boom done to the environment?

China’s economy has grown tenfold since 1978, and its focus on economic development at breakneck speed has led to widespread environmental degradation. “China has gone through an industrialization in the past twenty years that many developing countries needed one hundred years to complete,” said Pan Yue, vice minister of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) in a 2007 report in Germany’s Spiegel. Yue was then the deputy director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), which became the MEP in March 2008. But Elizabeth C. Economy, a CFR senior fellow and expert on China’s environment, says the argument that China is experiencing the same growing pains as any other industrialized nation “fundamentally mischaracterizes” the issue. The “scale and scope of pollution far outpaces what occurred in the United States and Europe” during their industrial revolutions, she says. Moreover, China’s environmental woes have hurt its economy. The damage to the ecosystem costs China about 9 percent of its GDP, according to the United Nations Development Program.

What are some of China’s major environmental challenges?
  • Water. China suffers from the twin problems of water shortage and water pollution. About one-third of China’s population lacks access to clean drinking water. Its per-capita water supply falls at around a quarter of the global average. Some 70 percent of the country’s rivers and lakes are polluted, with roughly two hundred million tons of sewage and industrial waste pouring into Chinese waterways in 2004. As part of its effort to harness the nation’s water supply, China has a large dam-building program with over twenty-five thousand dams nationwide–more than any other nation. The dam projects are not only a high cost in terms of money, but also in farmland loss, ecological damage, and forced migration of millions of people, says the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Jennifer L. Turner, director of its China Environment Forum, in a report for the Jamestown Foundation.
  • Land. Desertification in China leads to the loss of about 5,800 square miles of grasslands every year, an area roughly the size of Connecticut. The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental watchdog and research organization, reports that excessive farm cultivation, particularly overgrazing, is one of the leading causes of desertification. The cultivation stems from a policy followed from the 1950s to the early 1980s that encouraged farmers to settle in grasslands. As the deforestation grows, so do the number of sandstorms; a hundred were expected between 2000 and 2009, more than a fourfold increase over the previous decade. Desertification also contributes to China’s air pollution problems, with increasing dust causing a third of China’s air pollution.
  • Greenhouse gases. In 2008, China surpassed the United States as the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases by volume. (On a per capita basis, however, Americans emit five times as much greenhouse gas as Chinese.) The increase in China’s emissions is primarily due to the country’s reliance on coal, which accounts for over two-thirds of its energy consumption. It contributes to sulfur dioxide emissions causing acid rain, which falls on over 30 percent of the country.
  • Population and development. China’s inhabitants number more than 1.3 billion. The country’s growing economic prosperity and rapid development mean increasing urbanization, consumerism, and pollution. One example of this can be seen in car production: As Kelly Sims Gallagher notes in her book, China Shifts Gears, China produced 42,000 passenger cars in 1990. By 2004, the number hit one million, with sixteen million cars on China’s roads. By 2000, motor vehicles were the leading cause of China’s urban air pollution, though China adheres to stricter mileage standards than the United States.

How has the Chinese public responded to the environmental threat?

The government received six hundred thousand environment-related complaints in 2006, a figure that has risen roughly 30 percent each year since 2002. Aside from economic concerns over the cost of environmental degradation, the government recognizes that environment-related social unrest threatens central authority.

In May 2006, China Daily reported that roughly fifty thousand environmental disputes took place during the prior year. This mirrors an overall trend of a rise in the number of protests over the past decade, fueled by a sense of individual rights related to increasing openness and prosperity.

In June 2007, the citizens of Xiamen, a city on the southeastern coast known for its ecotourism industry, demonstrated (SFGate) against the construction of a chemical factory slated to be built nearby.

In May 2008, citizens in Chengdu demonstrated against the construction of a petrochemical factory and oil refinery (Reuters), citing environmental concerns……. (more details from the Council on Foreign Relations)

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