It is well-known that China has achieved great success in economic growth during the past two decades. However, rapid economic growth and industrialization, coupled with population growth and lax environmental oversight, have dramatically depleted the country’s natural resources and caused many environmental crises. These environmental issues have contributed to and will contribute to significant public health problems, economic loss, and social unrest.
According to Jared Diamond, an American geographic scientist, the six main categories of environmental problems in China include air pollution, water problems, soil problems, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, and mega projects. However, this list may not be complete and does not outline the whole and true profile of environmental crises in China. In a recent article published on Vision Time, ten categories of ecological and environmental crises in China are listed. The following is a further description of the ten categories of environmental crises:
- Air Pollution
Air pollution is a major public health concern in China. In recent years, air pollution has been prevalent in the whole area of China between October and June. It is particularly serious in cold seasons and in northern and eastern China, when and where toxic heavy smog often hits many regions and cities. Daily PM2.5 levels are often more than 20-50 times higher than that recommended by WHO for healthy air quality. The World Bank reported in 2013 that sixteen of the world’s most-polluted cities are located in China. Air pollution poses a great threat to Chinese public health. In 2016, air pollution contributed to around 1.58 million premature deaths in China.
- Water pollution
In China, both surface water and underground water have been contaminated by the dumping of toxic human and industrial waste. Water pollution may be the country’s worst environmental issue. According to the World Bank, half of China’s population cannot access water that is safe for human consumption. An article by the Chinese Embassy in the UK stated that almost 90% of underground water in urban areas and 70% of China’s rivers and lakes are contaminated. Fishes have become extinct in more than 5% of the total river length throughout the country. Over 20 waterways are no longer suitable for agricultural irrigation due to water pollution. It is expected that China will continue to face worsening water shortages, especially in northern areas.
- Soil contamination
The immense growth of China since the 1980s has resulted in increased soil contamination and land degradation. A large range of cultivated land has been polluted by contaminated water and solid waste. A nationwide investigation indicated that as much as 16% of China’s soil contains higher-than-permitted levels of pollution, which is a threat to the environment, food safety, and sustainable agriculture. It is reported that an estimated 6 million tonnes of grain is contaminated by heavy metals in China every year. Heavy metals (including mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, nickel, chromium, and zinc) in the contaminated grain have adverse health effects on human metabolism.
- Industrial waste
Industrial waste has emerged as one of China’s biggest environmental priorities. For example, electronic waste has become a serious environmental issue in China. In addition to domestic waste production, large amounts of electronic waste are imported from overseas. China is now the largest importer of electronic waste and is home to most of the world’s largest dumpsites. Roughly 70% of global electronic waste ends up in China. Seriously contaminated by industrial discharges, many of China’s waterways are no longer fit for direct human use. According to the Chinese Ministry of Health, industrial pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death.
As a result of a combination of poor farming practices, climate drought, and increased demand for groundwater, desertification has become one of China’s most important environmental challenges. In China, approximately 28% of China’s surface area is desert. Nearly 1.74 million square kilometers of land is classified as “dry”. Each year, desertification disrupts the lives of 400 million Chinese people. Although desertification has been curbed in some areas, it is still expanding at a rate of around 1000 km² every year. Over 90% of desertification occurs in the west of the country. As the effects of increasing desertification appear in China, farmers may be forced to abandon their land, levels of rural poverty may rise and the intensity of sandstorms may continue to intensify.
- Geomorphic hazards
Geomorphic hazards are those originating at or near Earth’s surface. They include expansive soils, soil erosion, slope failures, ground subsidence, river channel changes, and coastal erosion. Although geomorphic hazards can be natural, they may be caused/exacerbated by human activities and affected by climate change. In China, economic activities have resulted in serious soil erosion and significant changes in geomorphology. Several lakes disappear and wetlands are reduced, whereas artificial lakes and artificial rivers are constantly appearing. It is reported that half of the 100,000 reservoir dams in China are unsafe, while geological disasters are increasingly serious. A notable example may be the Three Gorges Dam, which has displaced numerous houses and caused some environmental problems within the local environment.
- Energy and resource efficiency
China’s economic growth has made it the world’s largest consumer of primary materials. A report found that China’s per capita consumption of materials grew from one-third in the 1970s to over one and a half times the world’s average levels in the 2000s. Rapid industrialization has also resulted in the rapid development of energy-inefficient industries. Compared to the international averages, Chinese steel factories used one-fifth more energy per unit, cement needed 45% more power, and ethylene consumption was 70% more. Although economic growth has lifted millions of people out of poverty, it has come with rising environmental challenges linked to the inefficient extraction, processing, and use of natural resources. A sustainable economic model is truly needed in China.
China’s forest cover is around 20% of the land area in the 1980s, but only 14% at present. Each year, illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture consume up to 5,000 square kilometers of virgin forest. In northern and central China, forest cover has been reduced by half in the last two decades. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 36% of China’s closed forests are facing pressure from high population densities, making preservation efforts difficult. It is also reported that deforestation has caused devastating floods, landslides, and mudslides that have washed away houses and roads, killed thousands of people, and caused the loss of billions of dollars. Deforestation has also resulted in a significant loss of biodiversity in China.
- Coastal pollution
With rapid development in coastal areas for agriculture, aquaculture, and industrial development, coastal pollution has been widespread in China, leading to substantial declines in habitat quality and massive algal blooms. According to the Chinese State Oceanic Administration (SOA), roughly 81% of its entire coastline (some 41,000 sq km) was heavily polluted in 2016 with such pollutants as inorganic nitrogen, reactive phosphate, and oil. China’s marine environment is considered among the most degraded marine areas on earth.
- Climate change exceeding the global average
In China, fossil CO2 emissions have increased from 3.35 billion tonnes in 2000 to 9.84 billion tonnes in 2017. Since 2006, China has been the world’s largest emitter of fossil CO2 annually although not the cumulative largest. The fossil CO2 emissions of China were 10.3 billion tonnes in 2017, covering 27% of global emissions. Between 1951 and 2017, China recorded an increase of ground average temperature of 0.24℃ per decade, exceeding the global increase rate of ground average temperature.