2 November 2021

Why the world needs to worry about China’s environmental standards


Last week China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, published its long-awaited national plan on greenhouse emissions. Produced as part of the country’s programme around the COP26 talks in Glasgow, there was disappointment that Beijing was only looking at 2060 to achieve net zero, a full decade later the America’s declared goal.

While net zero is important, what is less reported are the other chronic environmental challenges that China faces. For decades the People’s Republic has been suffering from rampant air, soil, and water pollution, which aside from being a catastrophe for the nation, is also a threat to the economies and environments of countries around the world.

Perhaps the greatest of these concerns, at least in the mid- to long-term, is the threat to China’s water supply. The country is not blessed with an ample water supply, its available resources amounting to just a quarter of the world average.

This scarcity has been exacerbated by rising industrialisation and urbanisation that have allowed untreated water to flow back into the system, contaminating the aquatic environment. A survey from 2013 showed that up to 40% of China’s rivers were seriously polluted, and 20% of them were so severely polluted that they were too toxic for physical contact.

Whilst the government has been attempting to clean up, Chinese environmental inspectors admitted in January 2018 that, with the exception of four provinces, not enough is being done to address the serious water pollution problems.

Their efforts are not helped by industrial policies that work against effective water conservation and management, for example with groundwater.

China is heavily reliant on groundwater to supply its cities, with over 400 of the 655 Chinese cities relying on it as their primary drinking water resource. But these groundwater reserves are threatened by coal mining. It is estimated that between 1m3 and 2.5m3 of groundwater reserves are destroyed per tonne of coal mined, and with coal mining in China rising by 220 million tonnes a year to meet rising electricity demand, this resource is going to come under increasing pressure.

Coal is not the only form of mining to cause environmental calamity. The processing of rare earths, the collection of 17 metallic elements that are crucial to the modern economy, and, ironically, the clean energy revolution, is monopolised by China. This dominance is hard for Western countries to challenge given the enormity of the environmental damage it causes. A 2012 Chinese government report noted the environmental damage that their processing had caused, including heavy pollution of surface water, groundwater and farmland, and the reduction of crop yields.

Whilst soil pollution is widespread – a government report notes that 35,000 square kilometres of farmland, an area about the size of Taiwan, is so polluted that no crops should be grown there – this is not a problem that has seized the public consciousness. What has done so is air pollution, something that won’t surprise anyone who has been to a Chinese city.

According to a study in The Lancet magazine, 1.24 million people died from air pollution in China in 2017. This is a fraction of the estimated 30.8 million people in China who have seen their lives curtailed for the same reasons. Yet despite the obvious dangers to its people, the Communist Party has traditionally been loath to report the full scale of pollution.

To tackle this denial, in 2008 the US Embassy in Beijing placed an air-quality monitor on its roof and started tweeting the pollution levels it read. As one official at the time noted, ‘everyone knew Beijing was polluted, but we didn’t know how much‘. By 2010 the air quality had reached ‘crazy bad’, to use Embassy speak, when the recorded pollution levels breached the uppermost limits of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s scale. China responded by demanding that other countries stop releasing its air quality data.

Since then, the government has stepped up efforts to reduce air pollution, and with some success. Atmospheric particulate matter (PM2.5) levels in Beijing, for instance, decreased by 33% in the four years up to 2017 thanks to the aggressive measures brought in by the 2013 Air Pollution Action Plan.

Yet, the prognosis for China isn’t great.

Despite years of effort by the authorities, China’s environment conditions are ‘grim’ and fall short of public expectations, according to Zhao Yingmin, the vice-minister of ecology and environment.

This is not good for a ruling party whose legitimacy rests on improving the quality of life of its people.

These concerns are not just relevant for Beijing. Worries about food shortages, which can only be exacerbated by pollution, have led Beijing to buy up farmland across the world. Investment in foreign agriculture totalled $26 billion in 2016, with investments in a hundred countries. The prospect of China buying up farms has led to public outrage in nations from Kazakhstan to Australia, and has actively contributed to pushback against Beijing.

There are also concerns that China’s trade practices are worsening the developing world’s environmental issues. A recent study has revealed how much of this trade is composed of pollution-intensive raw materials, and Chinese firms do not promote the adoption of stringent environmental policies in these countries as Western nations would do.

Then there is the economic cost. As China increases its investment in green technologies, its sheer weight will ensure that the markets will be skewed in their favour. This was the case in the solar industry, where enormous state subsidies undercut the global competition to leave China as the number one producer. It has already started with wind power: in 2020 China was responsible for the world’s biggest increase in wind power capacity, building 100GW in just one year. To put that in perspective, that figure is four times the total wind generating capacity of the UK.

Although it would be an exaggeration to say that the environmental disasters rocking China are a current existential threat to the Communist Party, the resources being earmarked to tackle them show that Beijing is starting to take them seriously.

Despite this, the government’s main priority is economic success. Unless industrial strategy becomes fully harnessed to the nation’s environmental policies, then it’s unlikely that many of the most important changes required, like a reduction in coal mining pollution, will be made. If, however, they are combined, then there’s no reason why China cannot become a global leader in every corner of the green economic revolution. Then the world will have a whole new series of issues to deal with.

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Columns are the author’s own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.

Sam Olsen is the author of the blog What China Wants and founder and CEO of Evenstar

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.