The state of China’s environment

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published its first-ever environmental performance review of China.1

The review finds that “rapid economic development, industrialisation and urbanisation have generated severe and growing pressures on the environment, resulting in significant damage to human health and depletion of natural resources.”

Yet China has a comprehensive environmental protection framework founded in 1979 and developed by some 36 pieces of key legislation on air, water and waste.

China’s series of five-year plans sets targets for economic growth and environmental protection. The plan for 2006-2010 aims to build a ‘harmonious society’ by narrowing the gap between rich and poor and curbing environmental degradation. It allocates 1,300 billion yuan (£84 billion) – about 1.2% of China’s gross domestic product – to environmental protection.

The State Environmental Protection Administration of China (SEPA) is the national regulator. It supervises several Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPBs) at the provincial level.

The critical problem, as the OECD points out, is an “implementation gap” in environmental policy at the local level where politicians have allowed economic priorities to override environmental concerns. In some cases, says Brendan Gillespie, OECD head of globalisation and development, “local political leaders have colluded with industry to prevent the EPBs from doing their work.”

This is especially true in poorer western China. In contrast, in the ‘golden triangle’ between Nanjing, Shanghai and Hangzhou on China’s eastern coast where most development has taken place, regulation has become more effective.

Another problem is that SEPA is not a ministry so lacks clout in government. Powers to fine companies for pollution offences are also limited.

PetroChina was fined just 1 million yuan (£65,000) – the maximum – for an explosion at its chemical site in Jilin that polluted the Songhua river with carcinogenic benzene, stopping water supplies to millions of people for days.

Air pollution: China has a graded system of air quality standards for ten pollutants. Grade I is the most stringent and applies to protected areas such as nature reserves. Grade II applies to residential areas and grade III to industrial areas.

But the standards are weaker than those in the EU – assuming they are enforced at all. For instance, in China the grade II standard for particulate matter (PM10) is 100µg/m3 as an annual mean and 150µg/m3 as a 24-hour mean. In the EU, the standards are 40µg/m3 and 50µg/m3 respectively. China’s grade III standard for particles is even weaker (see table).

China has made some progress, for instance, reducing sulphur dioxide emissions in the Beijing area. It is also introducing tighter controls on coal-fired power stations, the main contributor to air pollution.

Yet air quality in China’s cities is still among the worst in the world. Air quality in some 40% of cities does not meet grade II, and in 10% of these it is worse than grade III. This leaves 270 million people exposed to poor air quality. If unchecked, the OECD says 600,000 premature deaths are likely to occur each year.

Water pollution: China has made some progress in defining water quality objectives and establishing a monitoring network. It also has a scheme of charges for abstraction and discharges.

But a third of China’s rivers and three quarters of its lakes are highly polluted. Only about a third of the urban population is connected to a wastewater treatment plant.

Some 300 million people are estimated to drink contaminated water. Of these, 190 million suffer illness as a result and more than 30,000 children die each year. China also has low water resources per capita. Two thirds of its major cities suffer shortages.

Pollution and shipping is also blamed for the recently declared apparent extinction of the Yangtze freshwater dolphin.

Waste: China only developed waste management legislation in the past decade and the OECD says it remains the “poor cousin” compared with air and water management in government expenditure.

Over 154 million tonnes of municipal waste was produced in 2004. On a per-capita basis, this is much lower than developed countries. But waste generation is growing fast – by 80% in the past ten years. Half is dumped in uncontrolled tips, while most of the rest is landfilled.

Some 10 million tonnes of hazardous waste was produced in 2004. Only about one third is recycled or reused and a further third landfilled, almost exclusively by unregistered companies. Most of the remainder is stored pending treatment.