Environmental issues



Air pollution

Air pollution is one of China’s most widespread and challenging environmental problems. Only 1% of China’s 560 million people who live in urbanized areas breathe safe air. Pollution comes in the form of nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, ozone, particulate matter, and heavy metals, among other trace pollutants. Particulate matter levels are on average an estimated 20 times higher than what is considered safe by the WHO. Pollution is so bad in some cities that on a regular basis many resort to wearing facemasks and visibility is limited to fifteen meters. Even the worst smog days in American cities like New York and Los Angeles pale in comparison to the daily average of the most polluted Chinese Cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai. Outdoor air pollution is a major cause of premature death from diseases such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. In 2010 alone, air pollution-related health ailments caused 1.2 million premature deaths.Power generation and industrial processes are the largest sources of air pollution in China. The burning of coal in particular is the largest contributor to outdoor air pollution in major cities. Most of the coal burned in China is highly polluting, sulfur-rich coal that was extracted from provinces such as Anhui, Guizhou, and Inner Mongolia. This contributes to acid rain, lead poisoning in children, and airborne mercury pollution.


Another product formed from the combustion of coal is CO2, the most significant contributor to anthropogenic climate change. Owing to its massive coal consumption rate, China is the largest emitter of CO2 in the world. In 2011, China emitted 8.7 gigatons (billions of metric tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere. Despite its high levels of overall emissions, China does not emit much carbon dioxide per capita. This is because the average Chinese citizen consumes far less energy than a citizen of a country such as the United States or the United Kingdom.


Vigorous and stringent pollution control measures are the only way to fix China’s air pollution problem. The Clean Air Act has been a runaway success in the United States. The implementation of a similar body of regulations would be very beneficial in China. Emitters should be required to install scrubbers or other forms of pollution control technologies to control the release of pollutants such as nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, and heavy metals while the overall consumption of the most polluting fuels is curbed. Measures such as emissions caps, pollution taxes, and cap-and-trade would be useful for controlling common air pollutants, including carbon dioxide. China’s air quality can be expected to improve once China’s coal use peaks in around 2030 and coal begins to be replaced with power sources such as natural gas, nuclear, and renewables.But it may not be enough to alleviate the problem altogether, as air pollution control efforts will be implemented parallel to China’s continuing rapid development, which will include the building of more thermal power plants and the increased use of automobiles, a major contributor to air pollution in cities.

Water pollution and scarcity

China faces severe water pollution and shortages. Industrial processes and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has led to widespread water contamination. Thanks to lack of regulation, many factories are able to freely discharge effluents into major rivers. Sewage discharge is also a major source of river pollution.

Discharge into an otherwise clean river upstream can make water undrinkable downstream. 60% of China’s major rivers were polluted enough to be unsafe to drink from in 2006. This, combined with the overdrawing of groundwater and the overexploitation of remaining clean water sources, has deprived 300 million Chinese of clean water supplies.

The use of hydroelectricity for power generation presents a number of issues. Damming a river alters natural flow patterns and reduces seasonal flooding, which certain kinds of aquatic life depend on. The result is a weakening of river ecosystems and increases in erosion and sedimentation. This leads to the destruction of vital riparian habitat both upstream and downstream, and contributes to deforestation. It also obstructs fish migration patterns and prevents them from swimming upriver. The ecological effects of hydroelectric generation and damming have contributed to the decline of Chinese river ecosystems and have led to the potential extinction of the Baiji, or Chinese river dolphin. In addition to habitat destruction, the building of dams has led to the forced migration of millions of people who lived on the banks of major rivers. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam alone led to the relocation of 1.3 to 1.9 million people who lived along the river. These issues make further hydroelectric development environmentally, economically, and socially problematic and controversial.

There have been proposals to alleviate water shortage problems by building a water transportation system similar to California’s that would pipe water over long distances for agricultural and municipal use. Some projects are already being developed, such as the South-North Water Transfer Project, which would divert water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River and the city of Beijing. Desalination projects have also been proposed, but desalination technology is still expensive. Brine produced as a byproduct of the desalination process is also very toxic to marine life. The other option would be to conserve and clean up existing water supplies rather than build massive water projects, but this would be no easy undertaking due to rising demand and the extent of water pollution.  However, local water pollution issues can be alleviated through the proper implementation of filtration and cleanup technologies. Socially-focused businesses may be able to step in, and fulfill a role similar to that of LifeStraw in Africa. The market for such a product in rural China would be immense, and is an excellent niche that a socially driven business can fill.