- Daniel K. Gardner
Why Should We Be Interested in China’s Environmental Pollution?
Is it China’s problem alone when its particulate matter makes its way downwind to Korea and Japan, blanketing them with hazardous smog? Is it China’s problem alone when its particulate matter, carried by easterly winds, shows up as smog in the air over California or when mercury, carried by the same winds, is deposited in Oregon’s Willamette River? How about when China’s Songhua River crosses the border into Russia, carrying pollutants that affect the fish population there and the people’s drinking water? As the saying goes, pollutants, whether in the air or the water, do not honor national boundaries, nor do they require visas to pay other countries a visit.
But wait: there’s another side to the story. When big Western multinationals move their manufacturing base to China or contract with suppliers to manufacture, let’s say, jeans or smartphones there—because costs there are cheaper and environmental laws more lax—don’t they have some responsibility for China’s pollution problems? And when people in the United States complain about the effect of Chinese pollutants on the air in California and Oregon, shouldn’t they consider that 6% to 7% of China’s air pollution results from goods produced for the US export market—and that part of p. 4↵the polluted air reaching American shores is simply a result of American consumers wanting cheaper clothes, toys, and electronics? These are perplexing questions, but no matter the answers, the questions themselves point to the need for mutual, international understanding of—and cooperation on—the pressing environmental problems China faces today.
Further, the policies China adopts to mitigate its environmental woes are sure to have global consequences. For instance, if China reduces its dependence on coal, as it has been doing for the past couple of years, how will that affect the economies of countries like Australia, the United States, and Vietnam? As coal demand in the United States continues to decline, American coal companies have been looking to export more of their coal to China. But if demand in China continues to soften, as appears likely, what will that do to the financial ambitions of large energy companies (think here Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Coal Inc., which both filed for bankruptcy in 2016)? And how will softening demand affect the international price of coal?
Then there is food. If China, because of soil pollution and scarcity, turns heavily to international grain markets for its food supply, how will that influence international grain markets? And if prices rise internationally, might social and political stability, especially in poor countries, be affected?
Consider, too: as China relies more and more on imported foodstuffs, what does that mean for exporting countries—and the globe? How many acres of rainforest, for example, are Brazil and Argentina losing to soybean cultivation to service the Chinese market? How much will the loss of these rich carbon sinks in the Amazon contribute to global warming?
Acknowledging the environmental crisis that the country faces, the Beijing government is energetically promoting the development of clean energy and green technology. China’s leaders are explicit about the goals. The first is to clean up the air, water, and soil that have been the hapless victims of China’s modern industrialization. But the second is no less p. 5↵urgent: confident that clean energy and green technology will be the foundations of the 21st-century global economy, they are determined that China become the pioneer in that new economy. To understand China today, business and political leaders in the United States and elsewhere must understand these goals—and the range of measures China is taking today to achieve them.
I hope, and trust, that what follows will provide the reader with a more comprehensive answer to the question of why we should be interested in China’s environmental pollution.
What Are the Particular Environmental Pollution Problems China Faces?
China suffers from a range of environmental pollution problems: air, water, soil, electronic waste, noise, and light. But air, water, and soil pollution and the scourge of electronic waste have been the most environmentally costly and have had the most dramatic effects on public health.
The various forms of pollution are intertwined, as pollutants are “transboundary,” readily migrating from one medium to another. For example, mercury or sulfur in the air comes to be deposited in water and soil, fertilizer in the soil leeches into the rivers and the groundwater, cadmium and other chemicals that are discharged into the waterways make their way into the soil, and metals in electronic waste seep into the ground and the surrounding waterways.
Just How Bad Is China’s Air?
It ranks among the most polluted air in the world. In a study released by Greenpeace East Asia in January 2016, 293 of 366 monitored cities in China failed to meet China’s own national standards (35 micrograms per cubic meter [μg/m3] of fine particulate matter [PM2.5]) in 2015, and none met the stricter World Health Organization (WHO) standards (10 μg/m3).1 The p. 6↵major sources of the country’s foul air are no mystery: emissions from coal-fired power plants and vehicles.
The worst air in China is not in Beijing, as many might assume. Indeed, in 2015, 26 cities had higher pollution levels. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), Kashgar, in the western province of Xinjiang, had the worst, with an average level of 119.1 μg/m3, followed by Baoding in Hebei province at 107 μg/m3. (By comparison, in the same year, Bakersfield, California, the most polluted city in the United States, had an average reading of 18.) These levels, however, were improvements over the previous year, when Xingtai and Shijiazhuang, both in Hebei, averaged 155.2 and 148.5 μg/m3, respectively. Figure 1.2 shows air quality levels for 2014.
In the numbers game, Beijing’s air may fare better than Kashgar’s or Baoding’s or Xingtai’s, but it is nowhere near healthy. Its average PM2.5 reading of 80.4 μg/m3 in 2015 far exceeds both the WHO guideline and the country’s own. But the average doesn’t tell the whole story: because the city is p. 7↵surrounded by mountains, a heavy smog can settle in for days, even weeks at a time. In the winter months, when the air is especially sooty with emissions from coal-fired heating plants, the air is so thick and soupy that the city’s skyscrapers are rendered invisible. The air tastes acrid and metallic. At times like this, the PM2.5 level soars. For much of January 2013, the levels went “beyond index,” meaning that the PM2.5 level exceeded 500 μg/m3. Readings between 500 and 900 μg/m3 were routine.
This polluted air takes a heavy toll on public health. Stinging eyes and coughs are the norm. More grave is the growing incidence of respiratory and heart diseases and lung cancer. Recent studies show that air pollution has become a leading cause of premature death in China—roughly 4,000 deaths per day.2 The monetary cost, economists calculate, is more than 10% of China’s annual gross domestic product (GDP).3
When Beijing’s own mayor says that “Beijing is not a livable city” owing to the noxious smog,4 and when respected Chinese scientists insist that if the country’s smog persists conditions will be “similar to a nuclear winter,”5 it would seem fair to say that China’s air is in desperately bad shape. This is not the sort of public relations the country seeks—and may explain why foreign companies like Panasonic and Coca-Cola now offer a “hardship bonus” or “hazard pay” to lure workers to jobs in China.
How Extensive Is Water Pollution?
Many environmentalists argue that as bad as air pollution in China is, polluted water may be an even more serious problem. Statistics from the various Chinese state agencies and international organizations vary, but they all point to a startlingly high level of pollution in China’s groundwater, rivers, lakes, and offshore water. What makes this pollution of the country’s waterways especially problematic is that China has a scarcity of water resources in the first place. China holds 21% of the p. 8↵world’s population, yet its share of global fresh water is just 7%. It can ill afford to contaminate the relatively little water it does have.
China’s present annual per capita share of freshwater resources is as low as 25% of the global average. To put some specific numbers to this: the World Bank calculates China’s freshwater resources for 2014 at 2,062 m3 per capita (the United States, by comparison, had 8,846 m3 per capita). In water-parched Beijing the figure these days is a mere 100 m3 per person (just 1.69% of the world’s average).6 The United Nations considers any region with a level under 1,700 m3 per person to be “water-stressed.”
China classifies water quality into five grades: grades I, II, and III are described as “good,” while grades IV and V are considered “poor,” unsuitable for drinking, swimming, or, in fact, human contact of any sort. (Grade V+ is sometimes used to refer to water that is entirely unusable, including for industry and agriculture.) In 2014, of the 4,778 groundwater sites tested in 203 cities around the country, 60% were found to be grades IV and V/V+ (rising precipitously from 37% in 2000). As for the country’s key rivers, 28% are deemed unfit for human contact (grades IV and V/V+).7 And, in urban areas, 90% of the river water is badly contaminated.8 (Twenty percent of the Yangtze River in the south and 50% of the Yellow River in the north are categorized as “poor.”) Freshwater lakes fare still more poorly than the rivers, with 85% classified as grade IV or worse9 (57.5% of the 40 major lakes in China were classified as either eutrophic or hypertrophic in 2005).10 And more than 80% of the country’s coastal seawater is heavily polluted.11
A pollution survey conducted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection found that 280 million people across the country lack access to safe drinking water.12 Other studies put the figure at over 300 million. Whatever the precise number, it would seem that roughly one of every four people in China is without access to uncontaminated drinking water.
p. 9↵Inexplicably, according to Chinese regulations, grade V water, water regarded as unsuitable for industrial use and unfit for human contact, is considered suitable for agricultural purposes. Consequently, the polluted waterways we have described are the source of irrigation for much of the country’s agriculture. Pollutants from the water thus can make their way into the food chain.
The sources of water pollution include waste and chemical discharge from industry, industrial accidents, human waste, pollutants suspended in the air and then deposited in the water (e.g., mercury and sulfur), and fertilizer and pesticide runoff from agriculture.
How Badly Is China’s Soil Contaminated?
The country’s soil has suffered a similar fate as the air and water. In a 2014 joint report, the Ministry of Land Resources and the Ministry of Environmental Protection found that 16.1% of China’s soil is now contaminated; of the country’s cultivated farmland, almost 20% is contaminated. Inorganic materials like cadmium, nickel, and arsenic are the major pollutants. The report asserts that “the main pollution source is human industrial and agricultural activities” and goes on to name, more specifically, industrial and factory waste, irrigation from polluted waterways, improper use of fertilizer, and the increased breeding of livestock as the key factors accounting for the massive degradation of farmland.13 Acid rain should also be considered here as it falls on 11% of the land in southern China, especially in areas along the Yangtze River.
In late 2013, the Ministry of Land and Resources reported that over 8 million acres in China—equal to the size of Belgium—had become so toxic that farming on them should be prohibited.14
Some environmental activists believe that the government is grossly underreporting the severity of the problem. One, speaking of the 2014 report issued by the two ministries, told p. 10↵Radio Free Asia, “These figures aren’t accurate, because at least two thirds of China’s agricultural land is polluted.”15
Trying to feed 21% of the world’s population on 7% of the world’s arable land, China can hardly spare any loss of acreage to contamination. Already the country has one of the lowest arable land per capita rates in the world, at 0.197 acres per person (this metric has been on a steady decline since 1961). The world average is more than twice that; the US rate, by comparison, is 1.21 acres per person, six times that of China.
Chen Tongbin, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told Xinhua News in 2014 that the joint report by the Ministry of Land Resources and the Ministry of Environmental Protection had set off “a loud alarm,” and he noted that “Compared with air and water pollution, soil pollution is more difficult to control and remedy, taking a much longer time and needing more resources.”16
Why Has Electronic Waste Been Such a Problem in China?
China is responsible for recycling about 70% of the world’s electronic waste, or e-waste. E-waste refers to computers, televisions, mobile phones, printers, copiers, refrigerators, DVD players, batteries, and air-conditioning units—electronic devices of all variety—that have come to the end of their “useful life.” The quantity of global e-waste has been swelling, especially as developing countries become enthusiastic consumers of electronic goods and as rapid technological innovation shortens the life span of the devices. Because e-waste contains valuable reusable materials (i.e., base metals, precious metals, and rare earth metals), much of it gets dismantled and recycled.
Until recently, up to 80% of what China recycled came from overseas, in particular from the United States, European Union countries, and Japan. However, today, as China’s own middle class balloons, and with it the country’s domestic p. 11↵consumption, about half of the e-waste China treats is domestically produced.
The city of Guiyu, in Guangzhou along the southern coast of China, has been the world’s most popular destination for e-waste for a couple of decades now. Recyclers have found it cheaper to ship their e-waste there than to recycle at home, where they would have to comply with safe recycling practices. Employing roughly 80,000 to 130,000 workers, recyclers in Guiyu buy the e-waste—1.6 million tons per year—as it arrives on ships from abroad and via domestic transport. They then strip each device down to extract from it all the metals and parts of any value. It is estimated that the resale of metals and parts generates about $800 million for the town annually.
E-waste recycling, however, has wreaked havoc on the health of Guiyu’s citizens and the environment. The plastic in the electronics is melted down to separate it from the metals, and the melting process releases into the air the chemical dioxin, a known human carcinogen, along with other toxins. Guiyu today has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world. The melting of lead solder off circuit boards has led to an epidemic of lead poisoning in Guiyu: 82% of the city’s children have tested positive for this dangerous condition. In addition, 9 out of 10 city residents suffer from a skin, nervous, respiratory, or digestive ailment.
Dismantled e-waste has saturated Guiyu’s soil with a variety of heavy metals in addition to lead (copper, zinc, tin, chromium, nickel, and cadmium), and they have contaminated the city’s groundwater. Today Guiyu’s groundwater is undrinkable, so drinking water must be trucked in from the outside.17
In late 2015 the government ordered Guiyu’s more than 5,000 informal e-waste processing enterprises to shut down, requiring them to move their operations to a newly built industrial park.18 The aim is to ensure more comprehensive oversight of the recycling process and stricter enforcement of recycling regulations by authorities. There is widespread concern, however, that such efforts to regulate the industry in p. 12↵Guiyu will simply prompt unsanctioned recycling operations to move elsewhere.
E-waste recycling in China shows little sign of abating, especially as the country generates more and more of its own. But however profitable, it is contaminating the air, soil, and water in cities like Guiyu and damaging the health of the people who live there.
What Are the Challenges in Learning About China’s Pollution and Environmental Issues?
Three challenges stand out.
First, the ministries, agencies, research institutes, and media reporting on the environment are by and large associated with the state and thus—we should assume—subject to occasional restraints in terms of what they make public. It is believed that sensitive environmental information and news sometimes goes undisclosed or is but selectively reported. Still, the leadership in Beijing—whether motivated by pressure from the public or the desire to amass public support in state campaigns to tackle air, water, and soil degradation—has become more transparent in recent years, increasingly willing to share information about problems such as the level of pollution in the air, the heavy metals in the soil, the cadmium in the rice, and the emission levels of industrial plants.
A second challenge in learning about China’s environmental conditions is that, as a rapidly developing country, systematic monitoring of the environment has not been a top priority. This means that detailed, reliable environmental data for much of the country have been lacking. Only recently has the government ramped up its monitoring efforts. China has begun to track air quality, emissions levels, and energy use across much of the nation; it is also requiring local and provincial offices to submit pollution reports and energy intensity reports to the central government regularly. With more systematic monitoring and fuller reports from authorities on site, p. 13↵more accurate data should be available, making it easier to understand and assess environmental conditions.
Information from local officials, however, is not always dependable. Officials have been known to misreport data to satisfy the expectations and wishes of their superiors. In addition, since these data serve as the basis of their job evaluations, which in turn are the basis for future appointments, the temptation of officials to “massage” the numbers—even rather vigorously—can be strong indeed. Such falsification of data by local officials is a third challenge we face in learning about China’s environmental problems. In recent laws and communiqués (see Chapter 11), however, Beijing has made clear its intention to hold officials accountable for accurate reporting. Time will tell.