Costly Growth: China's Environmental Woes

By Choe, Julia | Harvard International Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Costly Growth: China's Environmental Woes


Choe, Julia, Harvard International Review


The introduction of market reforms in China in the 1980s has made China's economic growth impossible to ignore. With an annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of nine percent, China is poised to assert its dominance within the next half-century. However, while developing into a manufacturing powerhouse, China has sacrificed environmental protection. In 2001, the World Bank reported that 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world were located in China. The next year, the World Health Organization revealed that two-thirds of China's cities exceeded the established level of suspended particulates, which contribute to pulmonary and respiratory diseases. China's quest to lift millions of its people out of poverty has caused enormous environmental problems.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China burns 1.5 billion tons of coal annually. Because of decentralized industrial regulation, power plants and factories lack effective desulphurization and particulate catchers. This equipment is needed to minimize the sulfur dioxide and dust that is released directly into the air. In 1997, the World Bank estimated that pollution-caused respiratory diseases induced the premature deaths of 300,000 people. China's own State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) stated in June 2004 that 250 Chinese cities failed to meet national air quality standards. SEPA also noted that 70 to 80 percent of all deadly cancer cases in Beijing are linked to the environment, with lung cancer as the number one cause of death. In 2002, a UN environmental report revealed a "brown cloud" of soot, chemicals, and carbon monoxide floating over Asia. The two-mile thick layer, a result of China's industrial pollution, causes respiratory disease and more extreme weather patterns.

Water-related pollution is also grim: a 2005 SEPA news release reported that concentrated acid rain falls on 298 Chinese cities every year. This type of acid rain adversely affects agriculture, forests, and people. Additionally, 193 cities have no sewage treatment. Ninety percent of river sections in urban areas are heavily polluted, killing fish and local wildlife while limiting already scarce water resources. SEPA releases have reported that inadequate water has caused mass relocation of farmers and migrants. With half the population currently lacking access to clean water, China cannot accept industrial growth's human costs of tumors, spontaneous abortion, and bacteria-caused deaths. …

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