Turning the Tide: Chinese Environmental Development Efforts

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BEIJING — China’s economic boom since its industrialization movements in the mid-20th century have led to the nation’s status as one of the most powerful economies on Earth. This rapid and sustained rate of growth has come with a steep cost, however, as environmental degradation across the country has reached critical levels. As the world’s largest source of carbon emissions (accounting for nearly a third of global carbon emissions in 2014), China’s water, air and soil have experienced levels of toxicity unsafe for millions of people.

So what are Chinese environmental development efforts, and are they succeeding?

“It is a very awkward situation for the country because our greatest achievement is also our biggest burden,” says Wang Jinnan, who is considered to be among China’s top environmental researchers. “There is pressure for change, but many people refuse to accept that we need a new approach so soon.” China’s government has also made it clear that it understands the very real threat posed by national pollution, evident by the 48 mentions of “pollution” and “the environment” in the Prime Minister’s State of the Union address earlier this year.

Currently, China produces over 1 billion tons of steel, and nearly 3.5 billion tons of coal — the latter being an industry not only heavily burdened by debt and excess capacity, but also the primary contributor to the nation’s issues surrounding pollution.

However, could new Chinese environmental development efforts signal positive change on the horizon?

A 10-year long research project conducted by scientists from Stanford University believes so. In 2000, Chinese environmental development efforts spent $50 billion improving natural capital, specifically through the restoration of forests and grasslands, thereby succeeding in not only improving the lives of 120 million poverty-stricken farmers, but also reducing the risk of natural disasters.

As well as reducing the risk of natural disaster through natural capital restoration, Chinese environmental development efforts have succeeded in cutting down on coal consumption. The rate at which the nation consumes coal has fallen steadily since 2014, with the rate falling by nearly 5 per cent in 2016 alone.

Furthermore, China may additionally seek to cut aluminum production in several northern provinces (particularly Henan, Shanxi and Shandong) by up to 30 per cent in the coming years.

Reducing coal consumption, however, is only half the battle. On top of reductions in one area, China is expanding into another: solar energy. Already this past year, the Chinese government successfully established the world’s largest floating solar power farm, with an output of 40 megawatts that provides sufficient electricity for 15,000 homes in the central province of Anhui.

It may be too soon to say definitively whether Chinese environmental development efforts are a sign of changing times for a positive future, or simply a passing political trend. Many of the statistics showing environmental improvement are rarely more than a mere two decades long — and therefore not quite enough to project long-term forecasts.

Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the first half of the past decade has shown that China is ready, willing and able to commit to more environmentally-focused policies.

Bradley Tait
Photo: Flickr

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Bradley writes for The Borgen Project from Washington, DC. His academic interests include world politics and global development. Bradley was born in British Hong Kong, a political entity which no longer exists!

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