The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
China is the world’s worst polluter -- home to 16 of the 20 dirtiest cities and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Recent headlines have been shocking: 16,000 decaying pig carcasses in Shanghai’s Whampoa River, dire air quality reports in Beijing, and hundreds of thousands of people dying prematurely because of environmental degradation. Most recently, the country has been shaken by a mysterious virus, H7N9, which has already killed six people and has spurred health authorities to order the slaughter of thousands of pigeons, chickens, and ducks thought to carry it. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has begun work on an H7N9 vaccine.
The dangers of China’s environmental degradation go well beyond the country’s borders, as pollution threatens global health more than ever. Chinese leaders have argued that their country has the right to pollute, claiming that, as a developing nation, it cannot sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment. In reality, however, China is holding the rest of the world hostage -- and undermining its own prosperity.
According to the World Bank, only one percent of China’s 560 million urban residents breathe air considered safe by EU standards. Beijing’s levels of PM2.5s -- particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and can penetrate the gas exchange regions of the lungs -- are the worst in the world. Beijing’s 2012 March average reading was 469 micrograms of such particles per cubic meter, which compares abysmally with Los Angeles’ highest 2012 reading of 43 micrograms per cubic meter.
Such air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study. The unrelenting pace of construction of coal-fired power plants is only making matters worse. In his recent monograph, Climate Change: The China Problem, environmental scholar Michael Vandenbergh writes, “On average, a new coal-powered electric plant large enough to serve a city the size of Dallas opens in China every seven to ten days.” The lack of widespread coal-washing infrastructure and scrubbers at Chinese industrial facilities exacerbates the problem.
Carbon dioxide emissions from cars in China are also growing exponentially, replacing coal-fired power plants as the major source of pollution in major Chinese cities. Deutsche Bank estimates that the number of passenger cars in China will reach 400 million by 2030, up from today’s 90 million. And the sulfur levels produced by diesel trucks in China are at least 23 times worse than those in the United States. Acid rain, caused by these emissions, has damaged a third of China’s limited cropland, in addition to forests and watersheds on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan. This pollution reaches the United States as well, sometimes at levels prohibited by the U.S. Clean Water Act. In 2006, researchers at the University of California–Davis discovered that almost all of the harmful particulates over Lake Tahoe originated in China. The environmental experts Juli Kim and Jennifer Turner note in their essay “China’s Filthiest Export” that “by the time it reaches the U.S., mercury transforms into a reactive gaseous material that dissolves easily in the wet climates of the Pacific Northwest.” At least 20 percent of the mercury entering the Willamette River in Oregon most likely comes from China. Black carbon soot from China also threatens to block sunlight, lower crop yields, heat the atmosphere, and destabilize weather throughout the Pacific Rim.
China’s use of fresh water resources also threatens those beyond its borders. As Mark Twain reportedly said, in reference to California in the late nineteenth century, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” The sentiment holds true in modern-day Asia as well. Asia’s per capita fresh water availability is less than half the global average. China and India, for example, are home to 40 percent of the world’s population but make do with ten percent of the world’s fresh water. China is guzzling and polluting this limited resource at an alarming rate. The country has dammed every major river on the Tibetan plateau, including the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Indus, the Sutlej, the Shweli, and the Karnali, and there are large-scale plans to dam others. Of the 50,000 largest dams in the world, more than half are in China. As a result, China now controls the river water supply to 13 nearby countries but so far has refused to sign any treaties or cooperate with other countries on water issues. Beijing also voted against the UN attempt to regulate water sharing in the region. China’s former minister of water resources, Wang Shucheng, described China’s water policy as “fight for every drop of water or die.” This philosophy, combined with China’s unabated pursuit of economic development, will have profoundly destabilizing consequences for the region, both politically and environmentally.
Unfortunately for China, compromising the environment and health in pursuit of economic growth is not a sustainable strategy. The threat of water scarcity and the adverse domestic health effects of pollution darken China’s future. Pollution-related illnesses are soaring. A recent social media campaign led by locals and international activities shed light on the growing phenomena of “cancer villages” -- areas where water pollution is so bad that it has led to a sharp rise in diseases like stomach cancer. China’s own Ministry of Environmental Protection has concluded that 70 percent of the country’s major waterways are heavily polluted. According to Scott Moore of the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, pollutants have even seeped into the country’s subsurfaces, with more than half of monitored wells deemed unsafe to use for drinking water. The China Geological Survey now estimates that 90 percent of China’s cities depend on polluted groundwater supplies. Water that has been purified at treatment plants is often recontaminated en route to homes. China has plundered its groundwater reserves, drilling massive underground tunnels that have even caused some cities to literally sink.
China has also completely botched its waste-removal efforts. Eighty percent of the East China Sea, one of the world’s largest fisheries, is now unsuitable for fishing, according to Elizabeth C. Economy, a China and environmental expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Most Chinese coastal cities pump at least half of their waste directly into the ocean, which causes red tides and coastal fish die-offs. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the country is now the largest polluter of the Pacific Ocean.
The economic costs of pollution have been the focus of various government-backed studies in China. A recent study by the Chinese Academy of Environmental Planning found that environmental damage to forests, wetlands, and grasslands shaved 3.5 percent off China’s 2012 GDP. The World Bank puts the total cost of China’s environmental degradation in the late 1990s at between 3.5 and 8 percent of GDP. China’s pollution problem is holding back its economy -- and poisoning its own people and the rest of the world in the process. The international community should push China to realize that if it continues to ravage the environment, it will be unable to secure its future health and prosperity -- or avoid a global disaster.