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Environmental Problems and Challenges in CHINA

Although progress has been made in some areas, China is struggling to harmonize economic development and environmental protection.

Ying-ming Li

s a result of the fast economic growth in China, some fundamental dilemmas are arising. The gross domestic product (GDP) is continuously increasing, but the natural resources on which the economic develop-

ment relies have been heavily exploited or even overexploited. This leads to perplexing environmental problems and a tenser relationship between humans and nature. The aim of this feature article is to provide an overview of the major problems, efforts, and challenges associated with environmental issues in China.
2007 American Chemical Society


November 15, 2007 / Environmental Science & Technology n 7597


Ranking the quality of Chinas seven largest rivers

According to the Environmental Quality Standard for Surface Water ( 4 ), Chinas water bodies can be divided into five classes on the basis of >30 parameters, including pH, sulfate, chloride, nitrate, phosphorus, metals (Cu, Zn, Fe, Mn, Ca, Hg, As, Pb, etc.), BOD5, chemical oxygen demand, volatile phenol, and so on. The limitations of the parameters for each class were described in detail in the standard ( 4 ). Water of Grades IIII is suitable for drinking, Grade IV is for industrial and recreational use, and Grade V is for agricultural use. All data are from SEPA, 2006.
19% 40% 57% 30% 25% 41% 54% 24% 22% 11% 13% Haihe River 76% 24% 30% Songhua River Liaohe River 32%

34% Yellow River

51% 17%

6% 18%

Huaihe River

Yangtze River 76% Grades IIII Grades IV, V Inferior to Grade V Pearl River

Water shortage and contamination

China is one of the 13 countries in the world with the most limited water resources. The available per capita volume of water is ~2200 m3, only 25% of the world average. In addition, water resources are distributed unevenly in China. About 44% of the population lives in the north but has access to only ~15% of the water resources. More than 60% of the 669 cities (of population >0.1 million) in China have problems with water shortages, and the situation in 110 of those cities is categorized as serious (1). In addition, >24 million rural people have insufficient drinking-water supplies (2 ). The water shortage will be exacerbated by serious pollution. More than 60% of Chinas large lakes are eutrophic (3 ), and the water quality has declined in >50% of its rivers. The water quality at >50% of the monitored sections in five of Chinas seven largest rivers (the Liaohe, Songhua, Haihe, Huaihe, and Yellow rivers) is considered Grade IV or worse in a five-class grading system (3, 4 ), indicating heavy pollution (Figure 1). The major concerns are ammonia nitrogen, biological oxygen demand (BOD5), permanganate index, and oils (3 ). The dis7598 n Environmental Science & Technology / November 15, 2007

charge of urban sewage and industrial wastewater is the main source of contamination in the rivers, as supported by the observation that >90% of the heavily polluted monitored sections are near large cities (3 ). The use efficiency of water is still low in China. In 2000, the use efficiencies of irrigation water (the water that reaches cultivated land and is available for plant growth divided by the total amount of water obtained from the water source) and industrial water (the proportion of reused water relative to the total amount of water acquired for industrial use) were 0.43 and 0.55, respectively. In contrast, the ratios in developed countries have reached 0.70 and 0.750.85, respectively (2 ). With ongoing development and urbanization, the gap between water supply and demand will become wider. Most eastward-flowing rivers drain into the coastal marine environment, and the water quality is getting worse with the inflow of polluted river water. As a result, incidents of red tides (harmful algal blooms) started to increase significantly in the 1980s and peaked with 119 episodes in 2003, covering a total affected area of ~1.5 104 km 2 (3, 5 ).

Air pollution
Of the 522 cities monitored in 2005, 11% were considered heavily polluted and only 56% had air quality that met the State Environmental Protection Administration of China (SEPA) standard (3 ). The major air pollutants are particulate matter (PM), SO2, and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Currently, >40% of Chinas cities are suffering from high levels of suspended particles (total concentrations of suspended particles >200 g/m3, or PM10 >100 g/m3) (3, 6 ). Ozone has recently aroused much attention because of its harmful impacts on agricultural production and human health. A study in Shanghai revealed that ozone levels are associated significantly with total and cardiovascular mortality, especially during cold seasons (7 ). High concentrations of ozone have caused crop losses in many regions of China. However, large uncertainty still exists in how to scale surface ozone distribution and crop impacts up to the national level, because of highly inadequate monitoring facilities (8 ). The main causes, characteristics, and future trends of air pollution in China are related to the energy sector (9, 10 ) as well as to industrial development, traffic, and urbanization. An estimated 70% of total smoke (aerosols), 90% of SO2, and 67% of NOx are released by burning coal (11). Meanwhile, the number of motor vehicles in China reached 36 million in 2003, compared with 6.2 million in 1990 (9 ). Thus, the ever-increasing number of vehicles has become an important contributor to the increasing air pollution. The energy infrastructure in China is not expected to change in the near future, and coal will remain the dominant energy source for at least the next several years. In addition, vehicle exhaust and urban activities will increase rapidly in the coming years. Therefore, the emissions of aerosols, SO2, and NOx are expected to continue to increase. For that reason, energy efficiency must be improved, and effective measures are needed to prevent further deterioration of air quality.

and farm produce have been contaminated, especially with residues of organochlorine and organophosphorus pesticides. Domestic waste increased significantly with urbanization. In 2005, domestic sewage amounted to 28.1 1010 metric tons, a 30% increase since 2000 (3 ). Because of the lack of proper treatment, the discharge of domestic waste has resulted in serious environmental problems in the air, soil, and water.

Impacts of environmental problems

The impacts of the aforementioned environmental problems are significant and multifaceted. They include damage to human health, social conflicts, and economic losses. Acid rain resulting from air pollution is prevalent in southern China. Chemically, the major anion in acid rain is SO42, but recently the concentration of NO3 has increased, which shows that the contribution of NOx is increasing. Acid rain leads to acidification of surface waters and soils, which can cause ecosystem dysfunction, including loss of fish populations and forest dieback (9, 14 ). In 2005, ~38% of

E-waste recycling sites, such as this one in the town of Taizhou, Zhejiang Province, have become a major source of pollution in certain regions of China.

Rapid urbanization has taken place in China ever since the economic development and socioeconomic changes of the 1980s. Approximately 40% of the population now lives in cities, compared with ~20% in 1980. The current annual urbanization rate is ~1%, which means that ~13 million people move into cities every year. Urbanization has created huge pressures on the maintenance of agricultural land and production. In 2005, the net loss of arable land was 361,600 ha (~0.3% of the total arable land), of which 138,700 ha was used for construction. From 1998 to 2005, farmland decreased by 7.6 million ha, ~6.2% of the total arable land (3 ). The per capita area of cropland in China was only 0.93 ha in 2005, 40% of the world average (12 ). To achieve a higher production rate from the remaining, smaller area of cultivatable land, China has become the worlds largest consumer of fertilizers and the second largest of pesticides (13 ). Consequently, large amounts of cultivated land Chinese cities and counties had annual average pH values <5.6. This indicates that they were likely affected by acid rain (3 ). The deposition of sulfur in some places is higher than what was reported from the Black Triangle in central Europe in the early 1980s (9 ). Approximately 60% of Chinas population is rural, and nearly all rural residents use highly polluting biomass and coal for household cooking and heating. Indoor air pollution from use of solid fuel in China is responsible for ~420,000 premature deaths annually (15 ). In 2002, China introduced an indoor air quality standard (16 ), in which the maximum level of PM10 was set at 150 g/m3. Although the standard is high compared with the World Health Organization guideline of 50 g/m3, indoor air pollution is expected to improve with the implementation of the standard. Contaminated soil and water affect human health mainly through the food chain. In China,
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~7.3% of arable land is irrigated with sewage water, of which 20% has been polluted with heavy metals, such as Cd, As, Cr, and Pb (17 ). Symptoms of arsenic poisoning from upstream mining activities have emerged among the ~180,000 local inhabitants of seven counties within 6100 km 2 in Hetao Area (18 ). The long-term mercury mining in Guizhou Province, southwestern China, has resulted in significant pollution of the local ecosystem (19 ). The concentrations of total mercury (THg) in rice grains from one mining area have reached 0.57 mg/kg (20 ). The SEPA tolerance limit for THg in foodstuffs is 0.02 mg/kg (21).

gation of the Environmental Impact Assessment Law of China in 2002. Thus, a full-scale EIA mechanism safeguarding the environmental soundness of socioeconomic development has been established legally and practically.

Initiatives for environmental protection

The Chinese government has initiated many efforts to control the ever-worsening environmental problems. Since the early 1980s, a series of national plans, policies, and laws have been enacted. In 1983, China made environmental protection one of its basic national policies. In 1994, a broad strategy was laid out to achieve sustainable development. Two years later, the first 5-year plan on environmental protection was developed. Recently, a new scientific development concept was proposed to achieve a harmonious society and a balanced relationship between humans and nature (11). Establishing the complete set of laws, regulations, and management systems for environmental protection and strengthening Chinas protection of ecology and environment have been considered important for further development. By the end of 2006, >200 environmental policies, laws, and regulations had been proposed and enacted, including 58 environmental laws, 9 regulations on water pollution, and 8 regulations on air pollution (25 ). At the same time, great efforts have also been made in ecological restoration. The Natural Forest Conservation Program (NFCP) and the Sloping Land Conversion Program (SLCP) are two examples. Their objectives are soil and water conservation, desertification control, flood control, climate-change mitigation, and biodiversity conservation (26 ). The NFCP was applied in 18 provinces that contain the upstream regions of major river systems, including the Yellow and Yangtze rivers (27 ). The SLCP was planned to cover 22 provinces (most in western China) for the revegetation of marginal cropland at slopes >25 (28 ). Furthermore, ecological agriculture has been widely advocated to improve agro-resource use efficiency and productivity and to alleviate agricultural pollution (29, 30 ). Fast-growing industry is to a high degree responsible for the environmental degradation in China. Greening the production cycles has therefore been a top priority. Generally, corporate image ranks very high in management concerns (31). Therefore, environmental performance ratings and public disclosure have proven effective in getting Chinese firms to improve their environmental compliance (32 ). Practically, green production processes are vital; they are effective at improving the efficiency of resource use, the product quality, and the environmental performance of Chinese factories (33 ).

Taihu Lake, shown here, is plagued by eutrophicationa common occurrence in Chinese lakes.

Environmental deterioration, which resulted in ~51,000 disputes in 2005, has been considered one of the important causes of social unrest in Chinese society (11). The total economic losses from environmental pollution and ecological damage were estimated to be 720% of the annual GDP during the past 20 years (22 ).

Environmental monitoring and impact assessment

Environmental monitoring began in China relatively recently. The related concepts and the national monitoring systems were developed in the early 1970s. An environmental monitoring network, managed by the China National Environmental Monitoring Center, is made up of 2389 monitoring stations staffed by >46,000 technicians, covering all major parts of China. SEPA uses data from the monitoring network in its annual Report on the State of the Environment in China (3 ). Environmental planning and assessment are widely used in China at different decision-making levels. The project-based environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been used since 1979, and great achievements have been attained in the past two decades (23 ). The environmental impact statements of development projects submitted to SEPA increased 4.8 during 19861990 compared with 19801985. The EIA enforcement rate of development projects increased from 61% in 1991 to 90% in 2000 (24 ). Strategic environmental assessment, the policy and planning based on EIA, took effect after the promul
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Challenges and future perspectives

Giving an evaluation of the overall effectiveness of Chinas environmental protection and ecological conservation is difficult, despite proposed concepts and preliminary methods for green GDP and governmental environment auditing (34 ). Great progress has been made in many areas, including biodiversity

conservation (35, 36 ); the improvement of environmental policy, law, and funding mechanisms (37, 38 ); and the implementation of international environmental treaties (39 ). However, inadequacies still exist in control of environmental degradation and in sustainable environmental management. As SEPA concluded, The essence of environmental degradation remained unchanged, and environmental problems tend to be more complicated at the national scale, in spite of many successful local-scale environmental rehabilitation cases (40 ). China is still facing huge challenges in resolving its environmental problems. The challenges include the limited reserve of natural resources; the already tense humannature relationship; the strong momentum for economic development and urbanization (41); and the insufficiency of institutions, legislation, enforcement, and so on. The most difficult challenge, however, may be to find effective approaches in regulating the behaviors and relationships of the various stakeholders (e.g., different levels of government, the industrial sector, and the public), who often have different, sometimes conflicting, objectives and expectations. Capacity building therefore should be enhanced in fields such as basic scientific research, technological innovation, policy and institutional design, environmental legislation, and enforcement (12, 23, 26, 42, 43 ). China is already making progress in capacity building. Strategically, China is trying to establish an integrative decision-making mechanism for harmonizing the environment and economic development. The country is changing its mode of economic development and promoting a sustainable economy that includes resource recycling. This provides a favorable sociopolitical environment for making policies and laws that are oriented toward sustainable development. Financially, more investment will be allocated to the ecological and environmental sectors for persistent growth of national economic strength and for better protection and rehabilitation of the environment. Environmental protection and ecological rehabilitation depend largely on the development of science and technology. In the National MidLongTerm Plan on Science and Technology Development (20062020), key environmental research fields and priorities have been determined. These include efficient production, use, and conservation of natural resources; environmental monitoring, rehabilitation, and pollution control; and green production in the industrial sector.
Bo-jie Fu is a professor at the State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for EcoEnvironmental Sciences (RCEES), and Bureau of Science and Technology for Resource and Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Xu-liang Zhuang is an associate professor at the Bureau of Science and Technology for Resource and Environment, CAS. Gui-bin Jiang is a professor at and the director of the State Key Laboratory of Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology, RCEES, CAS. Jian-bo Shi is an assistant professor at the State

Key Laboratory of Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology, RCEES, CAS. Yi-he L is an associate professor at the State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, RCEES, CAS. Address correspondence to Fu at

This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (40621061 and 20621703).

Opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the government of China or of any other organization.

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