Go Green, China!

The sun sets over a hazy and polluted Beijing, China. The country failed to meet targets to improve energy use and cut pollution in 2006, underscoring the difficulty of protecting the environment amid its frantic economic boom. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown / AFP-Getty Images)

In a recent environmental sustainability conference featuring presentations by former Vice-president Al Gore and Dr. David Suzuki, held in Montreal, Canada, the two environmentalists emphasized the importance of a greener planet. As China rapidly expands economically through its manufacturing sector, the issue of global warming as it relates to that country was one of the key points focused upon.

In 2006, China established its financial position as the fourth strongest nation, with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) economic output of $2.68 trillion. With constant production demands from the Western world and the influx of people rushing into the Chinese market, the nation seems triumphant in its success. However, its booming economy simultaneously brings certain environmental consequences.

Currently, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are located in China, and it is the second largest emitter of energy-related carbon dioxide after the United States. China relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy needs, and discharges a large amount of pollutants into its rivers. The increase of the economy's energy demands is also the cause of higher greenhouse gas levels, as many Chinese companies build coal-fired plants and operate them without the government's consent.

According to a World Bank report issued in May 2006, China's greenhouse gas emissions increased by 33 percent between 1992 and 2002. However, Cheng Siwei, vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress quickly defended the nation's record by stating: "China's per capita emissions still remain below the world average. If you look at the history of emissions from the 1950's to 2002, we have contributed 10 percent. How can anyone say we are responsible?"

Global warming, led by increased greenhouse gas emissions, is causing the meltdown of China's Qinghai-Tibet glaciers. Based on research conducted by the country's Aero Geophysical Survey and Remote Sensing Center for Land and Resources, the glaciers have been melting at 131.4km a year over the last 30 years and will likely be reduced to a third of their current size by 2050, if global warming persists.

The water level in the Yangtze River is another sign of China's progress leading to environmental damage. Chinese hydrologists state that the river's water level is at its lowest in 140 years due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. This is causing a change of volume of water flows in some of China's lush valleys, in turn producing a severe shortage of water for millions of people in the central and western parts of the country. The situation is even more critical in northern areas, where the rivers are now running dry. The Yellow River, also known as the China Sorrow, has lost its ability to inflict destructive floods, and has run dry for 226 days. According to environmentalist Wang Yongchen, the water crisis is due to logging and draining of lakes, and by the over-exploitation of water resources.

Besides the water shortage in China, the waterways are also polluted. It is estimated that 70 percent of China's rivers and lakes are contaminated, with approximately 200 million tons of sewage and industrial waste pouring into them.

The water calamity is not the only critical factor that could lead to environmental catastrophe. The deforestation of China is also an alarming issue that geographers and environmentalists have been keeping a close eye on. It is estimated that the deforestation, caused by low rate fertilizers and farm chemicals, has created groundwater pollution, reduced land fertility, and caused geographical desertification by soil erosion in agricultural areas.

It is estimated that the desertification will lead to a loss of 5,800 square miles of grassland every year, which is approximately the size of Connecticut. The Minister of Forestry in China believes that, if no effective measures are adopted, desertification will expand by as much as 1,430 square miles annually over the next 10 years. The erosion of the soil has led to an increase of sandstorms in Beijing, and causes roughly a third of China's air pollution. The environmental degradation is not only negatively impacting China, but has also affected the air in Korea and Japan.

According to a new report released by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in January 2007, the world has 10 years to reverse carbon emissions, or climate change could lead to many parts of the planet becoming inhabitable. Nevertheless, under the conditions of the United Nations' Kyoto protocol, China as a developing country is under no obligation to cut emissions during the pact's first phase until 2012. The situation was worrisome to politicians gathered at the recent World Economic Forum in Switzerland. According to participants at the Davos forum, major emerging economies like China and India need to pay more attention to their greenhouse gas emissions.

As China represents one-sixth of the world's population and with an economy growing at 10 percent a year, its pollution has become a growing concern for those who see a possible forthcoming environmental disaster. If the country continues to discharge as much pollution as the Western countries did during their industrialization, the impact of global warming will become irreversible, and potentially lethal to the future of human civilization.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Jean Yang.