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The terrible cost of China’s growth (part one)

Rapid development has brought great gains to China. But pollution, the loss of land and the destruction of ecosystems will hold back the country’s future growth, write Jiang Gaoming and Gao Jixi.

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China has seen rapid economic growth since the start of the reform era in 1979. Annual GDP growth averaged 9.6% between 1979 and 2004. In 2004, GDP growth reached 10.1%, an achievement that attracted global attention. Over this period the population has grown sharply; huge quantities of resources have been consumed; environmental pollution has worsened; ecosystems have been wrecked; and vast areas of land have been lost. This has given rise to all manner of environmental problems. The economy has grown, but the environment has suffered. Over the past 27 years, China has adhered to an economic model characterised by high levels of pollution, emissions and power consumption, combined with low levels of efficiency. It has repeated the “pollute first, clean up later” model that Western nations adhered to during their early stages of capital accumulation.

The Tang-dynasty poet Du Fu once wrote: “Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure,” yet we can only reflect that while our country endures, our hills and rivers have been devastated. Environmental degradation harms public health, affects social stability and holds back China’s sustainable economic growth. It is a major problem, one which threatens not only the development but also the survival of the Chinese people.

Decreases in cultivated land

Remote-sensing surveys show that China’s cultivated land area plummeted between 1988 and 2000, from 1,307,400 square kilometres in 1991 to 1,282,400 square kilometres in 2000 – from 1.8 mu (0.0012 square kilometres) per head to 1.5 mu (0.0010 square kilometres) per head. Construction accounted for 56.6% of the decrease, 21% of land was forested, 16% was flooded and 4% became grassland.

During the 1990s, the number of cities in China’s east increased from 315 to 521. Each year, an average of 767.42 square kilometres is built on, with this figure growing at an average of 5.76% every year. The land around Beijing has borne the brunt of this, with the city expanding by about 20 square kilometres per year.  Besides urban construction, the effects of industry and mining account are also significant. Statistics from the provinces of Jilin, Jiangsu, Fujian, Henan, Hubei and Hunan show that land given over to mining development increased 1.96 times between 1986 and 2000, and the land area that was damaged increased by 4.71 times.

Over this period some cultivated land was added: 24.2% of it by reclaiming woodland, 66% from grasslands and 1.9% from bodies of water. But this was all obtained at the expense of natural ecosystems. Over the last 40 years, land reclamation has lead to the loss of 11,900 square kilometres of coastal shallows, with industry taking more than 10000 square kilometres of coastal wetlands. Half of China’s coastal shallows are now completely destroyed. And despite this, the trend of overall loss of cultivated land has not been reversed.

Where the loss of cultivated land is due to a change in usage, the soil itself at least remains, though sealed below concrete and asphalt. However, soil that is swept away by wind and water is lost forever. In 1999, 3.56 million square kilometres of land were affected by erosion due to wind, water and freeze-thaw cycles. Of this land, 82.53% lies in China’s west. The country has 1.74 million square kilometres of desert spread across 30 provinces, over 90% of which is in the west. An astonishing 1.6 billion tonnes of soil is swept into the Yellow River every year, approximately 400 million tonnes of which is deposited on the riverbed downstream, causing it to rise between eight and 10 centimetres annually. During the past 40 years, the riverbed in the lower reaches of the Yellow River has risen by two metres, and on average it stands three to five metres higher than the land that it flows through. In places it is as much as 10 metres higher. The Yangtze River basin also loses 2.4 billion tonnes of soil per year. 

With the loss of soil, valuable nutrients are lost. In the Yellow River basin alone, about 40 million tonnes of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are lost annually – more than the total consumption of China’s fertiliser industry in 2003 (39.9 million tonnes). A conservative estimate, factoring in soil lost to water erosion in the Yangtze River basin and wind erosion in arid and semi-arid regions, puts annual loss at five times that figure. The lost nutrition is replaced artificially, atmospherically and with ore, resulting in serious environmental pollution. China’s government should take urgent and effective measures to prevent the further loss of soil.


Photo by vailpost


The threat to China’s forests

According to State Forestry Administration figures, forestry coverage in China rose from 12.98% in 1986 to 16.55% in 1999, a growth of 33%. But we need to be clear about what went into those figures. Many areas adjusted the canopy density rate used to define a “forest” downwards from 0.3 to 0.2. Bushes and shrubs were also added to the figures. It is possible that the amount of forest did not actually increase – only the figures did. In China no old-growth forest remains, and forests over a century old are extremely rare. Even if the above figures are accurate, China’s huge population means that the per capita average is extremely low – only 21.3% of the global average. In terms of volume, China has only 12.5% of the global per capita average of 72 cubic metres.

It should be noted that although central government’s investment in forestry has been gradually increasing, forest management policy’s disregard for the environment has led to a potential threat from weak and unsustainable single-species forests. Between the 1950s and 1990s, the forested area affected by disease and pests increased six-fold. This increase was greatest in the 1990s, 196% of the increase during the 1980s. If China’s vast subtropical mountainous areas were sealed off and human interference reduced, their broadleaf evergreen forests would recover. But tragically, paper manufacturers have felled natural forests in order to plant the invasive eucalyptus tree. Intervention by the authorities has been too weak to prevent this destruction, and some local forestry authorities have even profited from collusion with interest groups.

China’s water crisis

China consumed a total of 556.7 billion cubic metres of water in 2001, 13.2 billion cubic metres more than in 1998. Most of this increase came not from replenishable surface water, but from groundwater obtained by drilling – water that should be left for future generations. Water usage rates for major river basins such as the Huai River, Liao River and Yellow River have reached 60%; the rate in the Hai River is 90% and for the Hei River the rate is 110%. The internationally-recognised warning level is between 30% and 40%.

An inefficient use of water resources and a lack of water conservation awareness mean that even this massive overuse does not meet our so-called “needs.” A total of 60% of China’s 669 cities face water scarcity, and of these, 110 face serious water shortages. Around 60 areas suffer from lowered groundwater levels, with a zone measuring 30,000 to 50,000 square kilometres in the North China Plain being the world’s largest. Over-extraction of groundwater not only happens in China’s arid north, but also in the water-rich south. Subsidence affects 46 cities in 16 provinces, including Shanghai, Tianjin, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanxi. In south China’s Suzhou, 180 square kilometres of land has subsided over 60 centimetres since 1949. In Wuxi, 59.5 square kilometres has subsided by the same amount, and 43 square kilometres in Changzhou.

The relatively water-rich Sanjiang Plain, in northeast China, has also seen a large-scale extraction of water and soil degradation, has led to the loss of wetlands. In the past decade, the northern part of the plain lost 105 square kilometres of wetland. The Songnen Plain and Liao River delta have lost 1,820 square kilometres and 230 square kilometres hectares respectively.

But China's water crisis is not a purely underground phenomena, it also manifests itself in the loss of glaciers on high plateaus. Glaciers are China’s “solid reservoirs” and an important source of water for arid regions. Global warming caused glaciers north of the Sichuan-Tibet highway in Nyingtri (Lingzhi) to shrink by 100 metres between 1986 and 1998. This retreat will directly impact the progress of the western branch of China’s South to North Water Transfer project.

The destruction of China's ecosystems

There are ten main types of land ecosystem in the world, and China has nine: tropical rainforest, evergreen broadleaf forests, deciduous broadleaf forests, conifer forest, mangrove forest, grasslands, alpine meadows, desert and tundra. The only ecosystem it lacks is the African savannah, though regions such as the Hunsandake, Keerqin, Mu-us and Hunlun Buir have the same structure and function. China is therefore the only country in the world which may feature all of the world's ecosystems.

But unfortunately, every one of these ecosystems is suffering. Aside from China’s well-documented loss of forests and expanding deserts, alpine meadows, temperate grasslands and mangrove forests are also being seriously degraded. The Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is one of the worlds largest, highest and most unique ecosystems. But long-standing over-grazing and misuse has caused serious degradation of its alpine meadows, mainly demonstrated by the drop in hay production from 300 kilograms per mu (667 square metres) in the 1960s, to 100 kilograms today. This destruction is also attested to in the region’s increasing mole-rat infestation: from eight to 10 mole rats per hectare in the past, to more than 30 today.

Ninety percent of China's usable grasslands display varying degrees of damage, and this area is expanding by 20,000 square kilometres per year. Of this lost grassland, 55% is being used for cultivation, and 30% has simply become unusable. The majority of grasslands in the west of China are over-used; in Xinjiang the rate of overuse is 121%, in Ningxia is 72% and in Inner Mongolia is 66%.

Mangrove forests are globally recognised as one of the world’s most productive and diverse ecosystems. China's mangrove forests are mostly located to the south of the Fujian coast and at one time covered 2,500 square kilometres. In the 1950s, they covered 500 square kilometres. Now they only cover 150 square kilometres. Since 1949, exploitation, felling and inefficient usage of coastal mangrove forests has brought unprecedented destruction, especially in the past 20 years.

The UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) lists 740 endangered species. Of these, 189 are in China, around a quarter of the total. Between 4,000 and 5,000 of China’s plant species are endangered or approaching endangerment, from 15 to 20% of the country’s total number of plant species. Environmental changes and the fragmentation of habitats are causing this loss of biodiversity. For instance, in the natural forests of Nenjiang county in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, endangered species were distributed across 240 different locations, with an average size of 0.8 square kilometres. By 2000 this had fragmented to 343 different locations with an average size of 0.68 square kilometres. 

NEXT: How can China strengthen environmental protection?

Jiang Gaoming is a chief researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany and a doctoral candidate tutor, vice secretary-general of UNESCO’s China-MAB Committee and director of the China Environmental Culture Promotion Association. He is recognized for his introduction of the concepts of “urban vegetation” and “using natural forces to restore China’s ecosystems.”

Jixi Gao is chief specialist and head of the Institute of Ecology at the ChinaAcademy of Environmental Sciences. He has long been involved in the evaluation of functional ecologies, environmental assessments of regional development strategies and research into environmental pollution testing.

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匿名 | Anonymous


这篇文章超出了中国之前试图对环境的决算。国家环境保护总局和中华人民共和国国家统计局九月份所报道(说明中国污染的成本每年到达640亿美元)确实是存在的,然而, 这只是片面性的, 因为当中只包含了对碳排放的测量,并且只是在二十个多当中的十个(中外对话的王志浩报道)。这篇文章主要是阐述土地和资源的损失,对生态系统无法还原的损害和日益恶化的水利危机。虽然我们可能还不回看到一个“绿色的国内生产总值”,看来这篇文章让我们来更接近疑点。SL

Accounting for growth

This article goes beyond previous attempts at environmental accounting in China. While September's SEPA and National Bureau of Statistics report (which concluded that China's pollution costs the country $64 billion a year) was a positive thing, it only scratched the surface by measuring pollution emissions, and only some of them - 10 of 20+, according to Stephen Green on chinadialogue. This article factors in the losses of land and resources, the irreperable damage to ecological systems and the worsening water crisis. While we may still not see a figure for "Green GDP" emerge just yet, this seems to bring us much closer indeed. SL

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匿名 | Anonymous


SL, 谢谢您所发表的评论。我相信它恰好包含了文章上下则的所有的意义。当住在北京的时侯,我发觉统计数值在中国政治文化上扮演着非常重要的角色。因此,我希望类似的“绿色决算”,尽管是存有它的坏处,然而都可以成为五年计划和报章上报道程序的一部分。在中国大学里学习经济的学生是否有研究所谓的“生态系统的服务”这项构思呢?

The power of statistics

Thanks for your comment, SL. I think it nicely captures the larger meaning of this two-part series. While living in Beijing, I felt that statistics played a very significant role in Chinese political culture. So I hope that this kind of green accounting, despite its weak points, can become a routine part of five-year plans and newspaper reporting. Do economics students at Chinese universities study the idea of "ecosystem services"?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


谢谢这篇既有吸引力而又重要的文章。你所指的是世界上十大主要的土地生态系统。然而,你所列出的并没有包括沼泽湿地和泥灰地。泥灰地可以在热带和高緯度陸地寻获,它估计占据了全球土地的3% (看例子http://www.peatlandsni.gov.uk/formation/global.htm)。就比如说冻土地带,泥灰地有储存二氧化碳和甲烷的作用,因此,这可能是它们它被视为重要的因素之一。土地使用的改变和气候的变化可能造成泥灰地及沼泽湿地大量的排放这些温室气体。卡斯帕•亨德森

World ecosystems

Thanks for this fascinating and important article. You refer to ten major types of land ecosystem in the world. But your list does not include wetlands and peatlands.

Found in both the tropics and high latitudes, peatlands are estimated to cover about 3% of the global landmass (see, for example, here: http://www.peatlandsni.gov.uk/formation/global.htm).

One of the reasons they may be considered significant is that -- like tundra - peatlands store carbon and methane. Changes in land use and climate change may result in large releases of these greenhouse gases from peatlands, and from wetlands.

Caspar Henderson

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Don't just blame China

Actually, many developed countries have inescapable responsibilities for pollution in China, as they are polluting China in many ways.

Many developed countries have funded factories in China, and are taking advantage of China's weak environmental laws. The businesses they fund reduce and even ignore efforts in pollution control in China, even though they know it is wrong. They dare not behave the same way in their own countries where they will be punished for these illegalities.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


人不是上帝,我们必须在一定限度之内生活和开展活动,对于开展经济活动也是同样,同样要受到一定限度的制约。超出最佳限额的一些“服务”(生态系统服务如营养物回收,天然气管理,气候管理以及水的再处理)也会慢慢恶化。除此以外,能源资源的储存也会溃减,其速度远大于其更新速度(例如鱼类)或者远快于人类发展出清洁替代品的速度(如石油)。所以这样就出现了“非经济增长” 这么一说。如果正如Gaoming Jiang和Gaoming Jiang所说,环境恶化威胁到了中国人民的生存,那么经济增长实际上是弊大于利。
Gaoming Jiang和Jixi Gao写道:“由于污染而引起的经济损失不断上涨,如果不加以控制很可能会威胁到中国经济发展。” 在我看来此观点似乎很荒谬,因为作者把生态问题看作是经济发展的障碍—也暗示着经济发展对他们来说是非常诱人的目标。但是经济发展本身就是问题所在。在可持续性生态环境内对物质财富的追求往往只能承受一定量的经济活动,超出则如同不断繁殖的癌细胞,最终会杀死其载体。
这样就阐述了中国乃至全世界的问题—中国人的未来也依赖这种系统的创立。 Brian Davey

Setting Scale Limits on Economic Activity

Human beings are not gods, we must live and operate inside limits, that is also true for economic activities which are subject to scale limits. Beyond optimal scale limits the "services" provided by nature (ecological system services like nutrient cycling, gas regulation, climate regulation and the water cycle) degrade. In addition, resource stocks of energy and materials deplete, faster than they can be replenished (fish) or clean substitutes developed (oil). That is why there is such a thing as "uneconomic growth". If, as Gaoming Jiang and Jixi Gao say, environmental degradation "threatens the survival of the Chinese people" then the costs of growth are exceed the benefits.

When Gaoming Jiang and Jixi Gao write that "The economic losses caused by pollution are rising, and if they are not controlled they will hold back China’s growth" this seems paradoxical to me because the authors are here presenting the ecological problems as barriers to economic growth - which seems to imply that economic growth is still a desirable goal to them. Yet economic growth is actually itself the problem. The pursuit of material wealth is happening in a sustaining and containing ecological sphere which can only tolerate so much material economic activity before the economy becomes like a multiplying cancer that kills its host.

This means the first task of ecological economics is to impose scale limits on the economy - policy instruments are needed for each area of degradation of eco-system services and for each area of natural resource depletion. Policy instruments to impose scale limits are also needed for the economy as a whole, as a macro entity. For the economy as a whole the best policy instrument would be to establish a permit system which sets a strict cap on the use of the earth's atmosphere as a greenhouse gas dump. (The "cap and share system" would be my preference). Once scale limits are set economic development operates in a different way - more efficient methods of operating with the scale boundraries are looked for. Setting scale limits has to be done in a way that is considered fair between countries and within countries - to economists this is a matter of distribution and social justice. It requires a free society able to debate and research issues, with a framework of law and an ability for people to organise to protect the interest of vulnerable people and able to defend their environment. After that, and only in this framework, can the market be left to to find the least cost and more efficient way of allocating resources.

That defines the problem for China and the rest of the world - indeed its obvious that the future of humanity depends on China's ability to create such system. Brian Davey

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Re: Setting scale limits

Brian Davey: I think you've misidentified the problem. 'Economic growth' is not so much the problem, as the current mode of economic growth. For so long we have grown economies in a way that destroys the environment. With recent technological developments, many of which have been decidedly lo-tech, we have been reminded that we have the brain power to find other ways to get rich.

And yes, policy and regulation are important to enforcing a short term solution, but the key to long term survival is not just China changing, but a fundamental change in the mode of the whole world's economic growth, from the crude exploitative model we have now to a sustainable, circular future.

Anonymous who mentioned the fault of foreign investors: You are absolutely right, but at the same time the developing world must take steps to protect itself. Capitalists are opportunists looking for maximum short-term profit. They don't care about the long-term consequences of their actions, they will have the money to protect themselves, everybody else is a tool to be used in their quest for wealth.


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匿名 | Anonymous


Chris Waugh: 经济的发展而不牵涉物质和能源发展的同时,也不造成生态系统的破坏这一构思是难以被接受的。对于富有国家所消耗的能源,估计大约一半是用于扩充国家经济的计划。这并不令人惊讶。仅是保持或者对目前的生产过程进行再生, 其所消耗的能源总是少过制造新产品。额外的能源消耗,是经济发展上不可缺少的,然而,这些庞大的能源都是来自化石燃料。都是取自日益耗尽的化石能源,经燃烧后所产生的废弃物都被排放到生态塘系统里。错误的信念是那可能是一种“纯洁的发展”,一直以来都受到“去除物质化”的西方经济所呵护,越来越偏向服务性质的资讯的处理方式为中心。在这世界的一些地方,这一部分的信念可能是因为生产污染物的程序已经大量的迁至中国,在那里, 这一切都不在他们的视野和思想当中。即使服务性质和资讯的经济已经渗入并且具体的表达在物质公共设施上,例如:计算方法通信网络和交通系统,都必须建设在某些地区。然而,多数的生意事务都偏向富裕的一群,一些新机件的操作,具体上包含了消耗大量的能源,例如机动车辆、电冰箱、洗衣机、微波炉、游戏机、电视机……确实是正确的, 那当然我们将以负责任的人类在所谓精神上的成长, 如果我们能够依据这一信息, 彼此之间以更好的关系生活在这一低污染的世界上。然而,这将是人类精神上的成长,也许是在“心灵”成长的范围内,在整个成长的过程中学习生活和接受限度。这并不是经济成长,最终只是一种幻想,对物质没有了限度。

Growth and ecology

Chris Waugh: The idea that growth can occur without growing throughput of materials and energy and without ecological destruction is difficult to accept. It has been estimated that around half of the energy used in a wealthy country is necessitated by projects designed to expand the economy. This should not surprise. Merely maintaining or reproducing existing production processes requires much less energy than producing something new. This extra energy throughput, required by growth, is overwhelming derived from fossil fuels. It is taken from depletable sources of fossil energy sources which are burned and their waste products discharged into eco-system sinks.

The illusion that there can be a form of "angelised growth" has largely been fostered by the 'de-materialisation' of western economies which have become much more service and information processing focused. This illusion in one part of the globe has partly been possible because polluting material production processes have been re-located - to a large degree to China, where they are out of sight and out of mind. Even a service and information economy is embedded and embodied in a material infrastructure - e.g. a computer telecommunications network and a transport system - which must be manufactured somewhere. And most businesses are only too keen to sell people who grow wealthier new gadgets that embody lots of energy and materials in their production and which throughput lots of energy and materials in their use - cars, fridges, washing machines, micro-wave cookers, play stations, televisions....

It's true, of course, that we would grow psychologically as responsible human beings if we could take in and live according to this message in better relationships with each other in a juster and less polluted world. However, this would be human psychological growth - perhaps even "spiritual" growth insofar as spiritual progress is about learning to live with and accept limits. It is not economic growth which is ultimately a fantasy that there are no material limits.