China’s environment: “stable but grim”

China’s environment is stable, but the situation remains grim and the horizon full of challenges, the Chinese government said in a new study released last week, on World Environment Day.

Launching the latest “state of the environment” report, vice environment minister Wu Xiaoqing said results of its monitoring efforts through 2011 pointed to a bleak ecological picture overall and a country confronting many difficulties.

China emitted 65.2 billion tonnes of waste water in 2011, including 2.6 million tonnes of ammonia, the report said. Chemical oxygen demand (a measure of water pollution) was down 2.04% on the previous year.

Sulphur dioxide emissions, meanwhile, fell by 2.21% to 22.2 million tonnes, but nitrogen oxide emissions were up 5.73% at 24 million tonnes, missing by a wide margin the targeted reduction of 1.5%.

Around 3.3 million tonnes of industrial solid waste was produced during the year.

Overall, China’s surface water is only lightly polluted, the report said, but algal blooms pose an increasing problem for its lakes and rivers. Of the 26 lakes examined, more than half were found to be in a eutrophic state. Of 4,727 groundwater points in over 200 cities, more than half had poor to very poor water quality.

Acid rain zones cover around 12.9% of the country, with distribution areas concentrated along the south side of the Yangtze river and east of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, the authors said.

The report also touched on air-pollution data – a topic of heated public attention in China over the past six months. Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, the Yangtze River Delta, the Pearl River Delta and other key areas, including municipalities and provincial capitals will be the first to implement new air-quality standards, it said. The first phase of implementation will involve 74 cities, with a total of 496 monitoring sites, and the first data will be released by the end of December.

Meanwhile, early data from pilot monitoring programmes suggests average levels of PM2.5 in city air are around 58 micrograms per cubic metre, exceeding new standards of 35 micrograms per cubic metre.

Discussing air pollution, vice-minister Wu made a plea for foreign embassies – read the US embassy – to stop publishing air-quality data: “We hope that individual embassies will respect China’s relevant rules and regulations, and that they will stop publishing non-representative information about air quality,” he said.

Wu added that pollution from road vehicles is another serious problem for Chinese cities. The Ministry of Environmental Protection is trying to strengthen control over exhaust fumes, intensifying the efforts to phase-out the most polluting cars and pushing for implementation, where possible, of upgraded fuel standards.

The report stressed that, as a consequence of agricultural industrialisation and the accelerating integration between city and countryside, rural environmental problems are escalating. Rural villages and farms now make a major contribution to pollution. Data collected from 364 villages indicated almost 20% do not comply with air-quality standards. Farmland surrounding landfill sites, as well as soil near factories, showed heavy levels of pollution.

This article is translated and published here as part of our Green Growth project, a collaboration between chinadialogue and The Energy Foundation.

Translated by chinadialogue volunteer Claudia Vernotti