Can China Clean Up Its Act?

By Asit Biswas, Cecilia Tortajada 17 November, 2017

Biswas & Tortajada on how China's unparalleled economic growth is forcing it to tackle its environmental issues

China’s economic growth has come with serious environ costs; its contaminated soil area is larger than the UK
Strong govt action is forcing low-end polluting industries to become more environmentally efficient or shut down
China has no option but to tackle environ issues; don't be surprised if it cleans up as fast as its economic growth

This article was first published by Asia & The Pacific Policy Society on 18th October 2017. The authors have kindly allowed us to re-publish the piece. For the original please see here

Since its market reforms in 1978, China has recorded an average annual growth rate of around 10 per cent, the fastest growth rate ever recorded over three decades in human history. From 2003 to 2015, after joining the World Trade Organization, China’s gross domestic product increased from less than USD1.7 trillion to over USD11.1 trillion, and its per capita GDP rose from less than USD1,300 to over USD8,100.

China’s phenomenal economic growth has come with serious environmental costs

This phenomenal economic growth, though, has come with the serious environmental costs of intensive air, water and soil pollution. According to the World Health Organization, China is the world’s deadliest country for air pollution, contributing to more than one million deaths in 2012. Only India (600,000 deaths) comes anywhere close.
Water pollution is also pervasive. In 2014, 15.7 per cent of the country’s groundwater was found to be ‘very poor’, and another 44 per cent ‘relatively poor’. Only 3 per cent of urban groundwater sources are classified as ‘clean. In the North China plain, covering some 400,000 square kilometres, 70 per cent of groundwater is unfit for human contact.

Soil pollution is a hidden problem…

…the area of land contaminated amounts to 250,000km2 – bigger than the entirety of the UK

Air and water pollution are visible. But soil pollution is a hidden problem that has not received proper attention. Heavily contaminated soil can have lush and green vegetation in the same way as healthy soil. Cleaning soil pollution is expensive and takes decades. The removal and cleaning of only 1200 cubic metres of soil, over 6.5 hectares, in Love Canal, USA, took 21 years and millions of dollars.

Chinese National Survey data released in 2014 indicated that 16.1 per cent of all soil and 19.4 per cent of farmland were contaminated by chemical pollutants and dangerous metals like arsenic, cadmium and lead. The area of land contaminated amounts to 250,000 square kilometres – bigger than the entirety of the United Kingdom. Some 35,000 square kilometres of land is so polluted that no food crops can be grown.

With the effects of environmental pollution in China becoming more devastating and visible, the country’s government this year strengthened its Environmental Protection Law. The new law stipulates that local officials who may be complicit in environmental transgressions can be fired or demoted, business leaders who do not comply with the regulatory requirements to control pollution can be detained for 15 days, and violators whose actions can be considered to be criminal can be prosecuted. Companies violating environmental standards may have their utilities cut, equipment confiscated, or could be shut down.
The new laws are much tougher. Previously, pollution fines were so low that it was cheaper for factories to pay the fines than take corrective actions. Equally, enforcement and implementation of the laws were weak and often non-existent.

The main performance indicator for local govt officials until the law change was economic growth

In addition, the central government had limited real power over the local government officials who are on the frontline of implementing environmental compliance. The main performance indicator for those local government officials until the law change was economic growth. As polluting companies were often important to the local economies, government officials had a strong incentive to turn a blind eye to environmental violations.
This laissez-faire attitude started to change when, in 2014, Premier Li Keqiang said: “We will declare war on pollution and fight it with the same determination as we battled poverty,” and environmental pollution has become “nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development.”

In July 2017, President Xi made pollution control one of the country’s top three priorities…

Then, in July 2017, President Xi Jinping informed all the ministers and governors that environmental pollution control would be one of the country’s top three priorities in the coming years along with poverty reduction and managing financial risk.
Shortly thereafter, an army of 5,600 inspectors from the Environment Ministry and Communist Party’s anti-corruption watchdog and personnel unit were dispatched to the provinces to see how the local officials are protecting the environment. The first of four rounds of inspection started last July.
During the first three rounds, some 18,000 polluting industries were fined over USD131 million and more than 12,000 officials were disciplined. The inspection teams included officials from the Party who can punish municipal and provincial officers for not taking their environmental tasks seriously. These punishments would adversely impact on their career prospects because party rules would bar them for promotions for 6-24 months.
By internalising environmental protection measures in party cadres’ performance evaluations, officials hoping for promotion have become especially sensitive towards taking environmental issues seriously.

The courts have also started discussing measures against polluters. In July 2016, a court in Shandong province imposed an unprecedented penalty of USD3.3 million on a glass manufacturer for emitting toxic gases containing 255 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 589 tonnes of nitrogen oxides, and 19 tonnes of dust particles, between November 2013 and February 2015, one month before the factory was ordered to be closed.

The strong actions of the govt are forcing low-end polluting industries to either become more environmentally efficient or shut down


The strong actions of the Chinese Government are forcing low-end polluting industries to either become more environmentally efficient or shut down.
Because of these new environmental safeguards, there will have to be some policy adjustments. Many of these policy adjustments were outlined in the 13thFive-Year Plan, 2016-2020. These include the introduction of measures to reduce all types of environmental pollution with specific targets, increase efficiencies of use of energy and other resources, and improve access to healthcare and education. These measures may reduce annual growth, but the focus will be on the quality of growth to achieve a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020.

Over the short term, there will undoubtedly be some disruptions to supply chains. However, the emphasis on environmental management will accelerate the establishment of new industries for monitoring, protection and other management services. This, over the medium–term, will more than make-up for any short-term losses in employment and economic activities caused by a rebalancing of the economy.
It should be noted that China really has no other option but to meet the current environmental problems head–on. If business as usual policies continue in coming years, the economic, social and health costs will become prohibitive.

Don’t be surprised if China cleans up at an unparalleled rate

As Western countries have learnt, it is far cheaper, both economically and socially, to live in a clean environment rather than in a polluted one. China grew economically at an unprecedented rate. Don’t be surprised if it also cleans up its environmental pollution at a similar unparalleled rate.

Further Reading

  • What ‘Xi’s Thought’ Means For Water – One key message from Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress was harmony between environment & economic growth, surely this bodes well for water? China Water Risk’s Feng Hu reviews
  • Green Development For A Beautiful China – The Minister of Environmental Protection Ganjie Li outlined the MEP’s achievements and future plans at the 19th People’s Congress. What are the key takeaways? China Water Risk’s Yuanchao Xu reviews
  • Brand Rankings On China Supply Chain Action – Kate Logan & Helen Ding from the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs expand on the 4th Annual CITI Evaluation Results. Which sectors are doing best? Which brands are taking the lead?
  • Creating Water Abundance From Scarcity – Water stewardship strategies are no longer enough to address water scarcity & quality issues so what can corporates do? Water Foundry’s CEO William Sarni shares his thoughts from innovative approaches to new business models to competitions
  • Learning From Singapore’s Circular Water Economy – Hong Kong is facing an imminent water crisis yet Singapore’s novel circular water economy approach may offer solutions from which HK can learn. Utrecht University’s Julian Kirchherr & Circular Economy Academy’s Ralf van Santen explore
  • Groundwater Shortage Calls For Urgent Action – China’s groundwater is overextracted and this needs immediate tackling. Prof Asit K Biswas & Kris Hartley from the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy explore solutions, from desalination to sponge cities
  • 2016 State of Environment Report Review – The signs are positive for China’s environment in 2016. Groundwater quality improved after 5 years of decline though there is mixed news for rivers & lakes. Is the tide turning in China’s ‘war on pollution’?
  • Environmental Law: 2 Years On – China’s new Environmental Protection Law has been in force more than two years now. Has it been enforced? What has the impact been? Who has been hit? Professor Wang Canfa from the University of Political Science and Law in Beijing reviews
  • 12FYP Water Quality Report Card – Bao Hang & Deng Tingting from Greenpeace East Asia share key findings from their report on provincial performance in the 12FYP. Which provinces met water quality targets? Which failed?
  • Blue Skies & 13FYP Green Development – Air pollution and the battle on “blue skies” was by far the major environmental focus at China’s Two Sessions. Water and soil are no less important but yet softer and more general targets were set for them. See China Water Risk Hongqiao Liu’s review for the key takeaways
Asit Biswas
Author: Asit Biswas
Professor Biswas is a leading authority on water, environment and development-related issues. He has been an advisor and confidant to Presidents, PMs and Ministers of 19 countries, six Heads of UN Agencies, two Secretary-Generals of OECD and several heads of IGOs and MNCs. He was also Director of Canada’s Department of the Environment. Asit co-founded the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), the World Water Council and the Third World Centre for Water Management and currently sits on the International Advisory Board of Pictet Asset Management and the Indian Institute of Technology and is Strategic Advisor to Singapore International Water Week as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor to the University of Glasgow. Asit is a distinguished Academician. With 950+ publications, his h-index of 44 makes him an ‘outstanding scientist’ and a Research Gate score of 41.89, puts him into the top 2.5% of all scientists across all disciplines globally. He founded the International Journal of Water Resources Development and is the author or editor of 88 books; his works have been translated into 41 languages. He has also seven Honorary Doctorates plus numerous prestigious global environment and water awards, ranging from the Aragon Environment Prize to the Stockholm Water Prize; Canada even named him Person of the Year in 1996.
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Cecilia Tortajada
Author: Cecilia Tortajada
Dr Tortajada is a leading international authority on urban water and wastewater management. She currently focuses on ensuring water future in terms of food, energy and environmental governance and ensuring water security through coordinated policies, which include water and natural resources management and water reuse. Dr Tortajada has advised major international institutions like FAO, UNDP, JICA, ADB, OECD, IDRC and GIZ, and has worked in numerous countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America plus Europe. She received the prestigious Crystal Drop Award and has been the only woman President of the International Water Resources Association during its 50 years of history. Dr Tortajada is currently a member of the OECD Initiative on Water Governance and juror for the Finnish Academy’s Euro One Million Millennium Technology Prize. She is also the Editor‐in‐Chief of the International Journal of Water Resources Development; Associate Editor of Water International; member of the Editorial Boards of the International Journal of Water Governance, Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, and Urban, Planning and Transport Research Journal; as well as Editor of book series with Routledge, Springer and Oxford University Press. Cecilia has also authored and edited over 40 books by major international publishers. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Mongolian and Spanish.
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