If China Sets An Eco-target, It Reaches It

By Asit Biswas, Cecilia Tortajada 25 February, 2021

Global water gurus Biswas & Tortajada are confident it will be a 'Beautiful China' by 2035, see why

China's economic boom has caused some serious environmental problems; since 1983, China has been elevating the importance of environmental protection
China's drastic actions to prioritise envrion has worked: nearly all environ targets of 13FYP have been achieved - incl. 45% drop in carbon emission per unit of GDP
Also, no global city has shown improvement in air quality as Beijing; with actions continuing (plastic, waste sorting), confident that 'Beautiful China' 2035 target will be met

The article was first published in China Daily in Oct 2020. Click here to view.

China has made remarkable progress in terms of economic and social development since it launched reform and opening-up. In 1978,China’s per capita GDP was a meagre $156. By 2019, it had reached $10,276, an incredible 66-fold increase in just four decades. No other country has enjoyed such phenomenal economic growth for so long. In fact, in terms of purchasing power parity, China’s economy is now the largest in the world, at $22.5 trillion, with the United States being second at $20.5 trillion, followed by the European Union at $19.9 trillion.

But China’s breakneck growth has also created some serious environmental problems.

China’s economic boom has caused serious environmental problems

After playing a constructive role at the United Nations Conference on Human Development in Stockholm in June 1972, China convened the first National Conference on Environmental Protection under the State Council in August 1973. The conference put a devised framework for environmental management in terms of overall planning, rational layout, comprehensive utilisation, environmental protection, and people’s participation and benefit.

Eco-damage major side effect of growth

In December 1978, the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China made the momentous decision to introduce reform and opening-up policies, which unleashed an unprecedented and continuous economic boom. However, as a major side effect of fast-paced growth, environmental deterioration was visible in many places by 1983. So during the second National Conference on Environmental Protection in 1983, then vice-premier Li Peng announced that environmental protection would be made a basic State policy in the long run.

During the 1990s, environmental pollution reached a dangerous level. And it was during this period that China launched its first large-scale pollution control program called “33211” which covered three rivers (Huaihe, Haihe and Liaohe), three lakes (Dianchi, Taihu and Chaohu), two pollution control parameters (sulphur dioxide and acid rain), one city (Beijing) and one sea (Bohai). However, overall progress was limited.

By 1983 environmental deterioration was visible in many places…

…during the 1990s, pollution reached dangerous levels…

In the 8th Five-Year Plan (1991-95), China included a comprehensive national environmental protection program, which was integrated with the national economic and social development plans. During this period, China also started shouldering more global environmental responsibilities, and made reducing greenhouse gas emissions a national goal. And in 1998, China upgraded the State Environmental Protection Administration from vice-ministerial to ministerial level, demonstrating the importance it attached to the environment.

Under the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10),China made sulphur dioxide and chemical oxygen demand binding indicators for development. And reducing environmental pollution became a main task for all regions and departments, and a common concern for the whole society.

During the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) period, huge funds were made available to reduce environmental degradation and build clean industries, and most of the targets for energy consumption and reduction of carbon and other pollutant emissions were met.

…in 2014, China “declared war” on pollution

In 2014, during the annual session of the National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang, acknowledging that the actions taken were inadequate to meet the challenges China was facing, “declared war” on pollution and pledged to crack down on polluters and negligent officials “with an iron fist”-and described smog as “nature’s red-light warning against inefficient and blind development”.

Any objective review of the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) will show it has been a game changer for China. The plan has promoted the transition to ecological civilization and green growth through significantly strengthened environmental policies and legislation, which have reinforced earlier efforts to control environmental pollution, and promoted circular economy.

The 13th FYP (2016-20) has been a game changer for China

President Xi Jinping has been a strong supporter of “ecological civilisation” in which economic growth and environmental well-being are pursued concurrently. In August 2005, when Xi was the Party secretary of Zhejiang province, he visited a small village, Yucun, in the province’s mountainous northwest area. Between 2003 and 2005, three mining companies and a cement factory had been closed down in the area and, as a result, the village’s GDP had reduced from more than 3 million yuan ($447,433) to 200,000 yuan, a near 90 percent decline. Xi had then prophetically said: “Lucid waters and lush mountains can be as precious as mountains of gold and silver”.

Green development a pleasant change

Xi visited Yucun village again in April 2020. The local residents are now earning money from the area’s rich natural resources such as bamboo, as well as from eco-tourists, the majority of them from Shanghai, Hangzhou and Nanjing. As for the village’s per capita income, it has increased to about 50,000 yuan, a remarkable turnaround.

Nearly all environmental targets of the 13FYP have been achieved

Furthermore, nearly all the environmental targets of the 13th Five-Year Plan have been achieved, which many people thought was impossible. Consider the following achievements:

  • In 2016, China joined the Paris Agreement on climate change. It has reduced its carbon emission per unit of GDP by 45.8 percent from the 2005 level, exceeding the highest target ahead of schedule.
  • The share of non-fossil fuels in China’s primary energy consumption increased from 12 to 14.3 percent from 2017 to 2018, with power generation from renewable energy sources accounting for 26.7 percent of the total power output in 2018-and the percentage has been increasing steadily since then.
  • The total emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are likely to be reduced by more than 15 percent by the end of this year compared with the 2015 levels.
  • Non-biodegradable single-use plastic bags will not be allowed in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai by the end of this year, and across all other cities and towns by 2022, while the catering and restaurant sector will reduce the consumption of single use plastic bags by 30 percent by 2020, and completely stop using them by 2025.

Mandatory sorting of waste at source

About 35 percent of waste will be recycled by the end of this year in nearly 50 cities. Shanghai has already become the first metropolis in China to make waste sorting at source mandatory; and to ensure businesses and government organizations comply with the rules, it will fine violators up to $14,500. Also, China banned the import of all foreign recyclable trash, including non-industrial plastics, papers and textiles, in 2018.

Beijing’s avg concentration of PM2.5 reduced by 53% & sulpjur dioxide reduced by 85%…

…no other city in the world has shown such dramatic improvement in air quality in 7 years

In Beijing, the average concentration of PM2.5 (particulates with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less) in 2019 was 42 micrograms/m3 compared with 89.5 micrograms/m3 in 2013, a 53 percent reduction. During the same period, the concentration of sulphur dioxide fell from 28 to 4 micrograms/m3, an 85 percent reduction. Although Beijing still has a long way to go to enjoy clean air and blue skies throughout the year, no other city in the world has shown such dramatic improvement in air quality in seven years.

The density of PM2.5 in prefecture-level cities is likely to drop by more than 18 percent by the end of 2020 compared with the 2015 level, and the number of days of good air quality is expected to reach 80 percent in such cities by the end of this year.

China’s forest stock has increased by 1.3 billion cubic meters since 2015; it will increase by another 3.2 billion cubic meters by 2030. In fact, NASA’s study shows that during the 2000-17 period, China alone was responsible for more than 25 percent of new global green cover.

More important, while addressing the UN General Assembly recently, Xi announced that China’s CO2 emissions will peak before 2030 and it will become carbon neutral by 2060.

“We are reasonably confident Xi’s idea of a beautiful China by 2035 will be reached…”

Having visited China about 100 times since 1980, we are reasonably confident Xi’s idea of a beautiful China by 2035, in all probability, will be reached before the deadline. Because when China sets a target, it makes sure it reaches it.

Further reading

  • China Can Water Down Impact Of Floods – China has long suffered from floods; 7/10 worst floods were in China. Global water gurus Asit Biswas & Cecilia Tortajada look at the great advancements China has made to mitigate flood impacts
  • Greening The Yellow River For A Beautiful China – As President Xi reiterates the Yellow River’s importance, Dr Zhanfeng Dong from the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning expands on policies for “黄河宁,天下平” – a stable Yellow River, peace in China
  • Becoming Beautiful: Property Rights For Natural Resources – The Ministry of Natural Resources is creating a landmark rights system for each natural resource, from coal and gas to forests and water. What does this mean and where are the pilots? Find out in our review
  • Top 10 Responsible Investment Trends In China In 2020 – With their finger on the pulse, SynTao Green Finance runs through 10 key trends on responsible investing in China in 2020
  • Asia, Why On Earth Would We Leave Our Future To G7? – With G7’s absent leadership & inability to plan for pandemics, CWR’s Debra Tan calls for Asia to step-up & lead the global fight against our climate crises. Tycoons, think about it – what’s the point of building empires that will kill your grandchildren?

More on Latest

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.
Read more from Cecilia Tortajada →