China's environmental HAZARDS | 11 juuli 17

Othmara Glass

Many of us have seen pictures of days in Beijing or some other Chinese city where the heavy smog blocks out the sun, or pictures of Chinese trying to protect themselves from the highly polluted air by wearing masks.

Air pollution is one of the most noticeable environmental hazards in China, but its by no means the only one. This blogpost will give an overview of China's pressing environmental issues and what the government is trying to do about it.

Smog in Shanghai (photo by Urmas Pappel)

Thick haze in China’s cities


According to WHO data, four out of the 20 world’s most polluted cities are located in China.[1] The amount of fine particles in the air constantly exceeds the World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines of 10 μg m−3 per year. 

The statistics is based on the amount PM2.5 in the air - fine particles of 2.5 micrometres or smaller in diameter (see map). PM2.5 is part of the emissions produced by cars, power plants and some industrial processes.

Besides particulate matters, sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are the most dangerous pollutants.  



The documentary “Under the dome” by the journalist Chai Jing shows impressively the dimension of air pollution in China and the consequences. Different studies estimate that between 300,000 and 1 million people die because of diseases related to air pollution.

It is not only the air, but also water and soil are heavily polluted. Even in the less industrialized parts of the country ground water pollution can be up to 80%, due to the heavy use of fertilizers in agriculture.[2]

War on pollution


The Central Government is aware of the problem and the (economic) costs that pollution causes. In 2014, China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang declared the “war on pollution”. 

The Environmental Protection Law has been reformed. The State Council has issued a series of regulations that urges local leaders to meet the air pollution reduction targets. Local government officials are in the same way accountable if “serious environmental events” happen in their jurisdiction.[3] 

The monitoring of PM2.5 in the air has been developed since 2013. Today mechanisms to track the air pollution have been introduced in more than 400 cities and the data is available for the public. (See the Real-time Air Quality Index.) In the 13th Five-Year-Plan (2016-2020) for the time China said that it will reduce the PM2.5 by 18 per cent by 2020.[4]

Air pollution in China is a result of economic growth and industrialization. The country is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. In 2015, China used 3.7 megatons of coal, accounting for 48 per cent the global coal consumption.[5]

Looking at China’s energy mix (see graph below) it becomes clear that in 2014 coal made up two-thirds of the country’s energy consumption, followed by oil (18%), hydropower (8%) and gas (5%).




On the one hand, the use of coal has been decreasing due to the economic downturn in the past years. On the other hand, China’s attempts to decrease its coal consumption have not only resulted in the rise of renewables, but also of nuclear energy. 

In the moment, nuclear power makes up only one per cent of China’s energy mix. The country has 36 nuclear power reactors in operation, 21 under construction, and more about to start construction.[6] Furthermore, the government aims to invest more than €320 billion in renewable energy resources. The share of renewable energy sources should increase to 15 per cent by 2020.[7]

Raising awareness of Chinese people


Yuxuan Chen grew up in Beijing. The 23-year-old woman came to Estonia the first time in August 2014 for an exchange. She agrees that the air is very bad in Beijing. Especially, after her stay in Estonia she became more cautious on air pollution. She says

It used to be better when I was younger, but back then it wasn’t such a big issue. Only five or six years ago smog became a real topic.


During the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, the Chinese government shut down factories. This contributed to the awareness that something is wrong, as people are just used to the smog. Yuxuan sees that the government tries to address the issue with more regulations. But she knows that it is hard, because the environment is already so destroyed.

In 2011, the local government in Beijing introduced a lottery license numbers to reduce the number of car registrations. Back then more than four million motor vehicles were registered in the capital per year, 251,000 since 2000.[8] As about 30% of Beijing’s air pollution may be caused by cars, the quota for license plates was cut to 90,000 in 2016.[9] At the same time the authorities encourage the purchase of electronic vehicles. These licenses are granted by queuing instead of lottery.[10]  


Within only a couple of years, China has become the biggest market new energy vehicles (NEV), as they are called by the state. With the 13th Five-Year Plan the party aims a total production and sales volume of five million of such vehicles by 2020. Besides subsidies for the manufacturers, consumers get tax reductions by buying a NEV. However, experts complain that the Chinese government also uses protectionist methods to increase the sales of Chinese NEV and make it harder for foreign companies, especially German automobile manufacturers.[11],[12]


With the growing awareness and dissatisfaction in the population the transparency on pollution has improved. The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) measures the level of air pollution in China. On the MEP website, everyone can see the daily air pollution in 367 cities, including a scale of pollution. 


Based on this air quality index, some cities (e.g. Beijing) introduced a four-color alert system in 2013. So far Beijing declared red alert three times since December 2015. The last one was in December 2016 when Beijing authorities declared a five-day pollution red alert, shutting down schools and factories, and telling people to stay at home.[13]



Green Buildings


The air pollution and the growing number of cars in China’s cities is related to the growing urbanization rate. By 2020 the government expects that 60 per cent of the population lives in the cities. That would be more than 800 million people. 

In its Urbanisation Plan 2014-2020 several goals are set to reduce the air pollution. The share of public transport to motorised travel should rise from 45% in 2012 to 60% in 2020. Half of new constructions are supposed to be green buildings.[14] 


Nanjing Vertical Forest, Nanjing Project by Stefano Boeri. Source:

The term refers to an environment-friendly and resource-efficient structure and processes of a building. Nanjing is a forerunner in the construction of green buildings by building China’s first “vertical forest” (see picture). 

The so-called Southern Capital is located in the Yangtze River Delta area in the East of China and accounts a population of 8.23 million. Next year the construction of the Nanjing Towers should be completed. 

The two towers of 200 meters and 108 meters’ height will provide space to 1,110 trees, and 2,500 cascading plants and shrub on the outside. The architects expect that the building absorbs 25kg of CO2 per year, and produces daily around 60kg of oxygen.[15]


Pollution as threat for the CCP


Environment is the issue that causes the most public protests in China. In this sense – if unsolved – pollution may be the biggest threat to the CCP’s autocratic rule. This has been realized but China political elite.

China became the world’s greatest carbon emitter in the world a decade ago. Now it seems to take the fight against pollution and climate change seriously. Especially after the US President Donald Trump announced that the USA will pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the government in Beijing has been stressing its commitment to climate protection.  


China’s government tries to fight air pollution on different levels and with various means. Shutting down factories, reducing the use of coal as well as the investment in green energy and technologies go along with more transparency and information about the problem.

Already in 1994, the first environmental NGO in China was registered. The Friends of Nature (FON) were founded by Liang Congjie (see picture below), who has good contacts to the Communist Party (CCP) and more specific to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body. 

Liang Congjie. Source:

Over the years FON became an umbrella organization for a lot of ecological NGOs. According to FON’s website more than 10,000 members have joined, including some 30 organizations.[16] In 2008, already more than 3,000 of such NGOs were registered. FON is supported by the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). The NGO uses media shaming to draw the people’s attention to environmental issues. 

Yuxuan hopes that the government will continue with its efforts to fight pollution. She also counts on the civil society to put pressure on the politicians. Yet, problems persist, besides controlling the media, the CCP also tries to control the civil society and the NGOs. 

In the different economic plans the problem of air pollution in China’s cities is more prominent than ever before. Corruption and the fear of social unrest when closing factories lead often to violations against the directives of the central government by both local authorities and business owners. Already in first five months of 2017, around 13,500 violations were reported, according to the MEP.[17] 

Air pollution is the most visible, but not the only environmental problem in China. Water and soil pollution, as well as desertification need to be tackled, too. The CCP has a long way to go before it can rest assured that its power is not undermined by environmental problems.

[1] WHO: Air pollution.  [16 June 2017].

[2] Yi, Lin: More Than 80 Percent of China’s Groundwater Polluted. The Epoch Times, 21 April 2016. [16 June 2017].

[3] Shambaugh, David: China’s Future. 2016, 91-92.

[4] Tatlow, Didi Kirsten: China has made strides in addressing air pollution, environmentalists say. New York Times, 16 Dec. 2016. [21 May 2016].

[5] Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2016.

[6] World Nuclear Association: Nuclear Power in China, 25 May 2017. [19 June 2017].

[7] Forsythe, Michael: China aims to spend at least $360 billion on renewable energy by 2020. New York Times, 5 January 2017. [19 June 2017].

[8] Feng, Suwei/Li, Qiang: Car Ownership Control in Chinese Mega Cities: Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou; JOURNEYS 2013, p. 44.

[9] Guo, Owen: Want to drive in Beijing? Good Luck in the License Plate Lottery. New York Times, 28 July 2016. [29 June 2017].

[10] Chun, Zhang: Beijing limits on car registration boost electric vehicles. Climate Home, 28 November 2016. [29 June 2017].

[11] Heilmann Sebastian: Wer baut das Auto von morgen? FAZ, 18 March 2017. [19 June 2017].

[12] Xiaoying, Du: Automakers charged up about China's e-car market. The Telegraph, 25 April 2015.  [19 June 2017].

[13] Phillips, Tom: Beijing smog: pollution red alert declared in China capital and 21 other cities. The Guardian, 17 December 2016. [19 June 2017].

[14] Griffiths, Martin/Schiavone, Michael: China’s New Urbanisation Plan 2014–20. China Report 52, 2 (2016): 73–91.

[15] Scott, Ellen: China is getting incredible vertical forests to combat pollution, 10 February 2017, Metro. [15 June 2017].

[16] Friends of Nature: [15 June 2017].

[17] Yi, Yang: China's local governments enhance crackdown on environmental pollution. Xinhua, 27 June 2017. [29 June 2017].

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