The Chinese government issued its annual “State of the Environment” report on Friday. Here are the highlights along with an interpretation by The Guardian interpretation and year-end grade for each subject based on the following standard:
A – World class
B – Good
C – Passable
D – Poor but showing signs of improvement
E – Poor and getting worse
F – Dangerous failure
“Surface water pollution across the country is still relatively grave …59.9 percent of rivers were grade 3 or better, 23.7 percent of rivers were grade 4 or 5 and 16.4 percent failed to meet any grade standard. Among 26 lakes or reservoirs, 42.3 percent are affected by eutrophication.
Interpretation: Two-fifths percent of river water can make you sick. This includes a sixth that is so contaminated it is not fit for any use. Four in every 10 lakes are turning green and choked by algae
Coastal water quality
“Coastal marine waters are affected by slight pollution. 62.7 percent reached grade 1 or 2. 14.1 percent reached grade 3. and 23.2 percent failed to reach gradable standard. Jiaozhou Bay has improved by 25 percent since 2009, while Bohai Bay and the estuaries of the Yangtze and the Pearl river have deteriorated by 20 percent…The coastal waters of the Bohai Sea are poor and the East China Sea very poor.”
Interpretation: Almost a quarter of coastal waters are so contaminated they are off the scale.
Grade: D-/E+ You call that ‘slight?!
“Overall urban air quality is good with relatively heavy pollution in some cities. The acid rain distribution region remains stable with some relatively heavy acid rain pollution…Among 471 cities, 3.6 percent met grade 1 air quality standard, 79.2 percent met grade 2, 15.5 percent met grade 3 and 1.7 percent failed to met grade 3.”
Interpretation: Almost one in five cities still fails to meet the low passing grade set by the government on an annual basis. Far more would fail if the standard was raised to the level recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Grade: D+ Progress. A small but welcome improvement on the dire situation five years ago. But very low ambition to call that ‘good’.
“In 2010, the central government for the first time appropriated 1.5bn yuan for a special fun for prevention and control of heavy metal pollution…We face great challenges…There were 14 cases last year and seven so far this year… Heavy metals damage peoples health, undermines social stability and impacts the quality of the soil”
Interpretation: We had better throw some serious money at this problem because angry parents have started smashing up factories that contaminated their children’s bloodstreams with lead, damaging nervous systems and eroding brainpower.
Grade: E+ Appalling situation now, but an encouraging willingness to improve.
“There are increasing rural environmental problems with relatively big emissions of pollutants from agricultural sources…The pollution of livestock and poultry farms has not been under effective control.”
Interpretation: The countryside is at risk of becoming a toilet with 243m tonnes of faeces and 163m tonnes of urine from livestock, according to the latest survey. And that is not even counting the nasty chemical cocktail of pesticides, herbicides, nitrogen fertilizer and growth stimulants.
Grade: E- A bad problem is getting worse.
“The task of reducing emissions of major pollutants has been met ahead of schedule. Since 2005, sulphur Dioxide emissions are down by 14.3 percent and Chemical Oxygen Demand has fallen by 12.5percent.”
Interpretation: We have cleaned up some of the nasty stuff in our air and water. There is still an awful lot out there, but it shows that when we make an effort, we can do it.
Grade: C+ An achievement that will next be expanded to the tougher task of reducing nitrogen oxide and ammonia. But mercury, ozone and smaller particulate matter are still not adequately addressed.
“The declining trend of biodiversity has not been under effective control with continuous loss and drain of genetic resources…China has 2,588 nature reserves covering 14.9 percent of our territory, which is higher than the world average. But, as economic development and industrialisation have gained momentum, unreasonable activities have weakened the function and value of those reserves. Reports that 22 percent of the reserves are damaged are more or less true. “
Interpretation: We have done a terrible job protecting the natural world from the ravages of development.
Environmental impact assessments
“We have rejected, turned down, suspended or returned the applications of 59 construction projects failing to met the requirements, involving a total investment of 90.4bn yuan. “
Interpretation: Trust us, we are really tough and willing to sacrifice economic growth to protect the environment. Just don’t expect us to provide useful figures for judging that claim.
Grade: n/a (insufficient data)
Carbon emissions and climate change
“…” [No mention at all]
Interpretation: Don’t ask us. The more powerful National Development and Reform Commission is calling the shots.
Grade: n/a. Need to be more assertive on this crucial environmental issue.
Drought and dams
“Hebei, Jiangxi and Hunan are in the midst of severe drought. The main reason is a lack of precipitation… The water in some large lakes has fallen to a level rarely seen in history…We believe this will have a big impact on environmental and ecological protection.”
Interpretation: OK. It may sound obvious that droughts are caused by a lack of rain, but I am saying this so you don’t blame the Three Gorges Dam, the South-North Water Diversion Project or any other massive hydro-engineering project.
Grade: D-. Kudos for mentioning the ecological impact, which is often overlooked in assessment of the loss of drinking water, irrigation supplies and hydropower capacity. But this dodges the man-made factors that could be exacerbating the situation.
Development of remote regions
“The situation (in Inner Mongolia after last week’s anti-mining protests) has calmed down…If mining companies broke laws, they will be held accountable… Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang and Qinghai have abundant resources, including minerals that have played an important role in improving peoples livelihoods there. But mining activities have had an impact on the environment, causing subsidence, the deterioration of water quality and damage to grasslands…We take these issues seriously… and will adjust economic development patterns in light of environmental capacity.”
Interpretation: The economy needs the minerals, coal and hydro-power so don’t expect resource extraction to stop. But we will take account of environmental concerns, honest.
Grade: n/a. Seeing is believing, but, all too often, areas with large ethnic minorities are declared off-limits.
“Some environmental quality indicators kept on turning better in 2010…However, the overall environmental situation is still very grave and is facing many difficulties and challenges.”
Interpretation: If you stare deep into the gloom for long enough, you can find glimmers of progress.
D+ for effort
E for outcome. China’s environment is still on the brink.
This is a tough and probably idiosyncratic evaluation, but I sympathise with the Ministry of Environment Protection, which faces one of the world’s biggest challenges. Many of the country’s problems can be attributable to its stage of development and wider global trends. When assessing China, there are always two comparisons to make: horizontal (with current top level world standards) and vertical (with its own past performance). They produce very different results.
Overall, what is your impression of the current state of China’s environment? Is the situation improving or deteriorating? Is the ministry too lax or am I too harsh?
- China’s Environment Is Flailing: Report (fastcompany.com)
- China : Three Gorges run into ‘deep water’ (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Plan for China’s Water Crisis Spurs Concern (nytimes.com)
- China vows to clean up rural environment (nature.com)
- The Link Between Air Pollution and Asthma (everydayhealth.com)
- China Faces ‘Very Grave’ Environmental Situation, Officials Say (nytimes.com)
- State environment regulators seek toxic act rework (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- The Sad State of American Kids’ Food Environments (healthland.time.com