China’s Unsustainable Environment

19 Apr

China’s extensive economic growth over the past 30 years has had a significant impact on the Environment and have led to huge environmental challenges for the country; however the decisions of the Chinese Communist Party, National Government and the Chinese People do not just effect the well-being and health of China, but have a direct impact on the future of the rest of the planet. Environmental issues are not constrained to borders, and China’s air and water pollution, resource exploitation and consumption all have a profound effect on both neighbouring and distant countries.

The World Bank has found that 20, out of the 30 most polluted cities in the World are located within Chinese borders. It is argued that this urban pollution is primarily because of heavy coal use within the industrial cities, however as China’s environmental issues are unquestionably linked to political structures, rapid and vast economic growth and an intense phase of globalisation, to what extent can China’s unprecedented growth be termed sustainable? And can China realistically, in such an environmentally unstable period, continue to grow with little regard for the environment?

The term ‘sustainable development’ was first used in 1987 in a report called ‘Our Common Future’ by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. The term is defined in most cases as meeting the needs of present generations with endangering the ability of future generations to do the same. With huge growth within China the question ‘can Chinese people alive today pursue healthy and meaningful lives without stealing resources from their children or from vulnerable populations within the country and abroad?’(Sharipo, 2012) needs to be assessed.

It seems very difficult to argue that the development of China can be coined ‘sustainable’. The mass air and water pollution that occurs within the country is having significant effects on the region – as stated, environmental issues are not constrained by Nation State boundaries, and therefore the air and water pollution from China’s industries and urban centres is not only posing issues for present and future generations within China, it is also posing a threat for the future of neighbouring countries. China’s exploitation of resources across the globe, such as the mining and deforestation in Africa to support the Chinese industrial growth, is also posing significant issues for population outside the Chinese domestic borders. The environmental degradation is especially affecting vulnerable populations, as those at the bottom are more likely to be directly affected by environmental issues.

Therefore China’s environmental issues need to be considered two-fold. The industrialisation of China is leading to mass air and water pollution within the country and within neighbouring countries, whilst the exploitation of natural resources from distant countries to support this industrialisation is having significant environmental, health and wellbeing effects on vulnerable populations elsewhere. As a result of such negative effects, China’s growth cannot be termed ‘sustainable’. The issues posed by the environmental effects are already beginning to show an economic side effect, with 3% of GDP within China lost due to environmental pollution in 2004 alone, whilst negative health effects within the country as result of pollution are well documented.

Can China expect to keep up such a rate of growth without regard for the environment? And can the future generations of China expect to have the ability to meet their needs with so many resources already being destroyed?



Sharipo, J (2012) China’s Environmental Challenge. Polity Press, Cambridge.

The Telegraph (21/01/2013) ‘Chinese Leaders ‘have failed to shield environment from economic growth’ source:

WCED (1987) Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 


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