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Problems and
Challenges in CHINA

Although progress has been made in some areas,

China is struggling to harmonize economic development
and environmental protection.

s a result of the fast economic growth in China, some

fundamental dilemmas are arising. The gross domestic product (GDP) is continuously increasing, but the
natural resources on which the economic develop-

ment relies have been heavily exploited or even overexploited.


Ying-ming Li

This leads to perplexing environmental problems and a tenser

relationship between humans and nature. The aim of this feature
article is to provide an overview of the major problems, efforts,
and challenges associated with environmental issues in China.
2007 American Chemical Society

November 15, 2007 / Environmental Science & Technology n 7597


Ranking the quality of Chinas seven largest rivers

According to the Environmental Quality Standard for Surface Water (4 ), Chinas water bodies
can be divided into five classes on the basis of >30 parameters, including pH, sulfate, chloride,
nitrate, phosphorus, metals (Cu, Zn, Fe, Mn, Ca, Hg, As, Pb, etc.), BOD5, chemical oxygen demand, volatile phenol, and so on. The limitations of the parameters for each class were described
in detail in the standard (4 ). Water of Grades IIII is suitable for drinking, Grade IV is for industrial and recreational use, and Grade V is for agricultural use. All data are from SEPA, 2006.



13% Haihe River

Yellow River


Songhua River

Liaohe River





Huaihe River

Yangtze River
Grades IIII

Pearl River

Grades IV, V
Inferior to Grade V

Water shortage and contamination

China is one of the 13 countries in the world with
the most limited water resources. The available
per capita volume of water is ~2200 m3, only 25%
of the world average. In addition, water resources
are distributed unevenly in China. About 44% of the
population lives in the north but has access to only
~15% of the water resources. More than 60% of the
669 cities (of population >0.1 million) in China have
problems with water shortages, and the situation in
110 of those cities is categorized as serious (1). In
addition, >24 million rural people have insufficient
drinking-water supplies (2).
The water shortage will be exacerbated by serious pollution. More than 60% of Chinas large
lakes are eutrophic (3), and the water quality has
declined in >50% of its rivers. The water quality at
>50% of the monitored sections in five of Chinas
seven largest rivers (the Liaohe, Songhua, Haihe,
Huaihe, and Yellow rivers) is considered Grade IV or
worse in a five-class grading system (3, 4), indicating heavy pollution (Figure 1). The major concerns
are ammonia nitrogen, biological oxygen demand
(BOD5), permanganate index, and oils (3). The dis7598 n Environmental Science & Technology / November 15, 2007

charge of urban sewage and industrial wastewater

is the main source of contamination in the rivers,
as supported by the observation that >90% of the
heavily polluted monitored sections are near large
cities (3).
The use efficiency of water is still low in China.
In 2000, the use efficiencies of irrigation water (the
water that reaches cultivated land and is available
for plant growth divided by the total amount of water obtained from the water source) and industrial
water (the proportion of reused water relative to the
total amount of water acquired for industrial use)
were 0.43 and 0.55, respectively. In contrast, the ratios in developed countries have reached 0.70 and
0.750.85, respectively (2). With ongoing development and urbanization, the gap between water supply and demand will become wider.
Most eastward-flowing rivers drain into the
coastal marine environment, and the water quality is getting worse with the inflow of polluted river
water. As a result, incidents of red tides (harmful algal blooms) started to increase significantly in the
1980s and peaked with 119 episodes in 2003, covering a total affected area of ~1.5 104 km 2 (3, 5).

Of the 522 cities monitored in 2005, 11% were considered heavily polluted and only 56% had air quality
that met the State Environmental Protection Administration of China (SEPA) standard (3). The major
air pollutants are particulate matter (PM), SO2, and
nitrogen oxides (NOx). Currently, >40% of Chinas
cities are suffering from high levels of suspended
particles (total concentrations of suspended particles >200 g/m3, or PM10 >100 g/m3) (3, 6).
Ozone has recently aroused much attention because of its harmful impacts on agricultural production and human health. A study in Shanghai
revealed that ozone levels are associated significantly with total and cardiovascular mortality, especially during cold seasons (7). High concentrations
of ozone have caused crop losses in many regions
of China. However, large uncertainty still exists in
how to scale surface ozone distribution and crop
impacts up to the national level, because of highly
inadequate monitoring facilities (8).
The main causes, characteristics, and future
trends of air pollution in China are related to the
energy sector (9, 10) as well as to industrial development, traffic, and urbanization. An estimated 70%
of total smoke (aerosols), 90% of SO2, and 67% of
NOx are released by burning coal (11). Meanwhile,
the number of motor vehicles in China reached 36
million in 2003, compared with 6.2 million in 1990
(9). Thus, the ever-increasing number of vehicles has
become an important contributor to the increasing
air pollution.
The energy infrastructure in China is not expected to change in the near future, and coal will
remain the dominant energy source for at least the
next several years. In addition, vehicle exhaust and
urban activities will increase rapidly in the coming
years. Therefore, the emissions of aerosols, SO2, and
NOx are expected to continue to increase. For that
reason, energy efficiency must be improved, and effective measures are needed to prevent further deterioration of air quality.

and farm produce have been contaminated, especially with residues of organochlorine and organophosphorus pesticides.
Domestic waste increased significantly with urbanization. In 2005, domestic sewage amounted to
28.1 1010 metric tons, a 30% increase since 2000
(3). Because of the lack of proper treatment, the discharge of domestic waste has resulted in serious environmental problems in the air, soil, and water.

Impacts of environmental problems

The impacts of the aforementioned environmental
problems are significant and multifaceted. They include damage to human health, social conflicts, and
economic losses.
Acid rain resulting from air pollution is prevalent
in southern China. Chemically, the major anion in
acid rain is SO42, but recently the concentration of
NO3 has increased, which shows that the contribution of NOx is increasing. Acid rain leads to acidification of surface waters and soils, which can cause
ecosystem dysfunction, including loss of fish populations and forest dieback (9, 14). In 2005, ~38% of

Air pollution

E-waste recycling sites, such as this one in the town of

Taizhou, Zhejiang Province, have become a major source
of pollution in certain regions of China.

Rapid urbanization has taken place in China ever
since the economic development and socioeconomic changes of the 1980s. Approximately 40% of the
population now lives in cities, compared with ~20%
in 1980. The current annual urbanization rate is ~1%,
which means that ~13 million people move into cities every year.
Urbanization has created huge pressures on the
maintenance of agricultural land and production.
In 2005, the net loss of arable land was 361,600 ha
(~0.3% of the total arable land), of which 138,700
ha was used for construction. From 1998 to 2005,
farmland decreased by 7.6 million ha, ~6.2% of the
total arable land (3). The per capita area of cropland in China was only 0.93 ha in 2005, 40% of the
world average (12). To achieve a higher production
rate from the remaining, smaller area of cultivatable
land, China has become the worlds largest consumer of fertilizers and the second largest of pesticides
(13). Consequently, large amounts of cultivated land

Chinese cities and counties had annual average pH

values <5.6. This indicates that they were likely affected by acid rain (3). The deposition of sulfur in
some places is higher than what was reported from
the Black Triangle in central Europe in the early
1980s (9).
Approximately 60% of Chinas population is rural,
and nearly all rural residents use highly polluting
biomass and coal for household cooking and heating. Indoor air pollution from use of solid fuel in
China is responsible for ~420,000 premature deaths
annually (15). In 2002, China introduced an indoor
air quality standard (16), in which the maximum
level of PM10 was set at 150 g/m3. Although the standard is high compared with the World Health Organization guideline of 50 g/m3, indoor air pollution
is expected to improve with the implementation of
the standard.
Contaminated soil and water affect human
health mainly through the food chain. In China,
November 15, 2007 / Environmental Science & Technology n 7599

~7.3% of arable land is irrigated with sewage water,

of which 20% has been polluted with heavy metals,
such as Cd, As, Cr, and Pb (17). Symptoms of arsenic poisoning from upstream mining activities have
emerged among the ~180,000 local inhabitants of
seven counties within 6100 km 2 in Hetao Area (18).
The long-term mercury mining in Guizhou Province, southwestern China, has resulted in significant
pollution of the local ecosystem (19). The concentrations of total mercury (THg) in rice grains from
one mining area have reached 0.57 mg/kg (20). The
SEPA tolerance limit for THg in foodstuffs is 0.02
mg/kg (21).

gation of the Environmental Impact Assessment Law

of China in 2002. Thus, a full-scale EIA mechanism
safeguarding the environmental soundness of socioeconomic development has been established legally
and practically.


Initiatives for environmental protection

Taihu Lake, shown here, is plagued by eutrophicationa

common occurrence in Chinese lakes.

Environmental deterioration, which resulted in

~51,000 disputes in 2005, has been considered one
of the important causes of social unrest in Chinese
society (11). The total economic losses from environmental pollution and ecological damage were
estimated to be 720% of the annual GDP during
the past 20 years (22).

Environmental monitoring and impact assessment

Environmental monitoring began in China relatively
recently. The related concepts and the national monitoring systems were developed in the early 1970s.
An environmental monitoring network, managed by
the China National Environmental Monitoring Center, is made up of 2389 monitoring stations staffed
by >46,000 technicians, covering all major parts of
China. SEPA uses data from the monitoring network
in its annual Report on the State of the Environment
in China (3).
Environmental planning and assessment are
widely used in China at different decision-making
levels. The project-based environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been used since 1979, and great
achievements have been attained in the past two decades (23). The environmental impact statements of
development projects submitted to SEPA increased
4.8 during 19861990 compared with 19801985.
The EIA enforcement rate of development projects
increased from 61% in 1991 to 90% in 2000 (24).
Strategic environmental assessment, the policy and
planning based on EIA, took effect after the promul
7600 n Environmental Science & Technology / November 15, 2007

The Chinese government has initiated many efforts to control the ever-worsening environmental
problems. Since the early 1980s, a series of national plans, policies, and laws have been enacted. In
1983, China made environmental protection one of
its basic national policies. In 1994, a broad strategy
was laid out to achieve sustainable development.
Two years later, the first 5-year plan on environmental protection was developed. Recently, a new
scientific development concept was proposed to
achieve a harmonious society and a balanced relationship between humans and nature (11). Establishing the complete set of laws, regulations, and
management systems for environmental protection
and strengthening Chinas protection of ecology and
environment have been considered important for
further development. By the end of 2006, >200 environmental policies, laws, and regulations had been
proposed and enacted, including 58 environmental
laws, 9 regulations on water pollution, and 8 regulations on air pollution (25).
At the same time, great efforts have also been
made in ecological restoration. The Natural Forest Conservation Program (NFCP) and the Sloping
Land Conversion Program (SLCP) are two examples.
Their objectives are soil and water conservation, desertification control, flood control, climate-change
mitigation, and biodiversity conservation (26). The
NFCP was applied in 18 provinces that contain the
upstream regions of major river systems, including the Yellow and Yangtze rivers (27). The SLCP
was planned to cover 22 provinces (most in western
China) for the revegetation of marginal cropland at
slopes >25 (28). Furthermore, ecological agriculture
has been widely advocated to improve agro-resource
use efficiency and productivity and to alleviate agricultural pollution (29, 30).
Fast-growing industry is to a high degree responsible for the environmental degradation in China.
Greening the production cycles has therefore been
a top priority. Generally, corporate image ranks very
high in management concerns (31). Therefore, environmental performance ratings and public disclosure have proven effective in getting Chinese
firms to improve their environmental compliance
(32). Practically, green production processes are vital; they are effective at improving the efficiency of
resource use, the product quality, and the environmental performance of Chinese factories (33).

Challenges and future perspectives

Giving an evaluation of the overall effectiveness of
Chinas environmental protection and ecological
conservation is difficult, despite proposed concepts
and preliminary methods for green GDP and governmental environment auditing (34). Great progress
has been made in many areas, including biodiversity

conservation (35, 36); the improvement of environmental policy, law, and funding mechanisms (37,
38); and the implementation of international environmental treaties (39). However, inadequacies still
exist in control of environmental degradation and
in sustainable environmental management. As SEPA
concluded, The essence of environmental degradation remained unchanged, and environmental
problems tend to be more complicated at the national scale, in spite of many successful local-scale
environmental rehabilitation cases (40). China is
still facing huge challenges in resolving its environmental problems.
The challenges include the limited reserve of
natural resources; the already tense humannature
relationship; the strong momentum for economic
development and urbanization (41); and the insufficiency of institutions, legislation, enforcement, and
so on. The most difficult challenge, however, may
be to find effective approaches in regulating the behaviors and relationships of the various stakeholders
(e.g., different levels of government, the industrial
sector, and the public), who often have different,
sometimes conflicting, objectives and expectations.
Capacity building therefore should be enhanced in
fields such as basic scientific research, technological innovation, policy and institutional design, environmental legislation, and enforcement (12, 23,
26, 42, 43).
China is already making progress in capacity
building. Strategically, China is trying to establish
an integrative decision-making mechanism for harmonizing the environment and economic development. The country is changing its mode of economic
development and promoting a sustainable economy that includes resource recycling. This provides
a favorable sociopolitical environment for making
policies and laws that are oriented toward sustainable development. Financially, more investment will
be allocated to the ecological and environmental
sectors for persistent growth of national economic
strength and for better protection and rehabilitation
of the environment.
Environmental protection and ecological rehabilitation depend largely on the development of
science and technology. In the National MidLongTerm Plan on Science and Technology Development
(20062020), key environmental research fields and
priorities have been determined. These include efficient production, use, and conservation of natural
resources; environmental monitoring, rehabilitation, and pollution control; and green production
in the industrial sector.
Bo-jie Fu is a professor at the State Key Laboratory of
Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for EcoEnvironmental Sciences (RCEES), and Bureau of Science
and Technology for Resource and Environment, Chinese
Academy of Sciences (CAS). Xu-liang Zhuang is an associate professor at the Bureau of Science and Technology
for Resource and Environment, CAS. Gui-bin Jiang is a
professor at and the director of the State Key Laboratory
of Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology, RCEES,
CAS. Jian-bo Shi is an assistant professor at the State

Key Laboratory of Environmental Chemistry and Ecotoxicology, RCEES, CAS. Yi-he L is an associate professor at the State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional
Ecology, RCEES, CAS. Address correspondence to Fu at

This work was supported by the National Natural Science
Foundation of China (40621061 and 20621703).

Opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect the position of the government of China
or of any other organization.

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