China has gone from zero to sixty in the last 25 years as its booming economy lifts millions of people out of poverty. But huge progress has come at a huge cost to the countrys natural environment. By 2009, a decade earlier than anticipated, China is expected to surpass the United States as the number one emitter of greenhouse gases.
The countries with extraordinary ability to exacerbate climate change are also the countries with extraordinary ability to ameliorate it. If rapidly growing China makes the right choices for its biodiversity and people, conservationists agree the entire world could benefit from increased stability, prosperity, and security in the years ahead.
At Conservation International (CI), CI-China Director Dr. Zhi Lu and Senior Director for Climate and Water Initiatives Michael Totten are examining how China can do precisely that. In an article recently published in the Woodrow Wilson International Centers "China Environment Series" journal, Totten and Professor Lu explore how certain solutions can improve security as the world confronts a changing climate.
China can either aggravate all of the situations, or it can move in the other direction, Totten says. It could really change the whole international economic market, which would not only make for a more prosperous China and a more economically secure China, but also a more ecologically secure China.
Improving Air Quality
Regional haze blankets several areas in China, in part because the country consumes more coal the dirtiest fuel and leading source of carbon dioxide emissions than any other country. China also surpasses all other nations in emitting black carbon soot, another greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Black carbon soot comes from burning crop residues after harvesting, a process that is officially banned but commonly practiced.
That dirty air takes its toll. Severe environmental issues are not only affecting economic development, but are also affecting peoples health, says Dr. Lu. China already recognizes the environment as a bottleneck for development in future years.
Each year, more than a million people in China die from respiratory diseases, and caring for the sick costs a staggering amount of money approximately the equivalent of 5 million peoples annual salaries. The haze also compromises economic security by blocking sunlight and impeding crop growth. Scientists believe severe floods in south China and extreme drought in north China may be a result of black carbon soot.
Cleaner energy sources, such as solar power and wind power, could help China become less reliant on dirty coal. Chinas wind potential is estimated to be among the greatest in the world, and the country already has 60 percent of the worlds installed systems for solar thermal energy for hot water. The Chinese government has aims to dramatically increase the amount of wind power, as well as solar electric and solar thermal energy systems in use by 2020.
Energy sources like wind power could also pay off economically. While coal power may seem cheaper than wind power, most coal is found in Chinas north, so it costs additional money to transport it to southern cities like Shanghai. Wind farms could also give a boost to rural communities living in poverty. Reducing Chinas black carbon soot by using agriculture wastes as green building materials and as gasified biofuels could also alleviate floods and droughts, allowing biodiversity to benefit from both cleaner air and more stable habitats.
Improving Water Systems
The more the Earths climate changes, the worse Chinas water crisis is becoming. Western Chinas glaciers have shrunk by one-fifth, threatening the water supply for a quarter of a billion people. Thats the reality in a country already plagued by a severe water shortage brought on by inefficient irrigation systems, where nearly two-thirds of water fails to reach crops. The shortage is exacerbated by severe water pollution; more than 70 percent of the countrys untreated wastewater is discharged directly into rivers.
Pollution and shrinking water resources are making China less secure. The majority of Chinas rivers are too tainted to provide safe drinking water, and the cost of providing clean water will increase as theres less of it. Biodiversity would also most certainly also take a hit. China is projected to construct a massive dam every 16 months for the next several decades. This will block migration routes for ancient species, such as Chinese sturgeon and paddlefish, that travel from the sea up the Yangtze River.
To ease the crisis, Chinas leaders recognize that efficiency is the name of the game. They have outlined a strategy to promote water conservation and adopt efficient, cost-effective irrigation systems. Some of their ideas are being tested already in various parts of China. In Shangdong, water conservation methods are being implemented on 75 percent of farmland.
Making the right environmental choices holds endless promise. But if China is to emerge as an environmental leader, conservationists stress that policy and science must continuously support and help direct their efforts.