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Christine Xu’s Blog

It's More Important Than Ever for China to Develop Sustainably

Christine Xu

Posted April 19, 2013

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Those who have been following China’s pollution troubles are beginning to wonder whether China is killing itself in the process of pursuing rapid economic growth, and I don’t blame them. My colleagues and I have blogged extensively on the health impacts of China’s worsening air pollution. In 2010 alone, there were 1.2 million premature deaths in China from air pollution – that’s nearly 40 percent of the world’s total.   

Sadly, air pollution isn’t the only problem in China. Shanghai was widely scandalized by the 16,000 dead pigs found in rivers in and near the city, which serves as a major source of drinking water for its residents. There was also public anger over soil pollution data that China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) refused to release. Additionally, over 247 “cancer villages” have been found in China as a result of toxic chemical pollution.


             A map of China's "cancer villages," via Global Times' Weibo feed @环球时报

Even China’s state-run media, historically prohibited from reporting on the country’s pollution issues, has started running front-page stories, while China’s MEP recently released a report that, for the first time, officially acknowledged the existence of “cancer villages” and tied them to toxic chemicals in the environment. Of course, there are also other reasons for the increase in cancer rates, including an aging population and lifestyle changes – poor diet, lack of exercise – associated with growing affluence. But these unprecedented levels of transparency reflect a broad and deep concern over the link between pollution and public health. In fact, to capitalize on the public’s growing awareness of China’s dangerously smoggy skies, the southern Chinese province of Fujian is offering fresh air as a tourist attraction.


Already, Beijing is seeing a 37 percent drop in foreign visitors from last year and is losing some of the 200,000 expatriates that reside in the city as a result of the pollution (including, sadly, some of NRDC’s own). In particular, those with children—who are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution--are looking to leave. Multinational companies are having increasingly more difficulty in recruiting top talent to be based in China, while requests for relocation to less-polluted cities have soared in recent months. 

In response, China has taken a host of measures targeted at reducing its air pollution, including:

  • Pledging to adopt more stringent standards for gasoline and diesel fuel to take effect by 2017;
  • Adopting pilot carbon emissions trading programs with the first city, Shenzhen, to start on June 17th;
  • Amending its national Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law;
  • Adopting the most stringent emissions control limits for heavy industries to date;
  • Issuing draft municipal Regulations on Air Pollution Prevention and Control for Beijing; and
  • Planning to introduce new taxation policies, including a carbon tax. 

In addition to these much needed measures, China is also the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy, leading in both wind power capacity and solar hot water heating. Yet, the biggest challenge is still weaning China off coal, which continues to supply 70 percent of its energy.   

Thumbnail image for map.jpg            Highest coal consumption levels are concentrated in northern China (2010)

                                     ©NRDC China Climate and Energy Map.

NRDC has a 30-person team in Beijing that is working to help China achieve their goals quickly and successfully. For example, we are advocating for a strong, binding, and enforceable cap on coal consumption as a policy mechanism to help China reduce its reliance on coal. Several Chinese cities are already piloting a cap on coal consumption, which we hope China will establish as a binding target in its Thirteenth Five Year Plan (2016-2020). An effective national coal consumption cap policy can provide the necessary pressure and incentives for Chinese officials and enterprises to limit coal use.

Some of our other initiatives include:

  • Working with the central government to strengthen nuclear safety standards and to develop environmental safeguards for shale gas exploration;
  • Working with multinational apparel retailers to help their suppliers in China improve manufacturing efficiency while reducing water, energy and chemical use;
  • Training the nation’s lawyers and judges on environmental public interest litigation, while holding polluters accountable with an annual Pollution Information Transparency Index;
  • Increasing energy efficiency in the industrial (which has led to China enacting national utility energy efficiency regulations) and buildings sectors (NRDC was the first international environmental NGO to establish a green buildings program in China); and 
  • Bridging U.S. experts with China’s policy makers to share experiences and best practices on tackling climate change as well as spurring business partnerships in clean energy technology (we were delighted to see California Governor Jerry Brown sign landmark agreements on boosting trade and environmental protection efforts with China).  

It is still possible for China to create a healthy living environment where its citizens can enjoy the benefits of a rapidly growing economy without having to worry about the safety of the air, water, or food. But it must act quickly and aggressively on many different (and challenging) fronts. NRDC will continue to advocate for strong policy measures and help accelerate China’s low-carbon development. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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