Environmental challenges of urbanisation

By Stephen Angus Peter Junor

Dangers of Urbanisation in China

China’s urbanisation plan is designed to boost the economy by increasing domestic consumption and connecting more people to the global workplace. The government also hope to improve living standards for everyone, but urbanisation can have drastic and irreversible effects on the environment while also reshaping the cultural fabric of the country which has historically been very rural.

The last couple of years have seen the urban population outnumber the rural population for the first time in Chinese history. World Bank research shows that the urban population in 2000 was 36 per cent and now stands at 52 per cent. This shows an internal migration of over 200 million people, the scale of which has never been witnessed before anywhere in the world.

China has undergone a massive development drive in the last three decades, with massive economic gain and GDP growth forecast to stay between seven and eight per cent for the next couple of years, dwarfing those in Europe and the US. A focus on economic development inevitably leads to problems elsewhere, as Yan Pue, now vice minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection has repeatedly stated. Pue has been a regular critic of environmental guidelines and has previously called the narrow focus on the economy a ‘twisted policy’ as well as condemning capitalist policies as the main cause of the global environmental crisis.

China currently faces its own environmental crisis, as pictures of heavy smog are often shown in major cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou. Many citizens have resorted to using face masks to protect themselves from inhaling various toxins, with official levels of PM2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres – known to reach deep inside the lungs) reaching close to 500 micrograms per cubic metre on the 25th of February in Beijing.  It was also reported that in Xinji, Hebei, the figure peaked at over 700.

The World Health Organisation suggests a safe limit of only 25, in addition to a conclusive body of research that shows the dangers of PM2.5 include lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and premature death. The state-run Yanzhao Metropolis Daily recently reported the first case of a citizen suing the government over their failure to curb air pollution citing health concerns and economic difficulties. The problem has become so bad that the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences released a report claiming that Beijing was ‘almost uninhabitable for human beings.’

The effects on agriculture are beginning to become clear as well. A professor at China’s Agricultural University showed that some seeds in greenhouses are taking up to three times longer to sprout due to air pollution blocking sunlight and restricting photosynthesis. A slowdown in agricultural output is expected, this could result in price rises and potentially threaten the livelihoods of many of the country’s farmers.

The main reason behind such high levels of air pollution is the increasing use of coal. The Regulatory Assistance Project has shown that China consumes half of the world’s coal (four billion tonnes in 2013), predominantly for generating electricity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal powered stations are responsible for around 60 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions since 2000. The IEA has acknowledged that coal has played an important role in driving global development, but that the use of coal in its current form is ‘simply unsustainable’.

The role of coal in contributing to climate change is unquestionable, but problems arise when trying to attribute responsibility to individual countries. At the 2012 climate talks in Doha, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon expressed that he felt climate change was directly caused by the industrialisation of the developed world, and that they should bear most of the responsibility. At the same conference, China expressed a similar view. As the CO2 emissions of developed nations begin to slow down and those of developing nations continue to increase, it will become even more difficult to agree on an effective deal for cutting emissions. The Venezuelan negotiator accused the developed countries trying to impose emissions targets in exchange for finance of neo-colonialism. Furthermore, despite Chinese per capita emissions almost equalling those of Europe, it has been suggested that emissions caused by exports should be attributed to the importing country, which would significantly reduce China’s share of global CO2.

Climate change will be a defining issue for the foreseeable future, and recent events in China have shown how poor environmental policy and a reliance on coal can adversely affect health and agriculture. There are signs of hope though, as the Chinese government has accelerated the introduction of many proposals aimed at cleaner industry. Furthermore, China is the world’s biggest consumer of clean electricity, spending $10 billion on wind farms in 2012 and is the largest producer of renewable energy technologies. Earlier this month, China and the US announced that they will collaborate more and work together in the build up to the crucial 2015 climate talks in Paris where it is hoped that an international agreement can be made.

Despite the current environmental horrors, China is establishing a solid infrastructure and with their political system, could be the country in the best position to take advantage of the opportunities that renewable energy offers. With China playing such a large geopolitical role it could be the country that dominates climate talks, potentially leading the green revolution in the future. Whether China steps up or not, the government has to balance development with sustainability, not just because the world faces irreversible climate change, but because unsustainable practices could cripple their own country.

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