China’s rocky relationship with the environment

China’s indifference to the environment predates the industrial era

More than a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from China. Credit: Reuters Photo

As many of us know, the world is in the midst of a climate change catastrophe. Greenhouse gases (GHG) are chiefly responsible for this.

More than a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from China. Between 2014 and 2019 carbon dioxide emissions by China increased by 0.9% per year. While each country is struggling to reduce its emissions under the 2015 Paris accord, China seems oblivious to the climate change threat. China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, toppling even the United States and the European Union.

China’s indifference to the environment predates the industrial era. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the country was ravaged by population growth, land conversion, soil erosion, deforestation and poor health conditions.

During those times, rampant deforestation coupled with soil erosion impacted China’s agriculture. Heavy military spending and corruption led the empire into the arms of imperialistic western powers. This undermined the ecological resilience of the nation. Nature hit back with drought and famine between1876 and 1879, resulting in the death of millions.

Industrialisation started making its mark in China by 1877 with the introduction of railways in Shanghai. Imperialistic expansions of Western powers in China resulted in a weak, corruption-ridden economy at the start of the 20th century. China is the world’s second-largest oil consumer as well as the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal. The country produced a massive 3280 million tonnes of industrial waste between 2013 and 2016.

Plastic pollution

Plastic pollution is another problem negatively impacting the global environment. Plastics degrade into microplastics and can be biomagnified in fishes, crabs, mollusks, and other crustaceans. Humans consume this microplastic-laced seafood, causing substantial health impacts.

Globally, nations are now joining hands to manage this aggravated situation. In 2019, China alone produced 31% of the world’s plastics. With China’sglobal dominance, Chinese plastics can percolate into every nation across the globe.

China has a negative impact on wildlife conservation. We are currently passing through a ‘mega extinction’ phase partly because of the over-exploitation of natural resources and illegal wildlife trade. With current extinction rates, half of the earth’s higher life forms may go extinct by 2100. Chinese myths and beliefs are partly responsible for this catastrophe.

In China, illegal wildlife trade for animal body parts is common. Eating animal parts is believed by some people to enhance male virility. India and Southeast Asian countries supply China’s increasing demand for animal parts. Both Myanmar and Thailand are the main crossroads for entry of these items into Chinese markets.

Demands for tiger bones, claws, other tiger body parts as well as rhino horns and pangolin scales are driving these animals to extinction. While most nations work towards protecting these species, a readily available Chinese market makes it difficult to halt this illegal trade.

The world is facing an imminent mega extinction: Our watercourses are clogged by plastics, our air is poisoned by greenhouse gas emissions and our livelihoods are destroyed by climate change-induced droughts, flooding, and extreme weather.

All international agencies must work hand in hand to enforce policies to control these global environmental phenomena. China must take an active role in enacting environmentally friendly policies. 

(Authors are Associate Professor and Dean at Jindal School of Environment and Sustainability, O P Jindal Global University, Haryana)