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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 11:31 GMT
China faces up to environmental challenges
Man in boat passes submerged house
China's flooding is partly man-made

About one person in five alive in the world today is Chinese.

That immense population, roughly 1.25 billion people, has only 7% of the world's arable land on which to support itself.

A woman walks through dust in Changchun, north-east China's Jilin Province
Air quality in urban areas is getting worse
The stark arithmetic of hunger has prompted some hard thinking, including a widely-criticised birth control policy.

And increasingly it informs policy-making in other areas as well. The sheer number of people in the country makes huge demands on natural resources, notably water supplies, cropland and forests.

Those demands are compounded by the speed of China's economic growth, an annual average of 11% from 1993 to 1997.

And that in turn has fuelled a very rapid doubling in demand for energy - up from 602 million tons of coal equivalent in 1980 to 1,290m tons in 1995.


The water problems China faces may mean it has to undertake large-scale movements of people

Sir Crispin Tickell
Coal itself is the most widely-used fuel, and its use has grown phenomenally, up roughly 29 times in under half a century from 32m tons in 1949 to 967m tons in 1995.

Coal is the most polluting of the fossil fuels, emitting more carbon dioxide (CO2) than either oil or gas, and the last two decades have seen its use in Western Europe and North America decline.

Many scientists and politicians believe the extra CO2 human activities are adding to the atmosphere is likely to trigger catastrophic climate change on present trends. And they believe climate change is likely to be the most severe environmental threat of all, partly because it will affect almost every area of life.

So the pressure is on to reduce the use of all fossil fuels, and especially coal, as quickly and radically as possible.

'Growing awareness'

Sir Crispin Tickell is a long-serving adviser on the environment to the UK Government and co-chair of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development.

He told BBC News Online: "The Chinese have published statistics saying they have achieved an absolute reduction in CO2 emissions over the last decade, while also increasing growth.

"The statistics are un-testable, and they've prompted some scepticism. But there's certainly been a substantial change.

Sir Crispin said China's leaders were now prepared to admit to environmental mistakes and ask for advice.

"Climate change is going to mean the rain falling in all the wrong places," he said. "But the Chinese are very aware of the issues - unlike the US

"The water problems China faces may mean it has to undertake large-scale movements of people.

"I once expressed my condolences on the lives lost in floods along the Yangtze.


China has come a long way towards recognising that the world shares one environment. But it has not yet come far enough

"The prime minister said: 'Thank you - but we Chinese recognise the floods are our own fault, because of the trees we've cut down and the rivers we've diverted. We've got rid of our natural buffers.'

"There is an awakening of awareness."

Exotic potions

Another significant area of concern is pollution, with outdated technologies the main reason why the air in many Chinese cities is a real danger to human health.

Growing demand for energy and the spread of economic development to areas of western China will increase emissions of sulphur dioxide and produce more acid rain.

And the demand for higher living standards will put further pressure on the environment, including the expansion of the urban population and a constant growth in the number of road vehicles.

These are daunting problems, and China will need all its new-found environmental sensitivity to cope. But for all the improvements in understanding and performance, China alarms environmental campaigners by its continuing voracious demand for rare (and sometimes still common) species.

There is an appetite for almost anything that walks, flies, swims, slithers or crawls, so long as it can be eaten. There is a demand for medicines and potions made from parts of tigers and rhinos.

There is a growing market, prompted by the growth in the size of the middle class, for ivory - something which could spell the death knell for many of Africa's remaining elephants.

China has come a long way towards recognising that the world shares one environment. But it has not yet come far enough.


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27 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
24 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
21 Aug 02 | Asia-Pacific
29 Jun 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
21 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
06 Aug 02 | Country profiles
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