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It will take decades to undo the damage
China's economic growth has come at a very high price.
Rapid industrialisation, intensive farming and a steep increase in car-ownership – up 400% in Beijing in the last decade - have put the country’s environment under tremendous strain.
Some senior leaders appear to have spotted the environmental warning signs.
But that may not be enough, given the country’s closed style of government, weak regulatory systems and the Communist Party’s belief that only fast-track economic growth can keep people content with its rule.
The electricity sector is a good example of the challenges ahead.
Since 1990, China’s power needs have risen by the equivalent of a power station a month.
The majority of the increase has come from burning coal, which is cheap because it is plentiful. The environmental cost, in terms of sulphur emissions and poor air quality, is harder to measure.
About 178,000 people are estimated to die prematurely each year due to pollution.
Burning coal also keeps the country’s labour-intensive coal mining industry in business, despite its appalling safety record.
China’s mines have the highest death rate in the world. In 2001 more than 5,000 people were killed in mining accidents.
The problem is exacerbated by reluctance on the part of local authorities, eager for the cash the industry brings, to enforce a ban on private mines where safety standards are usually poorest.
Beijing has developed an extensive environmental protection agency network, but many policies and regulations are simply not observed.
Economic change has also left China more prone to natural disasters.
Clearing forestry for farmland has shrunk the “sponge” for soaking up precipitation. It also causes soil erosion as sediment is washed into rivers, raising water levels far higher than normal and increasing the risks of flooding.
Likewise, the reclamation of lakes and wetlands for farming cuts the capacity of rivers’ middle and lower reaches to store water.
Deforestation has also been blamed for desiccation throughout the northern regions of the country.
The government has taken steps to reverse the damage of deforestation, protecting 60 million hectares of upstream forest and replanting deforested hillsides.
It is also pressing ahead with several major dam projects designed to tame China’s rivers, including the controversial Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze.
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