Environmental issues in China are plentiful, severely affecting the country's biophysical environment and human health. Rapid industrialization, as well as lax environmental oversight, are main contributors to these problems.
The Chinese government has acknowledged the problems and made various responses, resulting in some improvements, but the responses have been criticized as inadequate. In recent years, there has been increased citizens' activism against government decisions that are perceived as environmentally damaging, and a retired Chinese Communist Party official has reported that the year of 2012 saw over 50,000 environmental protests in China.
The Center for American Progress has described China's environmental policy as similar to that of the United States before 1970. That is, the central government issues fairly strict regulations, but the actual monitoring and enforcement is largely undertaken by local governments that are more interested in economic growth. Furthermore, due to the restrictive conduct of China's undemocratic regime, the environmental work of non-governmental forces, such as lawyers, journalists, and non-governmental organizations, is severely hampered.
Since 2002, the number of complaints to the environmental authorities increased by 30 percent every year, reaching 600,000 in 2004; meanwhile, according to an article by the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs Ma Jun in 2007, the number of mass protests caused by environmental issues grew by 29 percent every year since that time. The growing attention upon environmental matters caused the Chinese government to display an increased level of concern towards environmental issues and the creation of sustainable growth. For example, in his annual address in 2007, Wen Jiabao, the Premier of the People's Republic of China, made 48 references to "environment," "pollution," and "environmental protection", and stricter environmental regulations were subsequently implemented. Some of the subsidies for polluting industries were cancelled, while some polluting industries were shut down. However, although the promotion of clean energy technology occurred, many environmental targets were missed.
After the 2007 address, polluting industries continued to receive inexpensive access to land, water, electricity, oil, and bank loans, while market-oriented measures, such as surcharges on fuel and coal, were not considered by the government despite their proven success in other countries. The significant influence of corruption was also a hindrance to effective enforcement, as local authorities ignored orders and hampered the effectiveness of central decisions. In response to a challenging environmental situation, President Hu Jintao implemented the "Green G.D.P." project, whereby China's gross domestic product was adjusted to compensate for negative environmental effects; however, the program lost official influence in spring 2007 due to the confronting nature of the data. The project's lead researcher claimed that provincial leaders terminated the program, stating "Officials do not like to be lined up and told how they are not meeting the leadership’s goals ... They found it difficult to accept this."
In 2014 China amended its protection laws to help fight pollution and reverse environmental damage in the country.
The water resources of China are affected by both severe water quantity shortages and severe water quality pollution. An increasing population and rapid economic growth as well as lax environmental oversight have increased water demand and pollution. China has responded by measures such as rapidly building out the water infrastructure and increased regulation as well as exploring a number of further technological solutions. Water usage by its coal-fired power stations is drying-up Northern China.
According to Chinese government in 2014 59.6% of groundwater sites are poor or extremely poor quality.
Although China's forest cover is only 20%, the country has some of the largest expanses of forested land in the world, making it a top target for forest preservation efforts. In 2001, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) listed China among the top 15 countries with the most "closed forest," i.e., virgin, old growth forest or naturally regrown woods. 12% of China's land area, or more than 111 million hectares, is closed forest. However, the UNEP also estimates that 36% of China's closed forests are facing pressure from high population densities, making preservation efforts especially important. In 2011, Conservation International listed the forests of south-west Sichuan as one of the world's ten most threatened forest regions.
According to the Chinese government website, the Central Government invested more than 40 billion yuan between 1998 and 2001 on protection of vegetation, farm subsidies and conversion of farmland to forest. Between 1999 and 2002, China converted 7.7 million hectares of farmland into forest.
China's marine environment, including the Yellow Sea and South China Sea, are considered among the most degraded marine areas on earth. Loss of natural coastal habitats due to land reclamation has resulted in the destruction of more than 65% of tidal wetlands around China's Yellow Sea coastline in approximately 50 years. Rapid coastal development for agriculture, aquaculture and industrial development are considered the primary drivers of coastal destruction in the region.
Desertification remains a serious problem, consuming an area greater than the area used as farmland. Although desertification has been curbed in some areas, it is still expanding at a rate of more than 67 km² every year. 90% of China's desertification occurs in the west of the country. Approximately 30% of China's surface area is desert. China's rapid industrialization could cause this area to drastically increase. The Gobi Desert in the north currently expands by about 950 square miles (2,500 km2) per year. The vast plains in northern China used to be regularly flooded by the Yellow River. However, overgrazing and the expansion of agricultural land could cause this area to increase.
In 2001, China initiated a "Green Wall of China" project. It is a project to create a 2,800-mile (4,500 km) "green belt" to hold back the encroaching desert. The first phase of the project, to restore 9 million acres (36,000 km²) of forest, will be completed by 2010 at an estimated cost of $8 billion. The Chinese government believes that, by 2050, it can restore most desert land back to forest. The project is possibly the largest ecological project in history. It has also been criticized on various grounds such as other methods being more effective.
In July 2015, Council on Foreign Relations Director of Asia Studies Elizabeth Economy writing in The Diplomat listed soil contamination as a "poor stepchild" of the Chinese environmental movement, and questioned whether or not recent measures from the Ministry of Environmental Protection would be adequate in combating the problem. In her 2004 book The River Runs Black, she wrote, "China's spectacular economic growth over the past two decades has dramatically depleted the country's natural resources and produced skyrocketing rates of pollution. Environmental degradation has also contributed to significant public health problems, mass migration, economic loss, and social unrest."
The position of the Chinese government on climate change is contentious. China is the world's current largest emitter of carbon dioxide although not the cumulative largest. China has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but as a non-Annex I country is not required to limit greenhouse gas emissions under terms of the agreement.
Various forms of pollution have increased as China have industrialized which has caused widespread environmental and health problems. China has responded with increasing environmental regulations and a build-up of pollutant treatment infrastructure which have caused improvements on some variables. As of 2013 Beijing, which lies in a topographic bowl, has significant industry, and heats with coal, is subject to air inversions resulting in extremely high levels of pollution in winter months.
In response to an increasingly problematic air pollution problem, the Chinese government announced a five-year, US$277 billion plan to address the issue. Northern China will receive particular attention, as the government aims to reduce air emissions by 25 percent by 2017, compared with 2012 levels, in those areas where pollution is especially serious. According to a report published by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health in December 2012, the coal industry is responsible for the highest levels of air pollution (19 percent), followed by vehicle emissions (6 percent). In January 2013, fine airborne particulates that pose the largest health risks, rose as high as 993 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing, compared with World Health Organization guidelines of no more than 25. The World Bank estimates that 16 of the world's most-polluted cities are located in China.
Coastal pollution is widespread, leading to declines in habitat quality and increasing harmful algal blooms. The largest algal bloom recorded in history occurred in China around the southern Yellow Sea in 2008, and was easily observed from space.
Rising affluence is another indirect cause of pollution. In particular, car ownership has skyrocketed. In 2014, China added a record 17 million new cars to the road and car ownership reached 154 million.
China currently has the world's largest population but population growth is very slow in part due to the one-child policy.
According to a 2007 article, during the 1980 to 2000 period the energy efficiency improved greatly. However, in 1997, due to fears of a recession, tax incentives and state financing were introduced for rapid industrialization. This may have contributed to the rapid development of very energy inefficient heavy industry. Chinese steel factories used one-fifth more energy per ton than the international average. Cement needed 45 percent more power, and ethylene needed 70 percent more than the average. Chinese buildings rarely had thermal insulation and used twice as much energy to heat and cool as those in the Europe and the United States in similar climates. 95% of new buildings did not meet China's own energy efficiency regulations.
A 2011 report by a project facilitated by World Resources Institute stated that the 11th five-year plan (2005 to 2010), in response to worsening energy intensity in the 2002-2005 period, set a goal of a 20% improvement of energy intensity. The report stated that this goal likely was achieved or nearly achieved. The next five-year plan set a goal of improving energy intensity by 16%.
A 2005-2006 survey by Prof. Peter J. Li found that many farming methods that the European Union is trying to reduce or eliminate are commonplace in China, including gestation crates, battery cages, foie gras, early weaning of cows, and clipping of ears/beaks/tails. Livestock in China may be transported over long distances, and there are currently no humane-slaughter requirements.
China farms about 10,000 Asiatic black bears for bile production—an industry worth roughly $1.6 billion per year. The bears are permanently kept in cages, and bile is extracted from cuts in their stomachs. Jackie Chan and Yao Ming have publicly opposed bear farming. In 2012, over 70 Chinese celebrities took part in a petition against an IPO application by Fujian Guizhentang Pharmaceutical Co. due to the company's selling of bear-bile medicines.
According to Prof. Peter J. Li, a few Chinese zoos are improving their welfare practices, but many remain "outdated", have poor conditions, use live feeding, and employ animals for performances. Safari parks may feed live sheep and poultry to lions as a spectacle for crowds.
In 2006, Zhou Ping of the National People's Congress introduced the first nationwide animal-protection law in China, but it didn't move forward. In September 2009, the first comprehensive Animal protection law of the People's Republic of China was introduced, but it hasn't made any progress.
According to Jared Diamond, the six main categories of environmental problems of China are: air pollution, water problems, soil problems, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and mega projects. He also explain that "China is noted for the frequency, number, extent, and damage of its natural disasters". Some natural disasters are "closely related to human environmental impacts", especially: dust storms, landslides, droughts and floods.
Protests commenced in the southern town of Yinggehai in April 2012 following the announcement of a power plant project to be constructed in the small town. The protesters initially succeeded in halting the project, worth 3.9 billion renminbi (£387m) plant, as another town was selected for the location of the plant; however, the residents in the second location also resisted and the authorities returned to Yinggehai. A second round of protests occurred in October 2012 and police engaged aggressively with around 1,000 protesters on this occasion, leading to 50 arrests and almost 100 injuries (according to reports from the Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, a Hong Kong-based rights group).
In response to a waste pipeline for a paper factory in the city of Qidong, several thousand demonstrators protested in July 2012. According to the Xinhua news agency, 16 protesters from Qidong were sentenced in early 2013 to between 12 and 18 months in prison; however, 13 were granted a reprieve on the grounds that they had confessed and repented.