The Impact of Pollution on China’s Economy


China’s economy is currently under threat, following reports that detail the exact costs of environmental pollution.

Since the start of China’s industrial boom, the country has experienced remarkable rates of economic growth. Earlier this year, the Chinese premier announced that the forecast for China’s GDP growth for 2017 will fall to 6.5% – a 0.5% drop from last year. This still towers over the UK’s current forecasted GDP growth of just 2%. However, this rapid growth has come at a high cost for China. Lower productivity and a greater need for health care, caused by pollution, cost China $122 billion in 2010 alone.

Soil pollution, with extremely high levels of sulphur and heavy metals, has put China’s agricultural industry under stress. In 2014, 20% of Chinese arable farmland had levels of pollutants that exceeded the national safety standard, with around 10% of this land having levels 5 times higher than the legal limit. The damage this causes farmers is overwhelming, with a loss of $3 billion from reduced crop yields. As a consequence of pollution, an estimated 3.3 million hectares of land has been labelled as ‘not suitable’ for growing crops by the Chinese Vice President of Land and Resources. This leaves 120 million hectares of arable farmland available, which is just above the governments ‘red line’. However, with this figure continuing to decline, a food crisis may erupt in one of the most densely populated country’s in the world.

Chinese leaders now face a tough choice; let the land lay fallow, or allow crops to be planted on tainted soil. However, reports of contaminated rice from the Hanan region have already prompted public outrage across the country. Food poisoning prevents 650,000 people every year from working. In addition, factories are forced to close on ‘bad air days’ to avoid the dangerous effects of inhaling toxic air. Loss of labour due to health issues caused by pollution costs China up to 6.5% of its GDP yearly. In Guangzhou, an investigation revealed that half of the rice served in the cities restaurants had high levels of cadmium. Cadmium has serious impacts on human health, including lung cancer, respiratory failure, and consumption of it can lead to death. Cadmium is one of the most common pollutants found in Chinese soil, with nickel and arsenic also topping the very long list of toxic substances.

As well as being the biggest supplier of rice in China, Hunan also has 1000 metal companies worth $60 billion. It also produces 440 million tons of solid waste contaminated with high levels of cadmium and arsenic. In total, the area accounts for 32% of China’s cadmium emissions and 20.6% of China’s arsenic emissions. These companies have affected labour productivity within the region, and in cities like Guangzhou that buy contaminated rice from Hunan. The cost of pollution to the Chinese economy must be considered as well as the income generated from these metal companies.

And to add to the chaos surrounding this issue, solutions implemented by China’s leaders have been criticised as being too little, and too late. Following the high levels of smog recorded in Beijing in 2013, where the concentration of particle pollution reached 900 parts per million – 40 times the level recommended by the World Health Organisation – China introduced a series of reforms restricting air pollution. These made environmental crimes easier to prosecute against and made local governments more accountable for pollution levels in the area. Despite these reforms, and China’s promise to invest $275 billion over the next 5 years in improving the air quality in cities, in 2015, China’s green-house emissions accounted for 30% of the world’s total.

Clearly, in order for China to continue sustainable growth in the long term, it must first address its environmental problems. We can already begin to see the start of a greener country, with China’s ambitions to lead to world in green energy. The rate at which China intends to adopt new technologies for its manufacturing industry is yet unknown. However, under its current leadership, air quality in China is predicted to worsen by 2030.

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