Can China step back from the brink of ecological disaster?

China’s 30-year drive to grow its economy has paid scant attention to ecological and social costs. A survey of six main environmental stressors in China reveals that domestic policies are inadequate and need to be reformed, say Ed Grumbine and Jianchu Xu


This year, as the world’s most populous nation goes through its once-a-decade leadership transition and cities in China close down because of extreme air pollution, new President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang stand at a critical crossroads.

Deforestation, China

Land health in China is one of the indicators of environmental stress. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Jianchu Xu

A survey that we conducted of six main stressors in China—ecosystem degradation, food security, energy, water, urbanization and climate change—has revealed the inadequacy of the nation’s domestic environmental policies: ecosystems are degraded; food insecurity is uncertain; conflicts are growing over the quality and quantity of water; demand for energy is rising rapidly; urbanization is increasing but is yet to be sustainable; and the impacts of climate change are already beginning to be felt.

The booming economy has weakened and experts call for a move away from the export-led growth that has made China so powerful. At the same time, the country is facing the cumulative effects of its long focus on economic growth with little attention given to the mounting ecological and social costs. The debt is already being called in, as ecological systems show signs of ongoing degradation.

Given China’s centralized decision-making apparatus, institutional reform across socio–ecological systems is the key to ensuring that the nation doesn’t fall to its knees under an ecological burden of its own making. Will the new leaders be able, and willing, to bear the non-monetary costs of institutional reform? If they are, Xi and Li must move quickly to readjust environmental policies across all sectors and fix the lack of interconnections, especially between central government policies and local implementation.

That said, most policy analysts note that China over the last ten years has made considerable advances in dealing with environmental problems. But many also realize that the country faces new challenges where the ‘business as usual’ approach favoured by Government—top–down decision making and management; lack of monitoring and assessment of projects; inadequate coordination between government bureaux; insufficient consideration of local interests; and poor use of best technical practices—is less likely to solve the very large problems that are gripping the nation.

This is not to say that the Government hasn’t been throwing money—lots of it—at the problem, for example, CNY 4 trillion (c. USD 6.35 billion) for water, CNY 7 trillion (c. USD 2.83 billion) for air and CNY 50 trillion (c. USD 8 trillion) for urban development (the latter figure is equivalent to the size of China’s economy in 2012.) But money will only buy a limited amount of solutions to problems that are essentially institutional. Therefore, what is needed is institutional reform along with more skilled and capable people.

The leaders must address several key questions: Will increasing the amount of money for solving environmental problems stimulate better coordination between government agencies? Will new policies create sustainable flows of capital, technology and resources between the cities and the countryside? Can enough be done quickly given the widening gap between policies of the central government and action by local governments?

Wind turbines, China, renewable energy

China leads the world in renewable energy but will it be enough? Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Jianchu Xu

Since taking office, Xi and Li have been quick to push reforms. President Xi has spoken of a new system of ‘functional zoning’ to try and slow the degradation of ecosystems and an overall system of environmental protection based on what he says will be the ‘most stringent’ application of law.

While laudable, these statements tend to underscore deep institutional incapacity and problems of governance. That is, if a system based on the rule of law is going to be a major part of China’s solution to environmental problems, will the Government also address constitutional rights that form the fundamentals for the nation’s rule of law but which have never been implemented? If not, will we see a ‘rule of law with Chinese characteristics’—not linked to constitutional rights—that can solve problems effectively ? What would such a system look like?

Furthermore, are international standards of adaptive governance, which have been deployed around the world to solve environmental issues under conditions of uncertainty, applicable only in relatively open societies? Do these standards reflect a bias against other forms of governance, such as we see in China? More to the point, is adaptive problem-solving universal or is China somehow an exception? If so, how?

China has already shown that it can rapidly build an enormous economy, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Is it now time to construct an adaptive state that recognizes that the 21st century marks entry into an era of finite resources, increasing costs and an unpredictable climate?

To pull itself back from the brink of environmental, social and industrial disaster, the nation must restructure its economy to a degree not seen since the 1980s, revamp environmental policies to reverse decades of ecosystem deterioration, and renew its social contract to citizens as they face unprecedented urbanization. Reforms must be implemented much better—and much faster—than current policies.

It is clear that the Government’s ‘business as usual’ behaviour—huge environmental campaigns without scientific monitoring and top–down technological solutions lacking coordination across the bureaucracy—won’t be enough to address the inadequacies of current policies or stimulate reform of institutions. Redesigning the State’s priorities—putting environmental and social issues on the same level as economic growth—offers the best hope for China to meet current and future resource demands.


Edited by Robert Finlayson


Read the article

Grumbine RE,  Xu JC. 2013. Recalibrating China’s environmental policy: the next 10 years. Biological Conservation 166 (2013) 287–292.


Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

You may also like...