In-depth The Many Faces of Japan-China Relations
China’s Environmental Problems and Prospects for Japanese Cooperation

Kubota Jumpei [Profile]

[2014.05.30] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | Русский |

China’s growth into an economic superpower has been accompanied by the emergence of grave environmental problems, including the alarming increase of PM2.5 air pollution. An expert reviews the problems and offers his suggestions for regional cooperation to deal with them.

According to statistics released by the World Trade Organization in April 2014, the total value of China’s trade in 2013 topped that of the United States, making it number one in the world by this measure. As its economy continues to grow, China faces a number of issues to which no effective responses are yet in sight. Among these are its environmental problems, including the severe air pollution typified by high levels of PM2.5 (particulate matter of less than 2.5 micrometers). In addition, China already ranks top in the world in its emissions of carbon dioxide, which causes global warming. It accounts for almost a quarter (24%) of the global total of such emissions. It and the United States, the second-largest source, together produce more than one-third of the world’s CO2 emissions.

Along with air pollution, China’s various environmental problems also include water pollution and food safety issues (see, for example, Imura 2007 and Aikawa 2008). In this article I will examine the state of these problems and discuss the limits of and potential for bilateral and regional cooperation extending beyond the framework of technical assistance from Japan in dealing with them.

A Pair of Shocks in the Late 1990s

The growth of the Chinese economy following the adoption of the reform and open door policy (1978) became particularly pronounced from 1992 on. China’s environmental problems have also occurred mainly during the 20-plus years since then. Over the course of this period, however, the nature of the problems has changed substantially.

China experienced two major environmental shocks in the late 1990s: the drying up of the Yellow River on an unprecedented scale in 1997 and the Yangtze River floods of 1998.

The drying up of the Yellow River was blamed on the growth of agriculture and industry and increased urban demand for water. But the story was not that simple. According to a research project conducted by our Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN), one cause of this phenomenon was the rise in use of water accompanying the afforestation activities undertaken to counter desertification (see Fukushima 2008). About 70% of the water drawn from the Yellow River is used for agriculture; the amount used for this purpose grew in the 1980s but did not change greatly in the latter part of the 1990s, which is when the drying up occurred.

Meanwhile, the RIHN study found that water consumption in the Loess Plateau area changed greatly after the 1980s. The afforestation activities conducted as a national project to counter desertification in this area achieved a certain degree of success, and this resulted in an increase in the amount of water used by the restored forests (through evaporation), which ended up reducing the downstream water flow. The afforestation project undertaken to fight one environmental problem, desertification, caused a different environmental problem, the drying up of the Yellow River.

A forested site on the outskirts of Wuhai, a coal-mining city on the middle reaches of the Yellow River. Afforestation has alleviated the sandstorms hitting the city, but growing trees in this dry area requires precious water from the river. (Author’s photo, March 12, 2012)

As for the Yangtze River floods of 1998, unusually heavy rainfalls were probably the direct cause, but the flooding was believed to have been aggravated by rampant clearing of forests for farmland in mountainous areas. After the floods, the Chinese government responded by implementing a policy of farmland reforestation, an extremely unusual move in a country that has continued to expand its farmland as its population has grown.

New Environmental Problems Arising from Rapid Urban Development

As seen in the above two cases, in the period through the early 2000s China encountered various environmental problems, such as increased amounts of “Asian dust” (seasonal clouds of yellow dust affecting large areas in China and neighboring countries), water shortages, and flooding, as a result of desertification and deforestation accompanying its drive to become self-sufficient in food through increased agricultural production. But the situation changed greatly starting in the latter part of the 2000s decade as urbanization and industrialization progressed.

In Inner Mongolia, where agricultural development led to the loss of grassland and increased desertification, the mining of coal, rare earths, and other resources is now being undertaken at an intensive pace, and this process is being accompanied by rapid urban development. In the past, many of the coal mines of this region, like those in Japan, seem to have been dangerous warrens of tunnels, but now the minerals are being extracted from large-scale open-pit mines, and meanwhile the country towns of the region have been undergoing urban development reminiscent of cities in oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. Local residents no longer feel the incentive to farm, and the pressure for agricultural development is gone. I have heard Chinese researchers declare that further desertification will not occur.

An open-pit coal mine in Shenmu County, Shaanxi Province. Coal is being extracted from a bed 70 meters below the surface after clearing away all the soil to that depth. After a year of mining, the operator is required to restore the soil and replant the site. (Author’s photo, September 8, 2011)

Open-pit coal mining is a source of further environmental problems, but mine operators are stringently required to restore the mine sites. The situation has changed greatly from the time when many Japanese nongovernmental organizations were involved in afforestation activities in this region.

China’s Advances with Countermeasures of Its Own Making

China’s environmental problems are serious, but just knowing that is not enough to see the whole picture. For example, the relationship between economic growth and environmental conservation, though generally a trade-off, is now being addressed around the world with integrated policies or policy mixes aimed at achieving both growth and conservation. In China’s case, the achievement of a “socialist harmonious society” was adopted as an objective during the administration of Hu Jintao in 2004, and the government has pushed ahead with environmental policies that use the market mechanism and economic incentives.

China relies on coal for about 70% of its primary energy supply, and it is the world’s biggest emitter of sulfur oxides from its coal-fired power plants. The government set a target of cutting the volume of these emissions 10% by 2010. In the first half of the 2000s the authorities used measures like the imposition of surcharges on emissions, but these failed to work. And advanced desulfurization equipment from Japan was too expensive to be widely adopted. But in the second half of the decade Chinese manufacturers developed their own desulfurization equipment and succeeded in lowering the cost by a large margin. And thanks to the rapid spread of this equipment, China just about reached its 10% reduction target (Horii 2010).

China has also been actively promoting renewable energy sources like solar and wind power generation. Japan and Germany originally led in production of the photovoltaic cells for solar power generation, but in the past two or three years Chinese manufacturers have taken the lead. China is also number one in wind power generating capacity, and three of the world’s top 10 companies in this field are Chinese. When it comes to addressing environmental issues with measures that apply economic incentives, China seems to be more advanced than Japan. And as with other manufactured products, it has achieved a strong advantage in terms of cost.

A Historic Three-Way Dialogue

Next I would like to consider a different aspect of China’s environmental problems by introducing the case of Lake Tai (Taihu) in the coastal province of Jiangsu. From the 1990s on, the basin of Lake Tai in Jiangsu became seriously polluted as a result of development, and in 2007 a major algae bloom occurred in the lake, causing serious problems, including the halt of use of water from the lake by the city of Wuxi, which relies on it for its drinking water (Nakao, Qian, and Zheng 2009). Jiangsu Province ranks with Shanghai and Zhejiang in terms of the advanced state of its economy, and the provincial government had shown strong leadership in undertaking policies for environmental protection, having moved at an early stage to proclaim the goal of a xiaokang (moderately well-off) society as its guiding principle, aiming for harmony between economic growth and the environment.

Lihu, or Li Lake, is an inlet of Lake Tai adjacent to the urban center of Wuxi. An ecological restoration project has been implemented here, and parks have been created along the shore. When I visited in November 2008 the lake had a noticeable odor, but when I visited again three years later, the odor was gone. (Author’s photo, December 22, 2011)

From the latter part of the 1990s, in keeping with this guiding principle, Jiangsu came out with a series of progressive experimental environmental policies. These included the adoption of a disclosure system regarding environmental measures—an extremely unusual initiative in China—with enterprises that fail to disclose relevant information blocked from borrowing from banks, and the implementation of a pilot project for trading of emission rights for pollutants, using chemical oxygen demand as the standard for measuring the environmental impact on rivers, lakes, marshes, and ocean waters.

These policies have not fixed all the problems, but one move of particular note is the holding of a roundtable conference bringing together government officials, business representatives, and ordinary residents to discuss environmental policies for the area (Ōtsuka 2010). The convening of this sort of roundtable meeting was a major historical milestone for China. The move is reminiscent of Japan’s creation of committees focusing on the basins of the Yodogawa and other rivers. It is important to get businesses, local residents, and NGOs actively involved in dealing with environmental issues so as to enhance the effectiveness and preventive power of the measures adopted. The Chinese may have started to take note of this point.

Geopolitical Impediments to Regional Cooperation

On the international level, global warming has been one of the top items on the global agenda ever since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Britain and other European countries led the international debate with their advocacy of an extremely idealistic position regarding global warming, including appeals to ethical concerns. By way of background, the Eastern European countries that had effectively joined the rest of Europe after the end of the Cold War had low levels of efficiency in terms of energy and CO2 emissions, meaning that it was possible for them to improve efficiency and reduce emissions with relatively small investments. The political and economic integration brought by the enlargement of the European Union following the end of the Cold War may be seen as having given rise to a beneficial intraregional reciprocity with respect to environmental issues as well.

The regional picture in East Asia is quite different. There is an extreme lack of political and economic uniformity among the countries of this region, including China and Japan, and this lack stands in the way of reciprocity. While Japan and South Korea have market economies under democratic systems of government, China has switched to a market economy while maintaining the political dominance of the socialist-era Communist Party. This makes it difficult to achieve strategic reciprocity covering both the political and economic fronts.

With respect to environmental issues, such as the relatively recent phenomenon of PM2.5 and the Asian dust that has affected both China and its neighbors for some time, the tendency has been to think in terms of relationships “upwind” versus “downwind”—or, in the case of maritime pollution, “upstream” versus “downstream.” In East Asia we have the highly distinctive geopolitical pairing of China as an upwind country that has many pollution-related environmental problems arising from industrial activity, including CO2 emissions, and Japan as a downwind country that has some of the world’s most advanced technologies for energy conservation and prevention of pollution.

In Europe’s case, the region as a whole must face global environmental issues like global warming and acid rain as shared threats. In East Asia, by contrast, the existence of the upstream-downstream dichotomy makes it difficult to find such common ground. Also, thanks to its economic development China has now reached a point where it does not necessarily need know-how from Japan with respect to environmental technology, including such aspects as manufacturing of solar panels or desulfurization equipment. But in Japan there continues to be a strong tendency to focus on the idea of “technological cooperation” (the provision of Japanese technology to China) and a lack of thinking about a framework for real cooperation within the region.

Strategic Reciprocity for a Disaster-Prone Region

Is there no way of creating ties of strategic reciprocity in East Asia regarding environmental issues? One possible approach might involve the concepts of “climate security” and “environmental security” that people in countries like Britain started to discuss in the 1990s. These concepts focus on the fact that solving environmental problems contributes to regional and national political and social stability.

When we think about East Asia—as broadly defined to include Southeast Asia—it is important to note the region’s distinctive set of climatic and geological conditions. Its location on the western side of the Pacific Rim puts it in the Asian monsoon belt, and it experiences frequent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes arising from the Pacific “Ring of Fire.” The monsoon climate produces seasonal rains and also disastrous events like typhoons. And the earthquakes along the Ring of Fire are both disasters in their own right and the cause of devastating tsunamis, such as the ones experienced by Indonesia, Thailand, and other countries after the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and by Japan after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

The Pacific Rim, particularly the region from East to Southeast Asia, is a part of the world that is extraordinarily prone to natural disasters. Human-caused threats, notably global warming, also pose great dangers for the people of the region. The severity of the typhoon that struck the Philippines late in 2013 is seen as a reflection of this. To deal with the threats both from human activity and from natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, we probably need an international cooperative framework (Yonemoto 2011). If the countries of East Asia could share this sort of thinking and advocate it to the rest of the world, we could hope to see the emergence of regional strategic reciprocity in the environmental field as well.

Building on the Multilateral Networks Among Researchers

Even when it looks difficult for particular countries to cooperate, we see cases of joint international research in connection with environmental issues. RIHN’s Amur-Okhotsk Project has been followed by a move to build cooperative ties at the level of researchers from the countries along the Amur River, which have no such ties at the government level. Researchers have set up the Amur-Okhotsk Consortium as a framework to search for common benefits while working jointly to solve environmental problems in which their countries are mutually involved, based on clarification of the need for environmental conservation efforts with respect to the Amur River and in the Sea of Okhotsk into which it flows. I believe that “second-track” initiatives of this sort, separate from governmental and economic interaction, have an important part to play in building regional trust.

Japan’s environmental cooperation with China up to now has been conducted mostly on a bilateral basis. But in view of the lack of political and economic uniformity in East Asia, multilateral cooperation may be what is really required. Also, we Japanese tend to have the notion that our country is a leader in environmental technology and China is backward in this field, and so we think in terms of “technological cooperation,” effectively meaning the provision of Japanese technology to China. As long as we are stuck in this mind-set, we are unlikely to achieve any progress.

I would stress the importance of actively calling for joint cross-border research as an international public good. Environmental issues are a type of national security issue, and dealing with them can promote regional stability. Japan should vigorously push this line of thought and promote joint research on a multilateral basis.

References ^

Aikawa Yasushi. 2008. Chūgoku osen: ‘Kōgai tairiku’ no kankyō hōkoku [Pollution in China: An Environmental Report on the “Polluted Mainland”]. Tokyo: SB Creative.

Fukushima Yoshihiro. 2008. Kōga danryū: Chūgoku kyodai kasen o meguru mizu to kankyō mondai [The Yellow River Dries Up: Water and Environmental Problems Relating to China’s Giant River]. Chikyūken sōsho [RIHN Books]. Tokyo:  Shōwadō.

Horii Nobuhiro, ed. 2010. Chūgoku no jizoku kanō na seichō: Shigen, kankyō seiyaku no kokufuku wa kanō ka? [Sustainable Growth in China: Can the Resource and Environmental Constraints Be Overcome?]. Tokyo: Institute of Developing Economies.

Imura Hidefumi. 2007. Chūgoku no kankyō mondai: Ima nani ga okite iru no ka [China’s Environmental Problems: What Is Happening Now?]. Tokyo: Kagaku-Dōjin.

Kubota Jumpei and Nakamura Tomoko. 2010. Chūgoku no mizu mondai to sessui seisaku no yukue [The Direction of China’s Water Issues and Water-Saving Policies]. In Hito to mizu I: Mizu to kankyō [People and Water I: Water and the Environment], ed. Akimichi Tomoya, Komatsu Kazuhiko, and Nakamura Yasuo, 275–304. Tokyo: Bensei.

Nakao Masayoshi Qian Xin, and Zheng Yuejun, eds. 2009. Chūgoku no mizu kankyō mondai: Kaihatsu no motarasu mizubusoku [China’s Water Environmental Issues: Water Shortages Resulting from Development]. Tokyo: Bensei.

Ōtsuka Kenji, ed. 2010. Chūgoku no mizu kankyō hozen to gabanansu: Taiko ryūiki ni okeru seido kōchiku ni mukete [China’s Water Environmental Protection and Governance: Constructing a System in the Lake Tai Basin]. Tokyo: Institute of Developing Economies.

Yonemoto Shōhei. 2011. Chikyū hendō no poritikusu [The Politics of Global Change]. Tokyo: Kōbundō.

  • [2014.05.30]

Deputy director general and professor at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) since 2012. Received his doctorate in agriculture from Kyoto University. Formerly associate professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. His fields of specialization are hydrology, forest hydrology, and erosion control. Author and editor of numerous works, including Chūō Yūrasia kankyō shi (Environmental History of Central Eurasia, 4 vols., ed.).

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