Special Reports
Pollution in China is Worse Than Ever, Citizens Say

by Alex Pasternack
January 28, 2009

China's environmental problem is "very serious" or "relatively serious,"
according to a report published last week. Just as troubling -- or perhaps
promising -- is that these conclusions aren't the determination of researchers:
they're the opinion of more than three-fourths of 10,000 citizens surveyed
across China.

According to the survey, an annual report that began in 2005, some 76 percent of
the respondents said that pollution was the most serious problem after "rising
prices" and "food security." While a fifth of the population in Hong Kong are
considering fleeing pollution there, mainlanders will have to find better solutions.

Lower scores

About 32 percent of the respondents felt "very unsatisfied" with air quality and
28 percent "very worried" about water quality, making them the top environmental
worries for the public in 2008.

Things seem to be getting worse, too. On a scale of 100 - with 1 being the
lowest - respondents gave 52 points to environmental protection last year,
versus scores of 58 in 2007 and 68 in 2006.

The public may be, not surprisingly, on to something. A few days before the
survey was announced, a report released last week by China's State Oceanic
Administration showed that about 83% of China's total sea area, or about 14000
square kilometers, suffers from pollution, an increase of around 5% from last
year. A major problem is eutrophication, a condition in which sea life receive
excess nutrients that deprive them of oxygen.

Encouraging signs

But the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has also been touting more
promising statistics lately. In 2009, it says:

China’s emissions of sulfur dioxide and the chemical oxygen demand both fell

113 major Chinese cities enjoyed 90 percent good air quality last year, up 1.8
percent from 2007.

Water quality at 746 monitoring stations nationwide also showed improvement.

The proportion of water-quality level I-III, regarded as good quality, reached
47 percent last year, up 4 percent year-on-year.

Surely some of those improvements are the result of slowed economic growth in
the fourth quarter. But the country still has much work to do to meet the goals
of its 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10), which requires that, emissions of sulfur
dioxide should be lowered by 10 percent from the 2005 level by 2010. To get
there, China will need to "sprint" towards its green goals in 2009, said Zhou
Shengxian, the top minister at the MEP.

Worsening pollution or improved demands?

The results don't necessarily reflect worsening pollution, but growing awareness
of environmental problems. They also indicate how rising living standards are
also raising expectations for better living conditions -- something that
environmental protection hasn't been able to meet. The worsening assessment,
said Zhang Shaomin, CECPA secretary, "show that environmental protection efforts
have not been able to keep pace with the fast economic growth and improved
living standards."

Hu's listening?

As John Laumer at Treehugger mentioned after a 2005 survey and Red, Green and
Blue pointed out on the occasion of another survey conducted last year, such
public concern over pollution mirrors worries that arose among Americans in the
late 1960s and early 1970s. That spurred core environmental policies like the
Clean Air Act.

That raises the question of how this kind of growing concern will lead to
action. China's environmental effort -- which was reaffirmed earlier this month
by environment minister Zhou -- is still hobbled by weak monitoring, poor legal
enforcement, and an often uncritical emphasis on economic growth at all costs.
That emphasis, noted the EPA minister, may grow as regional officials struggle
to stimulate their slowing economies.

Doing something

The survey also begs the question of the public's role. Public participation has
become a big buzzword in recent years, promoted by none other than Ministry of
Environmental Protection Vice-Minister Pan Yue. But to many Chinese, that kind
of lip service doesn't inspire much action

. The prevailing attitude about the power of the individual to effect change in
China is summed up by shrugged shoulders and another phrase -- "mei banfa," or
"nothing can be done."

And the connection between personal lifestyle and pollution still needs to be
drawn in heavier ink. About a third of those surveyed, for instance, confessed
they still often bought plastic bags in supermarkets.

But the past year has seen an unusual raising of civic awareness, and a growing
stream of public protest over pollution, bolstered by growing information and

And surveys like this also remind us that things like awareness, publicity and
concern of environmental problems are still improving overall -- even if many
other improvements remain.


Promoting Green Building Design, Construction and Operation, Sustainable Living,
Clean Technology, Renewable Energy Resources and Energy Independence