Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Conscious uncoupling: The link between China’s growth and increased pollution has come to an end

  • Written by  Katie Burton
  • Published in Climate
Conscious uncoupling: The link between China’s growth and increased pollution has come to an end
31 Oct
2019
The link between China’s economic growth and increased pollution has come to an end, but the path to sustainability is far from complete

In 1978, with Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution finally over, China began to open up to the rest of the world. Since then, the country has experienced phenomenal economic growth. In the 40 years up to 2018, China’s GDP expanded by an annual average of 9.6 per cent, an overall thirty-fold increase, making China the world’s second largest economy behind the US.

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

But, as is so often the case, this economic growth came at a cost. As China expanded economically, its rising wealth was coupled with environmental degradation and increased pollution. It’s a pairing that continued throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, but which now, finally, looks to be coming to an end.

In a recent study examining China’s progress towards a ‘sustainable path’, a group of international researchers, including Deliang Chen, a professor of physical meteorology at the University of Gothenburg, has discovered that since 2015 the relationship between growth and environmental impact in China has ‘decoupled’. In particular, emissions of major pollutants have started on a downward trend, with sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and smoke dust emissions declining by 75, 50, and 42 per cent respectively. The researchers link these figures to China’s national strategy of energy conservation and the imposition of much tighter emission limits.

According to Chen, this decoupling could provide a model for development in other countries – one that doesn’t follow the traditional destructive path to growth. ‘Many believe that economic progress and pollution have to go hand in hand,’ he says, ‘but our study shows that this connection has become weaker in recent years in China. It provides a more hopeful picture for the future. This hope and the lessons learned in China can be interesting for other countries that also need to be developed.’

However, it is not all good news. While pollutants have decreased, China’s carbon emissions have not. The country is now the world’s top energy consumer and CO2 emitter, accounting for 30 per cent of global carbon emissions (the study notes that ‘a variety of global models suggest that China’s CO2 emissions should peak during 2020 to 2025’).

What’s more, taking a wider view of ‘progress’, the researchers conclude that while China has made improvements on a variety of social issues, major problems still exist. In particular, they point to the country’s wide urban-rural divide in disposable income and education levels. Nor would it be wise to forget the country’s Muslim Uighurs, one million of whom are reported to be detained in camps in the province of Xinjiang.

The overall message is one of balance. ‘China’s economic growth has not come without negative consequences for the environment and climate,’ says Chen. ‘But it is encouraging to note these improvements. At the same time, it reminds us of the urgent need to solve major problems such as increased greenhouse gas emissions and inequality of income.’

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Climate

As the world gears up for COP26 in Glasgow, Marco Magrini…

Wildlife

James Wallace, chief executive of Beaver Trust, shares an unlikely…

Wildlife

The winners of the most hotly anticipated photography competition have…

Polar

Artist and geographer Nick Jones was appointed artist in residence…

Oceans

Photojournalist Tommy Trenchard joins a research expedition to the Saya…

Climate

So far, carbon offsets have focused mostly on tree-planting. But…

Oceans

Marine scientists are often too few and too underfunded to…

Wildlife

Indigenous marmosets are under threat from released pets and forest fragmentation

Wildlife

A rare encounter with a leopard in the mountains of…

Oceans

The Saildrone Surveyor, a type of uncrewed autonomous vehicle, has…

Climate

Australia has the highest per-capita use of rooftop solar power…

Wildlife

Ecoacoustics – a way to listen in closely to the…

Wildlife

Ash dieback is set to transform the British landscape. Robert…

Geophoto

Photographer Patrick Wack documents documents changes in the Chinese province 

Climate

A growing tide of legal action is increasing pressure on…

Wildlife

Classifying a group of organisms as a separate species has…

Geophoto

Artist Sarah Gillespie used the historic mezzotint technique for her…

Geophoto

The winners of the 2021 competition of Earth Photo have…

Climate

As climate change dysregulates weather patterns, cases of pest explosions…