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.

Keep an eye on the world
signup buttonGet Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday, plus a collection of free eBooks on the subjects that matter to you!

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

Protestors from the global south were physically removed yesterday from…

Climate

Climate NGOs point fingers at nations holding back climate crisis…

Climate

The Paris Agreement has reached adolescence. Its final stages of…

Climate

A report presented at COP25 highlights the trouble with tourism,…

Climate

For the 25th time in history, the United Nations has…

Wildlife

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s Rising Star winner brings…

Energy

Abandoned coal mines contain a precious resource in the warm…

Climate

Marco Magrini wonders if the annual gathering of world leadership…

Wildlife

A new animation produced by the charity Born Free raises…

Wildlife

The United States is grappling with a wild pig invasion.…

Wildlife

Increased interest in the farming of endangered animals as a…

Geophoto

Will 2019 go down as the year that the world…

Climate

Large-scale air travel is under public scrutiny, and refusing to…

Climate

A review of climate crisis coverage in the global media…

Oceans

Marco Magrini looks at the carbon capturing power of the ocean’s…

Oceans

Marine Protected Areas are designed to benefit the marine ecosystem…

Climate

The link between China’s economic growth and increased pollution has…

Climate

An analysis of nine year’s worth of lightning data, covering…

Climate

When getting on ‘board’ with sustainability is the entire goal

Oceans

Many scientists believe that jellyfish numbers are increasing, pointing to…