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