Lecture Report Back: China’s Environmental Challenges

4 Mar

Darrin Magee, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, is an incredibly inspiring individual. Extremely well versed in mathematics, environmental science and policy, and the Chinese language (“because the Japanese class was full!”), Darrin brings an extraordinarily realistic, straightforward, yet very inspiring perspective to one of the most important issues of our time.


As the title of the talk suggests, the most important environmental issues in China have to do with water, waste, and energy. Water contamination is an incredibly important subject because it will not only affect future generations but is impacting current generations. There are widespread, high levels of pollution that affect both surface and groundwater sources. These pollutants stem from sources such as inadequate wastewater treatment, chemical induced weathering, salinization (from over extraction and flood irrigation), and industry. Darrin explained that there are five grades on which water cleanliness is assessed in China: grades 1-3 (one being perfectly clean, pure water) are safe for drinking water, grade 4 is not fit for humans and can only be used industrially, and grade 5 is used for agriculture!!! This causes a wide range of awful and often life-threatening health effects for the consumers of food grown using this highly contaminated water. An example of these effects is cadmium poisoning, which blocks the absorption of calcium into the body, resulting in severe, often life threatening health problems.

Darrin pointed out that China is not actually water poor, the country has the resources to provide for the water needs of their country, but strict pollution regulation is necessary if China hopes to be water-secure in the future. As well as regulation of water pollutants, it is imperative that China adjust its coal usage if major cities are to continue to be habitable: acute respiratory distress is already the principal reason for ER visits in China. One way that China plans to transition away from coal is through hydropower, though these dams can create another set of environmental and geopolitical controversies. There is currently “a race” to build powerful, profitable dams before regulations tighten. As if these issues weren’t enough, energy consumption of the average Chinese citizen is climbing rapidly as standards of living get better. More and more energy will be needed in the coming years to fuel this rapidly modernizing country of 1.3 billion people, and where that energy comes from will affect not only Chinese citizens, but the entire world.

While China’s environmental situation is quite serious and may seem very easy to point fingers at (“If China would lower its emissions and reduce its pollution our world would have a much better chance… it’s not our responsibility here in the U.S., it’s theirs!”), the reality is that in relation to their population, China’s carbon footprint is much smaller than the U.S.’s. The average Chinese citizen has a carbon footprint of 6.2, compared to 17.6 in the United States. China’s population is simply much larger than the U.S., so there will naturally be more fossil fuel emissions as the country develops. Another factor to consider in the international blame game is the origin of the waste in China. Waste and trash is often exported from first world countries to countries like China, because they are willing to accept it in return for payment.  Trash is not the only item we export; much of China’s carbon emissions that contribute directly to climate change are released by factories that 1) export goods to developed countries or 2) are owned by international companies there because of low Chinese production costs. China may be the location in which the highest amount of carbon is being emitted, but at least one reason for those emissions is our consumption.

This is not to say that the China should develop exactly as the United States and Europe did, or that they are not accountable for their country’s environmental impact. On the contrary, China must make the policy decisions necessary to reduce its emissions (particularly coal) for the sake of the planet, and clean up its water and resources for the sake of its people. McGee was quick to point out that unlike the United States, China is in a much better position to enact change because the people and its leaders do not have an issue “believing” in environmental challenges. These are challenges that people live and breathe every single day, and the question is not “what are the challenges?” but “how will they be addressed?” China has ambitious renewable energy goals for 2020, in which renewables will account for 15% of total energy consumption (mostly hydro and nuclear). China also plans to cut their carbon emissions by about 17% in the next year. Given China’s large population and its rapid industrialization, these are substantial goals- but if countries in North America, Western Europe, and Australia do not cut back on their own disproportionate consumption, it will still not be enough.

-Savannah Holden, ’16

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