Science - June 8, 2006

In the News / China’s environment

China will face an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions if the country does not do something about the environmental degradation taking place. This was the depressing warning that the Chinese State Environmental Protection Administration issued last week as a wake-up call to the Chinese government and people. However, Chinese MSc student Mingtian Yao remains optimistic. ‘Our environment is deteriorating but at least the speed at which this is happening is now slowing down.’

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Coming from an area in Tibet that recently has been turned into a nature reserve, Yao has a fascination for the environment. In Beijing - three thousand kilometres from his hometown - where he did his bachelor studies on environmental engineering, he learned about the problems China faces and the possible measures it can take. Now he is doing an MSc in Earth System Sciences for which he is writing a thesis at the Environmental Systems Analysis Group. Finally he hopes to be able to make a practical contribution to doing something about the environment. He has been in Holland for two years now, which he loves, although the country sometimes seems to him like a big garden, ‘There is nothing really natural around.’

Obviously well informed, Yao starts explaining the problems and possibilities that his country faces. Eutrophication, dust storms, wastewater are just a few of the problems, ‘But,’ he states, ‘Although our government sees our economy as the main priority, together with more and more citizens, they are starting to realise that something needs to happen to the environment as well.’

Yao explains how modern techniques and new policies have led to a decrease in the number of dust storms in Beijing. ‘The storms were so heavy that everybody had to stay inside and they sometimes ravaged Beijing more than a dozen times each spring and summer. They were a development caused by the desertification and overgrazing of neighbouring Inner Mongolia. However, in 2003 a friend of mine, who was writing a thesis on these events, had to deal with the problem that there were no dust storms anymore. Ironically for him, it was a good development thanks to our government that planted thousands of trees in the open sands and as a buffer around the city.’

The same counts for wastewater and solid waste, Yao says. ‘China is now developing complete city blocks with integrated waste treatment. The only things that will not be recycled are the inhabitants’ batteries,’ he jokes. In addition, the government is relocating all industry to outside the city in an environment-friendly way and is creating many wastewater plants around the city so that all water will be cleaned. ‘The government is aiming that the 2008 Olympics will be the greenest games ever.’

A more complex issue is energy production and the air pollution it creates, according to Yao. ‘Because the Chinese focus is so much on the economy, which indeed is most important, we have very high energy requirements. Currently China is using a lot of coal, but in the future more clean oil, natural gas and renewable energy sources will be used. The main stadium of the Olympic games will run on solar energy. Aside of the technical more top-down solutions there is also a lot being done from the bottom up. Non-governmental organisations cannot really exist in China, because you always need permission from the government, but we do have so-called Government-Organised NGOs. Although these organisations cannot really oppose our government, they do play an important role in raising awareness among the Chinese people.’

Yao thinks China’s biggest advantage when it comes to environmental issues is people’s ability to adapt. ‘We will grow to approximately 1.4 billion people by 2035, which cannot be helped. But our people are flexible in adapting to new techniques and behaviour. And finally we simply will have to adapt to the environmental needs, simply because the pollution caused by our growing economy will have its repercussions on this same economy.’

Martijn Vink

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