China published its annual report on the state of its environment yesterday, but don’t get too excited. As usual, the sensitive bits were labeled state secrets. Sadly, even the publicly available parts look bad.
What we found out
- Only 27 of 113 major cities in China had a “safe” level of air pollution according to national standards in 2012.
- Around 30% of the country’s main rivers were “polluted” or “severely polluted.”
- The quality of over 40% of tested groundwater was “bad;” 17% was graded “worst.”
- Seven of the country’s nine most important bays had bad water quality and 25% of monitored lakes and reservoirs had excessive algae.
- China’s nuclear reactors—including 29 under construction—were deemed safe.
- Pollution in the countryside worsened in 2012 as industry and animal husbandry (the breeding of domestic animals) expanded.
- New, tougher standards this year may have made the results look worse, but even so they were a slight improvement from last year.
- At the national level, air and water quality improved, but pollution levels are still unsustainably high.
What we weren’t told
- While the report included some information on air quality, it didn’t include the all-important measurements of small particulate matter—known as PM 2.5 and PM 10 for each particle’s width in microns. These minuscule particles can be inhaled, causing infections and sometimes cancer, and have been blamed for 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010 alone. Beijing was hit by a particularly intense cloud of pollution in January, when the US embassy recorded PM 2.5 measurements at 291. Levels above 25 are considered unsafe.
- The government continues to keep the results of a five-year soil pollution study that cost 1 billion yuan ($163 million) under wraps (the results were classified as a state secret earlier this year). In April, a senior environmental official revealed that as much as 65% of fertilizer in China was used improperly. Some researchers say that up to 70% of Chinese soil is polluted.
- No information was provided to explain how 44% of rice in the city of Guangzhou became polluted with dangerous levels of cadmium, an issue that has enraged people in China and sparked debate about the availability of information.
To an extent, this report simply confirmed what is already widely known—pollution is extremely widespread, largely due to weak regulation and corruption. With China’s economy slowing to around 7.7% growth in the first quarter of this year, the country’s policy of gunning for growth at all costs is getting, well, costlier. The World Bank estimated (pdf) in 2007 that pollution costs China about 5.8% of GDP each year (for instance, water pollution raises the cost of farming; poor air quality erodes building structures.)