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China offers a new environmental report, filled with state secrets

AP Photo/Oded Balilty
I can’t see my fingers.
By Jake Maxwell Watts
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

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

  • Around 30% of the country’s main rivers were “polluted” or “severely polluted.”
  • China’s nuclear reactors—including 29 under construction—were deemed safe.
  • 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.

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.)

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