The Environmental Cost of Chinese Industrialization

Melissa Frick

China has been growing at astronomical rates for the past few decades, increasing its influence of economical and political power throughout the world. Unfortunately, its rise to power has not been without sacrifice. The long-term consequences from its initial industrialization are just being recognized, especially in light of the upcoming Beijing Olympics. The environmental Kuznet’s curve theorizes that a country has to go through a period of increased pollution while they are industrializing and eventually reduces their environmental impact as they reach a higher level of industrialization. China has clearly shown such a pattern, of which they are approaching, not progressing from, the vertex of maximum pollution. It is unknown how soon they will start reducing their pollution but evidence shows that it will be awhile, if ever. This industrialization has led to pollution rates never seen before, which has furthered alterations to the environment. Energy consumption, due to increased industrialization and overpopulation, has forced China to make unwise decisions about their energy resources. Pollution from the abundant coal power plants has endangered the health of the nearby villages but has also affected national and international weather patterns. Even renewable energy attempts, like that of the Three Gorges Dam, have resulted in a net negative impact upon the environment. The burden of overpopulation and environmental pollution from this industrialization has made it near impossible for China to reverse its negative impact upon the world.

China has absorbed the industries that made the West rich; at the same time, they have taken the role as the world’s leading polluter. These industries include steel, coke, aluminum, cement, chemical, leather, paper and other goods – all of which are experiencing a tremendous amount of growth. China’s steel exports to the EU alone are expected to double this year from the record set in 2006. Ironically, China has purchased a lot of Europe's old factory machines to expand their profits. Europe, especially Germany, has already been through such industrialization and is now in the process of cleaning up their mistakes. China is blinded by the promise of profits and does not recognize their potential damage to the world; furthermore, their pollution is three times as great as Germany's ever was. The Chinese government has threatened to revoke the licenses of these industries if they continue to spew particulates into the air; however, their threats fall upon deaf ears. The leniency and greed of the government is one reason why the reduction of pollution is not predicted for the near future.


Residents living near factories cope with a constant clouding of dust and smoke that scientists admit to containing numerous carcinogens. People avoid eating outdoors to avoid black flakes of briquettes fall on their food, but it has only been recently that scientists have officially identified abnormally high levels of chemicals of the benzene family attached to such small pollutants. The trucks that transport coal to the furnaces shake the farmhouses and apartment buildings that sit outside of the plant; furthermore, these civilians are constantly bombarded with the rumblings and clangs of this smog-producing monster. On a more national scope, these particulates spewed from the smoke stacks have significantly altered the Chinese weather patterns. By providing more impurities into the air onto which water can condensate, more water droplets form, but they are of smaller size. These smaller droplets collide less often and in effect, produce less precipitation. This symptom of air pollution has affected the atmospheric conditions above Chinese mountains, which have experienced as much as a 17% drop in rainfall during the past fifty years. Prevailing winds have swept the clouds of aerosols and small pollutants over the Pacific Ocean, which have created a similar atmospheric affect to that the one over Chinese mountaintops. Condensation occurs more often, but with smaller droplets so that it is harder for the droplets to collide and eventually precipitate. But unlike the conditions over the mountains, while these particles hover over the Pacific Ocean, they give storm-like conditions a chance to build strength and reach higher into the atmosphere. Once rain does start to fall, it falls in much greater quantities and with much greater strength. From that, storms have been almost 50% stronger in the past decade. Not only are Pacific weather patterns altered but North America’s as well because the Pacific storms alter the jet stream that controls the weather in the USA. This is a great example of how our entire world depends on each other. Although political lines may separate us, the environment does not discriminate against more developed or less developed countries. 

This pollution is going nowhere fast. The out-of-control growth of China’s population and industry has made incredible demands upon energy consumption. China has been forced to react relatively quickly to provide large amounts of energy and prevent against blackouts for a continuously growing population. Coal plants have been preferred to any other form of energy because of three reasons; they are quick to build, cheap to finance, and easy to run. Other technologies, such as wind, biomass, hydroelectric, solar, and nuclear, are all hard to finance because the bureaucratic and manufacturing systems make the process long and tedious. China has built 114,000 megawatts of fossil-fuel-based power plants in 2007 - most of which derive their power from coal; projected estimates for 2008 are an additional 95,000 megawatts. Keep in mind that coal-fired plants usually produce just 50 to 100 megawatts of operation power, so China has been adding thousands of plants per year to keep up with the soaring energy needs. Using Britain as an example, they have built 75,000 megawatts in operation over the past few decades. In comparison with the rest of the world, China has certainly consumed more coal than any other country; in addition, it usually uses the older, dirtier technologies so its emissions are far worse than most.



The prevalence of coal-burning plants has not been China’s only misstep – its attempts to harness hydropower have also turned into disasters. Energy-starved and ever-expanding, Chinese industry is obviously addicted to the quick-and-easy promise of coal plants; yet, China was once highly praised for its plans for the Three Gorges Dam. Years ago, this project was the centerpiece of China's most acclaimed green initiatives to expand its renewable energy sources yet the country’s negligence and rush to create the Three Gorges Dam has had horrendous effects upon the environment and population. In 2006, China proudly celebrated its completion of the Three Gorges Dam; it was the world's biggest dam, biggest power plan, and largest consumer of dirt, stone, concrete and steel. They failed to acknowledge that the dam was also one of the world's biggest resettlement program and worst polluter.


Over the years, over 23 million people in China have been displaced by this dam projects - 1.2 million people alone have been displaced by this single project. Yet they have resettled in cities in where the living density is almost twice the national average. Displaced farmers have moved towards the mountains and have cut down the surrounding trees, contributing to soil erosion and destabilization of hillsides. When it rains, the run-off carries large amounts of topsoil off the mountains. This threatens the villages that have been created on the mountains because the foundations of their houses are being exposed as the soil disappears. Another major concern about the Three Gorges Dam is that it can cause other man-made “natural disasters;” many wonder if the dam could trigger sever earthquakes since the reservoir sits on two major fault lines and the water level strains them and landslides have already occurred on several occasions. Biodiversity is also threatened by the flooding of the dam; 20% of all Chinese seed plant species live in the surrounding areas and are threatened not only by its flood waters, but by the industries that have flocked to the dam so they can use the power it generates. A feedback loop occurs here as the environment suffers from its cyclic movement. Since industrialization requires energy, either renewable energy or nonrenewable energy sources need to be created; yet once these energy sources are created, even more industry flock to these sources requiring more energy, so on and so forth. Finally, the Three Gorges Dam has brought disease and drought to the surrounding residencies. At the mouth of the Yangtze River, downstream from the dam, residents of Shanghai are, quite ironically, experiencing water shortages because of the construction of the Dam and its constraint on the water flow. In result of the drought, diseases like schistosomiasis have become prevalent. When the Chinese government considered the creating the dam, they saw it as an economic and environmental savior, yet in the rush of trying to provide renewable power, they failed to consider the true cost of the project and are suffering from the consequences today.

China once had a decision to make; the health of the environment or the health of its economy. It is evident that China quickly opted for the health of its economy and industries. In truth, there are few signs that Chinese officials have genuine regrets about their reputation as a heavily industrialized country. They disregard the true cost of industrialization and only celebrate economic growth, such as the sharp rise in investment for steel, aluminum, and cement industries even as those are some of the top polluters. To many, China is a lost cause – it’s projection on the Kuznet’s curve is unpredictable and unable to be harnessed. Optimistically, the Kuznet’s curve tentatively predicts that pollution will eventually subside once income levels have reached a certain height. Despite either a rise or fall in pollution and energy consumption in the future, China’s past actions have made a detrimental impact. What we can do as international citizens is look at China as an example of a worst-case scenario for an industrializing nation and then work with other industrialized nations to prevent another environmental crisis of a growing third-world country. Globalization has allowed us to think on a more international level when it comes to economics and finance, and it can help us feel more environmentally connected. Once we realize that political lines have no power over the environment, we can start to share responsibility over the Earth’s well-being. Now is the perfect time to accept this responsibility, as countries in Africa are rising from poverty. All countries that have the ability to donate or contribute to a “green industrialization” will benefit from a cleaner, healthier Earth.




Works Cited:

Biello, David. "The Rain in China Falls Mainly on the Plains, Thanks to Pollution." Scientific American 09 Mar 2007. 11 April, 2008

Bradsher, Keith. “ China’s Green Energy Gap.” New York Times 24 Oct 2007. 11 April, 2008.

Dasgupta, Susmita; Benoit Laplante; Hua Wang; David Wheeler. "Confronting
the Environmental Kuznets Curve." The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Vol.
16, No. 1. Winter 2002. pp. 147-168

Hvistendahl , Mara. " China's Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?." Scientific American 25 Mar 2008: 11 April, 2008.

Kahn, Joseph and Mark Landler. China Brabs West's Smoke-Spewing Factories." New York Times 21 Dec 2007. 11 April, 2008>

Yardley, Jim. “Chinese Dam Projects Criticized for Their Costs” New York Times 19 Nov 2007. 11 April, 2008.


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last updated 4/11/2008