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Population and the Sustainable Development of the Environment

Our discussion here concerns mainly the natural environment. The history of environmental history shows that environmental changes are closely connected with changes in the size, quality and structure of a population. China had a population/ environment golden period before the Qin Dynasty (BC 221-BC 206). The first deterioration happened from Qin to the Western Han period (BC 206-25 AD), and the second during the Tang-Yuan periods (618- 1368). More serious deterioration was seen in the Ming period (1368- 1644) and Qing period (1644-1911). Surveys in history show that the environment had much to do with the economic, political and military conditions of the country under feudal rulers.

After the founding of New China in 1949 the primary task facing the nation was to heal the wounds of wars, improve people’s living standard and industrialize the country. As a result, the nation implemented New China’s first five-year plan, which emphasized the development of heavy industries. The Great Leap Forward movement of 1958 (popular iron and steel making), the three years of great economic hardships for the nation that followed and the “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976) all caused varying degrees of damage to the environment. Since the 1970s, along with a growing emphasis on population growth control, more attention has been paid to environmental protection. After population growth control became a basic state policy, environmental protection received the same status, and this has produced remarkable positive results. Basically speaking, a sustained fast growth of the national economy over the years has not caused serious environmental deterioration; what environmental deterioration that has occurred is not too serious; and recent years have seen some improvements in some respects. But China faces serious environmental problems. This grave situation is closely connected with population growth. This is reflected in the following:

First, agriculture-type environmental problems. Government efforts to help the poor have reduced the number of poverty-stricken people in rural areas, but people’s exploitation and utilization of natural resources with no regard for consequences have caused direct damages to resources and the environment, giving rise to traditional agriculture-type environmental problems. This is quite obvious in economically-backward remote and frontier regions and other poor areas. To get food from the land, people destroy forests and reclaim wasteland, turn grassland into cropland, and reclaim land from lakes, causing soil erosion to deteriorate and damaging the natural environment. Along with agricultural modernization, excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides causes rising pollution to water and soil. Statistics show that during the 1978-1999 period, use of chemical fertilizers rose 4.7 times nationwide, averaging 7% annually, much higher than growth in the production of farm products such as grain. In the early 1950s national pesticide production was less than 10,000 tons a year; it is now more than half a million tons annually. High input has led to increased yields of agricultural products but caused a deteriorating quality of soil and water and compromised people’s health.

Second, industry-type environmental problems. It is China’s development strategy to take economic development as the central task of the nation and accelerate industrialization. But industries are big producers and consumers of energy and raw materials. And, consequently, they are top producers of waste gases, wastewater and waste solids. Since raw coal is the No.1 energy source in China, bituminous coal has always been the top culprit of air pollution. With technical progress, much progress has been achieved in controlling bituminous coal pollution, but then pollution to water caused by chemical, papermaking, metallurgical and food-processing industries has become more serious. The emergence of rural enterprises has brought great economic benefits; but at the same time, because of backward equipment and technologies used, they have also caused serious pollution to the environment.

Third, city-type environmental problems. Aside from being sites of industrial pollution, cities cause life- and consumption-related pollution. In some cities, household wastewater treatment rate is low, as is the non-toxic treatment of garbage. As urban population grows rapidly, discharges of household castaways and excreta become another major source of pollution. The last 20 years have seen an annual increase of about 14% in the number of motor vehicles in cities, where, as a result, pollution by motor vehicle emissions has become more serious. Monitoring data show that air pollution in cities is shifting in pollution type, from bituminous coal-caused pollution to mixed pollution caused by bituminous coal and car emissions or pollution caused mainly by car emissions. Noise pollution has also grown more serious. Waste gases, wastewater, waste solids and noise pose a big problem for urban dwellers. The environment has become an important consideration when people choose where to live.

Fourth, area-type environmental problems. In a country as vast as China, pollution problems can also be regional. In northwest China with a dry and cold climate, a low forest coverage, poor water and soil conservation, a lot of deserts and frequent sandstorms, the environment is poor. China is located in the east Asia monsoon region. Thanks to its landform, rainfall is concentrated in central and eastern parts of the country toward the end of summer every year, often causing flooding in large areas. This becomes a typical disaster-type environmental problem. With pollution on land growing more serious, pollution in coastal waters has been on the rise, too. “Red tide” has occurred more frequently, especially in the Bohai Sea having only a small opening to the high seas.

In the 21st century, as China’s population approaches 1.3 billion, In the 21 people are faced with a growing litany of environmental problems and are compelled to re-examine and rationalize their own behaviors. Mankind needs to place itself correctly in nature and strive for harmony between population and the environment and for sustainable development. Given realities in China, we need to do the following:

First, have a modern environmental awareness. There is the need for mankind to place itself correctly in nature. For mankind and nature, it is not a relationship of conquering or being conquered but of harmony. Human activities should be placed in the ecological system. Environmental deterioration is closely related with population growth. To protect the environment, we need to control population growth. Population growth control and environmental protection are both basic state policies and mutually complementary. Faced with continued population growth in the next 40-50 years, we need to increase people’s environmental awareness through public education to ensure that, while population grows, the environment improves, or at least does not deteriorate.

Second, push for an integration of a general environment improving strategy and specific action plans. In 1994 the Chinese st Century Agenda and later government promulgated China’s 21 worked out Ninth Five-year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and Long-term Goals for 2010. They contain a clear general plan for environmental protection. The plan covers: economic development (since economic development can eliminate poverty and provide enough means for environmental protection); the control, improvement and structural adjustment of the population, society’s sustainable development, including the establishment of a wealth distribution system which follows the principle of to each according to his work and under which efficiency is given preference with due consideration given to fairness, improvement of social and political environment and maintenance of social stability and harmony. For the implementation of the general plan, specific action plans have also been drawn up. They cover laws, regulations, systems, policies, mechanisms and technology. The task facing the nation is to make greater efforts to implement these plans.

Third, seek reforms aimed at market-oriented environmental protection. In China, the environment is faced with the dual pressures of population growth and economic development. As mentioned st century, as the population will above, in the first half of the 21 have an additional 300 million members before arriving at zero growth, the population’s pressure on the environment will keep growing. On the other hand, the country needs to further develop and modernize, and this also exerts a growing pressure on the environment. This double pressure poses an even graver threat to the country’s already fragile environment and ecological system. At present, of primary importance is for the government to play a more active role. That is, the government should strengthen implementation of the basic state policy of environmental protection through legislative and administrative supervision and management.

A problem is a sharp conflict between economic development and environmental protection. Over emphasis on economic development to the neglect of the environment will lead inevitably to deteriorating pollution; on the other hand, over emphasis on the environment to the neglect of economic development will inevitably slow down the advance of the nation, which ultimately is not favorable for environmental protection. In this dilemma, reliance on administrative means alone is not adequate. We need to seek a method that is good for both economic development and environmental protection. And this is reform aimed at market- oriented environmental protection. US Economist Ronald Harry Coase proposed converting exterior effect into internal effect through market forces, which is summarized as the “Coase Theorem.” We need to use this theorem to explore reforms aimed at market-oriented environmental protection. The way to do is to allow, on condition that pollution be controlled under a certain level, pollution producers and consumers (pollution receivers) to cut a deal, according to which pollution producers give consumers some compensation. This represents market fairness for both sides. If pollution is too heavy, and pollution consumers are not willing to buy, a deal cannot get through; the pollution producer cannot continue its operation and, as a result, the environment is protected. If pollution is relatively light and pollution consumers vie with one another buying the pollution, market prices would be low; as a result, the producer would have a relatively light burden, production would proceed smoothly and pollution would at the same time be controlled. Viewed from a social angle, this is conducive to economic development and at the same time can bring environmental deterioration under effective control. The result is a maximization of social benefits. This can be a new way out of the dilemma.

The above-mentioned basic ideas about environment sustainable development is also contained in An Outline for the Tenth Five-year Plan for National Economic and Social Development. According to the Outline, environmental protection efforts during the plan period (2001-2005) cover the following: protection of natural forests and re-conversion of farmland into forestland and grassland in the upper reaches of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, northeast China and Inner Mongolia; treatment and protection of the Beijing-Tianjin ecological sphere; grazing stoppage and land enclosure for grass cultivation in over-grazing areas; comprehensive treatment of soil erosion in karst areas in Guizhou, Guangxi and Yunnan; ecological restoration in mining areas; and construction of protective forest belts across north China and along the sea coast. On the protection and treatment of the environment, the Outline calls for: achieving a marked improvement of environmental quality in medium-sized and big cities; strengthening treatment of pollution in rivers, lakes and coastal waters; accelerating the construction of wastewater treatment facilities in urban areas (rate of wastewater treatment in cities in 2005 is to reach 45%); preventing and treating air pollution (by 2005, discharge of sulfur oxide in acid rain-controlled areas and sulfur oxide-controlled areas is to fall 20% from levels in 2000); promoting non-toxic treatment of garbage and clean production; and preventing and treating pollution caused by irrational use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and agricultural plastic film. It can be expected that, when the Tenth Five-year Plan is fulfilled, environmental deterioration in China will have been brought to a halt, and pollution of various kinds treated on a fairly big scale. By then, environment sustainable development will have entered a new era, despite the fact that the country’s population continues to grow and its national economy continues to develop at a rapid pace.


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