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Earth Day and the Vital Importance of Greening China

As we prepare to publish volume seven of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, and in conjunction with our Earth Day Special for both that set and the Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, I went back to my introduction to the “Greening China” issue of Guanxi: The China Letter. Here’s a fresh version with some startling and fascinating details from volume seven, which is entitled China, India, and East and Southeast Asia: Assessing Sustainability.

The people of China are aware that they face big environmental challenges. Their leaders are keenly aware that they must find a way to harmonize (as the Chinese put it) economic development and environmental protection. And they know that the rest of the world is watching.

Experts point out the handicaps China operates under. Although China is sixth in the world in terms of total freshwater resources, its large population of 1.3 billion means that the water available to each citizen, on average, is only one-quarter what is available to individuals worldwide. In a classic example of “water insecurity,” China faces flooding as well as water shortages. Proponents of the controversial Three Gorges Dam claim that the huge dam will tame the famously flood-prone Yangzi River; critics counter that in the long run it will have the opposite effect. China faces similar hardship in terms of arable land: much of the nation is steep mountains, deserts, or dry grasslands.

Here are some statistics to consider.

  1. China has an overwhelming monopoly on rare earth metals, which are vital to the manufacture of smart phones and other electronics. It became apparent to the global economy that additional sources of rare earth metals were necessary after China, which supplies 95 percent of the world’s rare earth metals, withheld shipments to Japan after a 2010 dispute over shipping. (See “Rare Earth Metals” in Volume 4, Natural Resources and Sustainability.)
  2. China has the largest “mega-region”: Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Dongguan-Guangzhou in southern China. According to the 2010–2011 UN-Habitat biannual report State of World Cities, this mega-region had 120 million residents in 2011. (See “Cities—Overview” in Volume 7, China, India, and East and Southeast Asia: Assessing Sustainability.)
  3. China has the largest generator of electricity of any kind on Earth: the controversial Three Gorges Dam, in China’s Hubei Province, generates 20 times the electricity-generating power of the Hoover Dam in the United States. (See “Three Gorges Dam” in Volume 7.)
  4. China has the most Internet users: China had an estimated 420 million Internet users in 2010, representing roughly 23 percent of the world’s Internet users. (See “Information and Communications Technologies” in Volume 7.)
  5. China has some of the world’s worst air, according to the 2011 Environmental Performance Index (EPI). India was at the bottom of the list (number 132), followed by Nepal (131), Bangladesh (130), Pakistan (129), and China (128). (See “Beijing” in Volume 7.)
  6. China has had the first and second deadliest floods of all time: the Yangzi in 1931 and the Huang (Yellow) River in 1887, respectively. (See “China” in Volume 7.)
  7. China and India have had the largest economies in the world for most of the last 2,000 years, and only in the last century or so have they lost their dominance. (See

As we consider the way forward, we would do well to remember this Chinese saying: The best time to plant a tree was a hundred years ago; the second-best time is today.

Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability
Tables of Contents, lists of contributing authors, and sample articles:
1/10: The Spirit of Sustainability
2/10: The Business of Sustainability
3/10: The Law and Politics of Sustainability 
4/10: Natural Resources and Sustainability
5/10: Ecosystem Management and Sustainability
6/10: Measurements, Indicators, and Research Methods for Sustainability
7/10: China, India, and East and Southeast Asia: Assessing Sustainability 
8/10: The Americas and Oceania: Assessing Sustainability
9/10: Afro-Eurasia: Assessing Sustainability
10/10: The Future of Sustainability 

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