China: Environmental Issues, Policies and Clean Technology

As home to one-fifth of the world’s total population, China is the most populous nation on the planet. In addition to their extensive population, China is also an expansive country that is home to rolling hills, steppes, river deltas, deserts, plateaus and sky-scraping mountains.
Despite this vast land area, the disjointed geography of China has caused the population of 1.3 billion to settle unevenly, with 94% of Chinese residents currently living in the eastern part of the country. For example, the coastal province of Shandong is home to at least 90 million people, whereas the mountainous area of Tibet has a population of less than 3 million.

China is thought to be the longest continuous civilization on Earth. After 4,000 years of imperial rulers, the last Chinese emperor fell during the first half of the 20th century. Since 1949, the People's Republic of China has had heavy state involvement in the country’s economy and society. In 1979, several reforms were passed by the ruling Communist party of China that have allowed the economy of this country to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world; if not the fastest.

Environmental Issues of China

The rapid industrialization and population growth in China over the last century has also led to the country to become one of the most polluted in the world. While a large industrial base and millions of motor vehicles significantly contribute to China’s notorious air pollution, the biggest contributing of this environmental issue is a result of the country’s numerous coal-fired power plants.

According to a New York Times report, China is responsible for 47% of the world’s coal burning, which is more than all other countries in the world combined. As a result, respiratory diseases that are directly related to air pollution are currently the leading cause of death in China, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In addition to some of the world’s worst air pollution, China also has many waterways that are highly polluted. According to the Economist, more than 50% of China’s surface water is not fit for human consumption, whereas approximately 60% of the groundwater under Chinese cities is considered to be "severely polluted."

Coal fired power station in Liaoyuan, Jilin, China. Coal remains the primary source of electrical power in China​.

Coal fired power station in Liaoyuan, Jilin, China. Coal remains the primary source of electrical power in China​. Image Credits: Paul J Martin /

In recent news, it has been reported that approximately 70% of groundwater samples that were taken in various areas of China were proved to be suitable for human consumption, which is an overall integrity that has improved by 67.9% from samples taken in 2017. This study involved an analysis of samples taken from 2,050 different testing sites that were particularly interested in measuring the concentrations of phosphorous, ammonium nitrate and chemical oxygen demand (COD)3.

China is also dealing with rampant soil erosion and desertification, which is a type of land degradation that is a result of previously fertile soil transforming into arid land due to poor agricultural practices and land management, as well as extreme climate change. Both desertification and soil erosion cause blinding dust storms and river-clogging mud that have battered Chinese cities located near the edge of the Gobi Desert. According to the WWF, desertification has already swept over 30% of China’s land mass. Since 1978, the Chinese has followed guidelines set by the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, otherwise known as the Great Green Wall, which involved the construction of what is now over 66 billion trees that are used to block the path of the Gobi’s storms. Despite this afforestation project, the desert’s expansion continues to affect various surrounding cities.

As towns continue to get swept under sand as a result of these storms, the Chinese government is forced to move affected populations way from degraded lands. In fact, between 2003 and 2008, over 650,000 people who were previously living in China’s Inner Mongolia province were forced to resettle in other cities4. An even more concerning fact is that these sand dunes are forming only about 44 miles away from Beijing at a pace of almost 2 miles each year. To prevent the capital city from being submerged in sand, the Chinese government must investigate new and creative ways in which natural ecosystems can be restored.

Environmental Policies of China

China’s ruling Communist party has admitted that regulatory steps need to be taken to resolve the country’s numerous environmental issues. In 2013, China’s economic planning agency released a regulatory roadmap to combat climate change. Starting in 2014, 15,000 factories are now required to publicly report real time data regarding their air emissions and water release. The government also pledged $275 billion over the next five years toward cleaning up the country’s air pollution.

On July 3, 2018, China announced a new plan that is a modified version of the previous Air Pollution Action Plan that was originally released in September 2013. Following the implementation of this plan in 2013, China successfully improved the air quality in several key regions such as the Pearl River Delta, which reduced air pollution by 15%, and in Beijing that reduced air pollution by 33% in terms of the PM2.5 targets for these areas. To achieve these reductions, Beijing, for example, closed several coal-fired power plants and banned the burning of coal for heat in surrounding areas, which was originally faced with a great deal of opposition. Although these measures were controversial at first, Beijing successfully reduced their PM2.5 levels from 89.5 µg/m3 in 2013 to 58 µg/m3 in 2017.

Could China Save the World? Video Credits: TestTube News/YouTube

The new 2018-2020 Three Year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War will apply to all cities in China, whereas the original plan implemented in 2013 only applied to specific target cities like Beijing, Tianjin and the Pearl River Delta areas. This new plan is specifically focused on reducing the emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 10% and 15%, respectively, by 2020. To achieve these goals, several measures are incorporated into this novel plan, some of which include:

  • Strengthen end-of-pipe treatment
  • Improve transitions in energy, industry and transportation
  • Cleaner heating furnaces
  • Tackle small-scale coal burning
  • Improve district heating in northern industrial cities1

In January 2015, the Chinese government passed another sweeping set of environmental regulations – said to be the strictest in Chinese history. The new law describes harsher penalties for environmental violations such as falsifying records, discharging wastes covertly and evading oversight. The law also contains terms for tackling contaminants, increasing public awareness and protecting whistle-blowers, while simultaneously placing more accountability on regional governments and law-enforcement agencies. It also sets stronger standards for companies.

Clean Technology in China

Despite the condition of China’s environment, or perhaps because of it, recent investments into China’s research and development of clean technology has been much larger as compared to similar investments that have been made in both the United States and the European Union.

According to CNN, in 2012, China invested $65 billion into improving and developing wind power plants. Investments into wind and other renewable energy sources are largely driven by incentives from the Chinese government, as the ruling party tries to meet its goal to source 20% of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2030. According to the country’s energy agency, renewable energy sources made up 57% of newly-installed power capacities during the first ten months of 2013.

Offshore wind farm at dusk in the East China sea

Offshore wind farm at dusk in the East China sea. Image Credits: chungking/

Recently, Apple has partnered with 10 of its global supporters including Taiwan’s Pegatron and Wistron, to launch a $300 million fund9 that will further improve the development of renewable energy sources in China. More specifically, this plan aims to generate enough renewable energy to power what is equivalent to one million homes in China.

A Clean Future for China?

The Chinese government has been embracing clean technology more and more in recent years; an embrace that has been largely impacted by a thriving environmental NGO community. Thousands of these groups, most of whom are supported by the U.S. and other foreign entities, are constantly pushing for more transparency and less corruption by Chinese leaders. In addition, the obfuscating and obstructive Chinese government has been increasingly admitting that the country faces a large scale environment dilemma.

Ultimately, the Chinese people will decide if they want a clean future through protests and petitioning their government. According to the U.S. Think Tank’s Council on Foreign Relations, the Chinese people are aware of their human right to a clean future that will ultimately lead to a cleaner China.


  1. “China releases 2020 action plan for air pollution” – China Dialogue
  2. Water Pollution: A Bay of Pigs Moment - The Economist
  3. “China’s water quality improves in first half of 2018: ministry” – Reuters
  4. Beijing Takes Steps to Fight Pollution as Problem Worsens - The New York Times
  5. “How China’s Growing Deserts Are Choking the Country” – Forbes
  6. Environmental Problems of China - The World Wildlife Fund
  7. China's Top 6 Environmental Concerns - Live Science
  8. Policy: Four Gaps in China's New Environmental Law - Nature
  9. “Apple is spending millions to clean up China’s environment” – CNN Tech
This article was updated on the 24th July, 2018.

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Brett Smith

Written by

Brett Smith

Brett Smith is an American freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Buffalo State College and has 8 years of experience working in a professional laboratory.


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  1. Arshak Sargsyan Arshak Sargsyan Armenia says:

    is it enviromentally safe to live China?

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