Chinese Population Growth and the Environment

In the past seventy years, the Chinese population has rapidly grown and become the highest in the world. This trend started in 1949 due to the post-war baby boom, higher life expectancy, and the pro-natalist policies of the Communist Party (Howden and Yang, 2015). From 1950 to 1979, the Chinese population grew from 554,419,273 to 986,132,202, with the average annual growth rate of 1.97% (Howden and Yang, 2015; Macrotrends, 2020). In 1979, the government implemented the one-child policy to curb this rapid growth because it started to put enormous strain on the economy and the environment. It caused pollution and accelerated depletion of non-renewable natural resources. Nevertheless, the policy failed to fulfill its purpose, and the population grew another half billion, amounting to 1,439,323,776 in 2020, although the annual increase from 2019 was only 0.39% (Macrotrends, 2020). The high number of Chinese population creates such environmental problems as pollution resulting from coal combustion, water depletion and pollution, air pollution, and deforestation.

One of the consequences of the Chinese population growth is higher coal consumption. At the same time, population growth coincided with economic development and the growth of manufacturing. The rising number of households and production plants increased energy demand. To produce energy, one must burn fuel, and coal is one of the cheapest and abundant sources of fuel. The problem is that coal combustion results in the release of emissions and residuals that pollute the ecosystem. In 2016, China held almost 150 billion tonnes of coal reserves (4th in the world), produced 3.7 billion tonnes (1st in the world), and consumed 4.3 tonnes of coal (also 1st in the world) (Worldometer, 2020). Furthermore, it had to import almost 282 million tonnes of coal, while exports amounted to only 9.5 million (Worldometer, 2020). These figures indicate that China heavily relies on coal as an energy source. In fact, it comprised 59% of its energy mix in 2018, which is still less than 68% in 2012 (Xu and Stanway, 2019). Still, replacing it with other polluting fuels does not solve the problem.

The other result of China’s growing population is higher water consumption and subsequent water depletion and pollution. The country simultaneously has 7% of the world’s freshwater reserves and 20% of its population (Shemie and Vigerstol, 2016). This means that China is in a full-blown water crisis because it does not have enough water to satisfy the needs of all citizens. Only 6% of its landmass provides 69% of water supply, one-third of its freshwater sources are unfit for human use, and most watersheds face medium-to-high pollution (Shemie and Vigerstol, 2016). Meanwhile, industrial and agricultural pollution, improper land use, and soil degradation aggravate the situation, putting additional strain on the already dwindling water reserves. There is a rising need to find ways of extending water supply, improving agricultural practices and reducing water pollution to improve water quality and protect scarce water resources.

Air pollution is another consequence of population growth. Although it is mostly concentrated in industrial and highly populated Northern and Western regions, it affects surrounding areas as well. Air pollution includes exhaust gases and particles that seep into the ecosystem and affect the living organisms that inhabit it. In 2015, independent research attributed 1.6 million human deaths (17%) to air pollution (Rohde and Muller, 2015). However, in an unexpected turn of events, the recent outbreak of the coronavirus caused numerous manufacturing plants to close. The result was an abrupt drop in pollution, as the levels of nitrogen dioxide alone fell by 10-30% in different regions (Watts and Kommenda, 2020). It gave people the taste of what it is like to live in a cleaner environment. When the lockdown is over, the country will have to choose between restoring GDP growth and improving air quality across the country.

Finally, the growth of the Chinese population has caused large-scale deforestation. From 2001 to 2018, China lost 9.43 Mha of forest area, which is equivalent to 5.8% (World Resources Institute, 2020). In contrast, it gained only 2.24 Mha of forest from 2001 to 2012 (World Resources Institute, 2020). Such rapid deforestation leads to equally accelerated soil and water erosion as well as a higher frequency of sandstorms. 31.2% of Chinese land suffers from soil degradation, while the area of water erosion is 13.65% (Zhang and Zhuang, 2019). Meanwhile, sandstorms are another environmental and economic threat, especially in North-Western China. The storm that struck Beijing in 2015 brought 330,00 tonnes of sand into the capital (Huang, 2017). Sometimes they are so strong that air flights and traffic have to be cancelled. In the end, deforestation affects not only forests but urban areas as well.

Overall, it is evident that in a short time, Chinese population growth has caused severe damage to the environment through high coal consumption, water and air pollution, and deforestation. The government must take action to tackle these problems because if they are not adequately addressed, future generations will have to deal with even graver consequences. According to U.N. projections, the Chinese population will start to decrease in the 2030s (Macrotrends, 2020). Hopefully, measured environmental policies in conjunction with this trend will help reduce the ecological impact and reverse the damage that has been done.
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