Up to 16.1% of China’s soil is polluted; 19.4% of its arable land suffers from the same devastating problem. This data, released on Thursday, is coming from within Xi Jinping’s government — not from international agencies or climate advocacy groups, usually the ones to present bad news in this vein. Whether that means that China has realized that its environmental problems need immediate action, or is another cosmetic effort at reform from the government, remains to be seen.
The report, produced by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land and Resources, is a stark reminder that China must act quickly and effectively in order to change the current tides. It’s not only about smoggy skies China is dealing with; the document details the effects pollution has on its already unstable food chain and highlights the overall lack of regulations on industry and the intensity of industrialization. Cadmium, nickel and arsenic are the top three pollutants the survey found, leading the authors of the report to cut to the chase: “the main pollution source is human industrial and agricultural activities,” it said. The paper was based on a survey conducted from April 2005 to December last year (2013) across the country. Special administrative regions Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan were not part of the study.
Government officials are speaking forcefully on what the country might do. China is – or will be – taking “a series” of measures to better protect the soil environment and curb pollution, vowing to “uncompromisingly wage a war against land pollution,” an official statement said, according to Xinhua, the national news agency. It also confirmed that the government is rushing to map out an anti-land pollution action plan in cooperation with other related departments.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang “declared war” against pollution in his first annual policy report in March. China is today the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter but it’s consistently been hesitant in taking global action, arguing that developed economies have done much of the harm in the past. As nations are in the process of crafting a binding new global climate change treaty (to be signed, in theory, in Paris in 2015), the world’s second-largest economy — and its most populous one — has an opportunity to step up to the plate with a plan to reduce emission levels, prevent pollution from getting worse and shift from voluntary cuts in exchange for financial support to clear targets that would be enforced with monitoring and reporting efforts.
That the country’s years of strong economic growth have come at a high environmental cost is beyond doubt. Now that China has embarked on a reform agenda (including managing debt risk) after years of considerably lower growth, it has pledged to set the economy on a sustainable path. This past Wednesday it was reported that China’s economy grew at its slowest pace in 18 months in the first quarter of 2014, 7.4%. A mix of policies aimed at tackling its pollution problems could easily lead to more sustainable growth — just what China (and the rest of the world) needs.
Read more: Can the world feed China?