A good news story about China’s environment is something you don’t hear every day. But a major review published today in Nature has found that China has made significant progress in battling the environmental catastrophes of the past century.
Our team, which included 19 scientists from 16 Australian, Chinese and US institutions, reviewed China’s 16 major programs designed to improve the sustainability of its rural environment and people.
We wanted to tell the story of China’s progress, so that other nations may learn from its experience as they strive towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
A monumental effort
From 1998, China dramatically escalated its investment in rural sustainability. Through to 2015, more than US$350 billion was invested in 16 sustainability programs, addressing more than 620 million hectares (65% of China’s land area).
This effort, while imperfect, is globally unrivalled. Its environmental objectives included:
- reducing erosion, sedimentation, and flooding in the Yangtze and Yellow rivers
- conserving forests in the north-east
- mitigating desertification in the dry north and rocky south
- reducing the impact of dust storms on the capital Beijing
- increasing agricultural productivity in China’s centre and east.
Just as important were the socio-economic objectives of poverty reduction and economic development, particularly in western China.
Programs improved livelihoods by paying farmers to implement sustainability measures on their land. Providing housing and off-farm work in China’s booming cities also boosted household incomes and reduced pressure on land.
An environmental emergency
China’s pivot towards sustainability in the late 1990s came as a type of emergency response to the heinous condition of its rural people and environment.
China has been farmed for more than 8,000 years, but by the mid-1900s the cumulative impacts of inefficient and unsustainable agricultural practices and the over-exploitation of natural resources caused widespread poverty and environmental degradation.
Floods, droughts, and other catastrophes ensued, including the Great Chinese Famine from 1959-61, which caused between 20 million and 45 million deaths.
Following the 1978 economic reforms, six sustainability programs were established, but with only modest investment conditions continued to deteriorate. By the 1990s natural forest cover was below 10% and around 5 billion tonnes of soil eroded annually, causing major water quality and sedimentation problems.
In the Loess Plateau, the worst-affected parts were losing 100 tonnes of soil per hectare each year to erosion, and the Yellow River that flowed through it had the dubious honour of being the world’s muddiest waterway.
In the late 1990s, China experienced a series of natural disasters widely believed to have been caused by unsustainable land management, including the Yellow River drought in 1997, the Yangtze River floods in 1998, and the severe dust storms that repeatedly afflicted Beijing in 2000.
This sustainability emergency triggered a great acceleration in investment after 1998, including the launch of 11 new programs. The portfolio included iconic programs such as the Grain for Green Program, the Natural Forest Conservation Program, and the Three North Shelterbelt Program which aimed to slow and reverse desertification by planting a 4,500km Great Green Wall.
After 20 years the results of these programs have been overwhelmingly positive. Deforestation has declined and forest cover has exceeded 22%. Grasslands have expanded and regenerated. Desertification trends have reversed in many areas, and while mostly driven by climatic change, restoration efforts have helped.
Soil erosion has waned substantially and water quality and river sedimentation have improved dramatically. Yellow River sediment loads have fallen by 90% and the Yangtze is not far behind. Agricultural productivity has increased through efficiency gains and technological advances. Rural households are generally better off and hunger has largely disappeared.
That said, there have also been significant unintended consequences. Afforestation – or planting trees where trees never grew – has dried up water resources and led to high rates of plantation failure.
In the most degraded areas, significant cultural disruption has occurred through the migration of entire communities to less sensitive environments. More could be done to conserve biodiversity, particularly by prioritising diverse natural forest restoration and regeneration over single-species plantations.
The precise impacts of China’s sustainability programs are clouded by other influences such as the One Child Policy and Household Responsibility System, urbanisation and development, and environmental change. Detailed and comprehensive evaluations are now needed to disentangle these factors.
Lessons from China’s experience
While the context of China’s path to sustainability is unique, other countries can learn from its experience. Nations must commit to sustainability as a long-term, large-scale public investment like education, health, defence, and infrastructure.
We do not wish to pretend that China is a global poster child of sustainability. Very serious pollution of its air, water, and soils, urban expansion, vanishing coastal wetlands and the illegal wildlife trade still dog the world’s most populous nation.
As China cleans up its domestic environment, great care needs to be taken not to simply shift problems offshore.
But to give credit where credit is due, China’s vast investment has made great strides towards improving the sustainability of rural people and nature.
Chinese and Indian competition on their shared Himalayan border is more likely to create a slow-moving environmental catastrophe than a quick military or nuclear disaster.
The Himalayan plateau plays a crucial role in Asia. It generates the monsoonal rains and seasonal ice-melts that feed rivers and deliver nutrients to South, Southeast and East Asia. Almost half the world’s population and 20% of its economy depend on these rivers, and they are already threatened by climate change. China and India’s competition for their headwaters increases this threat.
Until the mid-20th century, the Himalaya’s high altitude prevented its large-scale development and conserved its environment. But after the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China were created in the late 1940s, these two new states began competing for high ground in the western and eastern Himalayas. They fought a war over their unresolved border in 1962, and have scuffled ever since. The most recent clash was in 2017, when China built a road into Doklam, an area claimed by Bhutan and protected by India.
Tensions rose again last week when China unveiled a new mine in Lhunze, near the de facto border with India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, east of Bhutan. The mine sits on a deposit of gold, silver and other precious metals worth up to US$60 billion.
Most analysis of the Sino-Indian border dispute has focused on the potential for another war between these two nuclear-armed neighbours. The environmental impacts of their continued entrenchment are rarely mentioned, despite the fact that they are significant and growing.
All of this development along the border is built on the world’s third-largest ice-pack or in biodiversity hotspots. The region was militarised during the 1962 war, and has since been inundated by troops, roads, airports, barracks and hospitals. These have caused deforestation, landslides, and – if a study on troop movements on other glaciers is any guide – possibly even glacial retreat.
The buildup of troops on the border has displaced local ethnic groups, and they have been encouraged to give up their land to make way for intensive farming. Animal habitats have decreased and clashes with tigers and snow leopards have increased. Population transfers and agricultural intensification have even heightened the risk that antibiotic-resistant superbugs and other toxic pollutants will seep into the world’s most diffused watershed.
During the past 20 years, first China and then India have increased this degradation by building large-scale mines and hydroelectric dams in this sensitive region. These projects have not been profitable or environmentally sound, but they have solidified state control by entrenching populations, upgrading transport networks, and integrating these fringes into national economies. The tightening of state control along the border has been further complicated by calls from the Tibetans and other ethnic groups for greater autonomy.
Many of the projects have been developed within the transnational Brahmaputra River basin. This river’s headwaters are in China, but most of its catchment is in Arunachal Pradesh, which is controlled by India but claimed by China. It then flows through Assam and Bangladesh, where it joins the Ganges River. Some 630 million people live in the Ganges-Brahmaputra River catchment.
China and India’s geopolitical resources rush threatens the safety of this entire river system. The new Lhunze mine’s position among the Brahmaputra’s headwaters is so precarious that its owner, Hua Yu Mining, was only allowed to mine there under strict environmental conditions. To its credit, Hua Yu has agreed to be a “green” miner, limiting emissions, water use and minimising “grassland disturbance”. But even if the company does not inadvertently leak acid and arsenic into the environment like other mines in Tibet, the mine is still liable to be damaged by the region’s frequent earthquakes. Any toxic leak from Lhunze will flow straight into the Brahmaputra and then into the lower Ganges.
On its side of the border, India has concentrated on dams rather than mines. Between 2000 and 2016, the Arunachal Pradesh government approved the construction of 153 dams, before realising that it had overextended itself.
So far only one dam is complete, and all the other projects have stalled. One of these stalled dams is on the Subansiri River, the same river from which the Lhunze mine draws water. India is racing to build these dams without community consultation or environmental studies because it sees itself as competing with China for the region’s water. China has already built four dams in the upper Brahmaputra River basin.
Indian strategists argue that they can stop China building more dams by building hydroelectric projects whose need for water will be recognised under international law. Given China’s dismissal of previous rulings by the International Court of Justice, and its recent refusal to share water-flow data with India after the Doklam incident (data that India needs to plan flood controls), this strategy seems unlikely to succeed.
Even if it does, it is hard to see how building large hydropower projects in an earthquake-probne region will ultimately help India. It won’t stop China developing the borderland, and it could cause more problems than it solves.
To keep Asia’s major rivers flowing and relatively non-toxic, both nations need to stop competing and start collaborating. Their leaders understand that neither nation would win a nuclear war. Now they need to realise that no one will benefit from destroying a shared watershed.
Australia’s recycling industry is in crisis, with China having effectively closed its borders to foreign recycling. Emergency measures have included stockpiling, landfilling, and trying to find other international destinations for our recycling – but none of these are sustainable long-term solutions.
To manage this problem sustainably, we need a mix of short and longer-term planning. That means taking a broader approach than the strategies agreed by state and federal environment ministers at last month’s emergency summit.
There is a wide range of potential strategies to address the crisis, shown in the diagram below. We have highlighted those that were endorsed at the ministers’ meeting, but there are many other options we could be considering too.
Waste management is planned around “the waste hierarchy”. This sets out our options for dealing with waste, in order from most to least preferable for sustainability. To be effective, the government’s strategies need to follow this established hierarchy.
This means that waste strategies should prioritise avoiding, reducing, and reusing, before recycling, energy recovery, and finally disposal to landfill as a last resort. So how do the ministers’ strategies stack up?
Top of the pile
The ministers agreed to reduce waste through consumer education and industry initiatives. These types of initiatives are important and sit at the top of the waste hierarchy, but the announcement is so far lacking in detail and targets.
Local councils have been running recycling education initiatives for a long time, with mixed success. Going beyond this to waste reduction is even harder and there are few successful examples. To do this well would require substantial investment of time and resources to identify and trial effective approaches to waste reduction. Education alone, without incentives and regulations, is unlikely to deliver sufficient change.
The ministers also endorsed a new target of making 100% of packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025. While this target is commendable, we should be prioritising reduction and reuse over recycling and composting when designing packaging.
The industry-led Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation (APCO) has already adopted “closing the loop” (improved recovery) as a performance criterion in its new Packaging Sustainability Framework, but incentives to prioritise reusable packaging are still needed. Refillable returnable glass bottles are common in Europe. Support from government and businesses for local pilots of these and similar schemes would help overcome barriers to implementation.
These “top of the hierarchy” approaches are all long-term and need serious attention to reduce the amount of waste we create in the first place.
Bottom of the heap
While we’re working on avoidance and reuse, we need to improve our domestic recycling system.
There are several ways to do this:
Increase domestic recycling capacity
The ministers also agreed to work together on expanding and developing our recycling industry. To do this, we need to focus on improving sorting, and reprocessing recyclables into materials that can be used for manufacturing. The recycling industry is advocating for new reprocessing facilities, but we need to develop local markets for recycled material at the same time to make sure we depend less on export markets.
Develop local markets
For recycling to happen, there needs to be a market for recycled content. The ministers agreed to advocate for more recycled materials in government procurement, such as recycled paper, road base, and construction materials. Procurement guidelines will be needed to ensure this goes ahead. Governments could take this a step further, and incentivise businesses to use recycled content in their products too.
Labelling products to indicate recycled content would also help generate demand from consumers.
Improve the quality of collected recyclables
This is an ongoing challenge, but will be essential for any future recycling pathways. Initiatives to achieve this were not detailed in the meeting. This will require upgrading our sorting facilities, and potentially improving our kerbside collection systems too.
Industry reports have suggested that re-introducing separate bins at the kerbside – or at least separating paper from glass – would greatly improve the quality of mixed paper compared with current co-mingled recycling. It would eliminate glass shards, which make re-milling paper much more difficult.
Container deposit schemes also provide an excellent opportunity to collect better-value recycling streams. South Australia developed its scheme way back in 1977 and similar schemes are finally being rolled out in New South Wales (“return and earn”), and will soon be followed by Queensland and Western Australia.
Labelling products with recycling instructions may also help with collection quality. Industry organisations APCO, Planet Ark and PREP Design recently launched a labelling scheme to help packaging designers increase the recyclability of their packaging, and to give consumers information on how to recycle it.
Waste to energy?
Finally, the ministers also identified the potential to develop “waste to energy projects” through existing energy funding channels. This strategy falls lower down the hierarchy than recycling, as materials are no longer available to recirculate in the economy.
Waste to energy projects can be complementary to recycling in processing genuine residual waste (contaminants separated from recyclables at sorting centres), to achieve very high levels of diversion. This is already required under the NSW EPA energy from waste policy. However, waste to energy is not a solution to a recycling crisis and should not be used to deal with recyclables that can no longer be exported to China. It is not a short-term option either, because Australia does not have a mature waste to energy sector, and investment needs to happen at the right scale to ensure that it is complementary to recycling.
Most of the strategies currently being pursued are sound in principle, although many of them need clearer plans for their funding and implementation, as well as ambitious targets.
We need a comprehensive range of short- and longer-term strategies if we are truly to get to grips with the recycling crisis. We should be wary of “silver bullets” such as waste to energy, or new export contracts that could undermine more sustainable long-term solutions.
The environment ministers agreed to update the National Waste Policy this year, incorporating circular economy principles, which is encouraging. This will be their opportunity to coordinate a nationally consistent response that promotes the development of resilient markets for recycled content, and reusable and re-manufactured products.
This will need to go beyond the current strong focus on recycling, and embrace the upper levels of the waste hierarchy. The next step will be to develop properly funded plans for implementing these changes.
Monique Retamal, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Jenni Downes, Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, and Nick Florin, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
Commonwealth, state and territory environment ministers last week agreed on an ambitious target that 100% of Australian packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. This is no doubt sensible, given the turmoil sparked by China’s crackdown on waste imports.
Having a 100% target is fantastic. But this does not mean that all of the waste we generate in 2025 will necessarily find its way to one of these destinations.
For one thing, the definitions of different waste categories vary by state and territory, so there is no commonly accepted working definition of what constitutes “recyclable, compostable or reusable”.
In practice, these terms depend largely on the infrastructure available. Single-use plastic bags are a good example of a product that is technically recyclable but which is not accepted in most councils’ kerbside recycling collection. That’s because they are often contaminated with food waste and many councils lack the machinery to process them.
On its own, the new 100% target is not enough, because it doesn’t guarantee that recyclable or reusable items will definitely be recycled or reused. To really make a difference, we also need policies and market incentives to ensure that these things end up where we want them to.
We can see this principle in action by looking at the issue of drink containers. Glass and plastic bottles are already 100% recyclable, yet there is a stark difference in recycling rates between states that do have container deposit schemes, and those that don’t.
In South Australia, which has had container deposit legislation for more than 40 years, almost 80% of drink bottles are recycled. But in Western Australia, where similar legislation is only at the discussion stage, the rate is just 65%.
Despite the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ attempt at a National Waste Account in 2013, little nationwide data are available, thanks to a lack of a consistent reporting framework across different jurisdictions.
Plastic not fantastic
In sectors where not all waste is fully recyclable, the problem is more complex still. Of the seven categories of plastic packaging, only three are economically viable to recycle: PET (soft drink bottles); HDPE (milk bottles); and PVC (shampoo bottles). The other four – LDPE (garbage bags); PP (microwaveable cookware); PS (foam hot drink cups); and other plastics – are less economically viable and so are recycled at much lower rates. While these plastics will still be allowed under the new target as they are technically recyclable, the new target might prompt a switch to less problematic materials.
Globally, around 78 million tonnes of plastic is used every year, but only 14% is collected for recycling, while 14% is incinerated and the remaining 72% ends up in landfill or as litter in the environment.
The problems are no less vexing for other types of waste. With market rates for many types of recyclable paper having dropped to zero in the wake of China’s import restrictions, it will be hard to see how some products will be recycled at all, if left purely to economic forces.
Retailers may have to embrace more innovative solutions to improve the quality of recycling waste, such as reverse vending machines, which accept items such as aluminium cans and plastic or glass bottles – as long as they are cleaned and sorted. However, without creating a local waste market or government incentives, we cannot expect retailers to buy their packaging back.
And this is before we even consider the complexities of composting and reuse. Compostable waste as a whole is already facing problems due to a high contamination rate, and lack of separate bin for recycling organic waste in many local councils. Reuse, meanwhile, needs us to tackle the eternal problem of people’s perceptions and behaviour about using old packaging again.
Will some kinds of packaging disappear?
Under the product stewardship initiative, which calls on producers and retailers to take care of the waste produced after consumption of goods, it seems more likely that some materials will simply be phased out of the product supply chain altogether.
The impending plastic bag bans in several states and leading supermarkets offers a chance to replace them not with heavier, more durable plastic, but with biodegradable, renewable and eco-friendly natural materials such as hemp.
In turn, this would boost hemp production (alongside the legalisation of hemp-based medicine and food products in Australia). This could lead to the opportunity for manufacturing industry to produce environmentally friendly biodegradable plastics. Hemp-based biodegradable plastic would significantly safeguard the environment, even if we failed to achieve a 100% recycling of biodegradable plastic packaging. Similarly, glass or aluminium might be used instead of plastic, and are more easily recycled.
Even more innovatively, we might even see the arrival of edible packaging derived from the milk protein casein, formed into film rather like plastic cling wrap, which can be used to package foods such as butter or cheese.
We need a better target
We’ve established that it’s not enough simply to set a target of making 100% of our waste recyclable, compostable or reusable. To really feel the benefits we need a follow-on target, such as actually recycling 100% of our packaging by 2030.
For this to work, we would need three things:
- legislation, regulations or incentives for manufacturers to develop new packaging types;
- an increase in public participation rates in recycling; and
- the development of a strong domestic market for recyclable materials.
Finally, we should remember that waste prevention is better than waste management. Everyone – from governments, to manufacturers, to retailers, to consumers – should focus first on generating less waste in the first place. Then the fiendish problem of what to do with our waste will be all the smaller.
The plan to build a massive hydropower dam in Sumatra as part of China’s immense Belt and Road Initiative threatens the habitat of the rarest ape in the world, which has only 800 remaining members.
This is merely the beginning of an avalanche of environmental crises and broader social and economic risks that will be provoked by the BRI scheme.
The orangutan’s story began in November 2017, when scientists made a stunning announcement: they had discovered a seventh species of Great Ape, called the Tapanuli Orangutan, in a remote corner of Sumatra, Indonesia.
In an article published in Current Biology today, my colleagues and I show that this ape is perilously close to extinction – and that a Chinese-sponsored megaproject could be the final nail in its coffin.
Ambitious but ‘nightmarishly complicated’
The BRI is an ambitious but nightmarishly complicated venture, and far less organised than many believe. The hundreds of road, port, rail, and energy projects will ultimately span some 70 nations across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Pacific region. It will link those nations economically and often geopolitically to China, while catalysing sweeping expansion of land-use and extractive industries, and will have myriad knock-on effects.
Up to 2015, the hundreds of BRI projects were reviewed by the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, which is directly under China’s State Council. Many observers have assumed that the NDRC will help coordinate the projects, but the only real leverage they have is over projects funded by the big Chinese policy banks – the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China – which they directly control.
Most big projects – many of which are cross-national – will have a mix of funding from various sources and nations, meaning that no single entity will be in charge or ultimately responsible. An informed colleague in China describes this model as “anarchy”.
The dangerous potential of the BRI becomes apparent when one examines the Tapanuli Orangutan. With fewer than 800 individuals, it is one of the rarest animals on Earth. It survives in just a speck of rainforest, less than a tenth the size of Sydney, that is being eroded by illegal deforestation, logging, and poaching.
All of these threats propagate around roads. When a new road appears, the ape usually disappears, along with many other rare species sharing its habitat, such as Hornbills and the endangered Sumatran Tiger.
The most imminent threat to the ape is a US$1.6 billion hydropower project that Sinohydro (China’s state-owned hydroelectric corporation) intends to build with funding from the Bank of China and other Chinese financiers. If the project proceeds as planned, it will flood the heart of the ape’s habitat and crisscross the remainder with many new roads and powerline clearings.
It’s a recipe for ecological Armageddon for one of our closest living relatives. Other major lenders such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank aren’t touching the project, but that isn’t slowing down China’s developers.
What environmental safeguards?
China has produced a small flood of documents describing sustainable lending principles for its banks and broad environmental and social safeguards for the BRI, but I believe many of these documents are mere paper tigers or “greenwashing” designed to quell anxieties.
According to insiders, a heated debate in Beijing right now revolves around eco-safeguards for the BRI. Big corporations (with international ambitions and assets that overseas courts can confiscate) want clear guidelines to minimise their liability. Smaller companies, of which there are many, want the weakest standards possible.
The argument isn’t settled yet, but it’s clear that the Chinese government doesn’t want to exclude its thousands of smaller companies from the potential BRI riches. Most likely, it will do what it has in the past: issue lofty guidelines that a few Chinese companies will attempt to abide by, but that most will ignore.
There are three alarming realities about China, of special relevance to the BRI.
First, China’s explosive economic growth has arisen from giving its overseas corporations and financiers enormous freedom. Opportunism, graft and corruption are embedded, and they are unlikely to yield economically, socially or environmentally equitable development for their host nations. I detailed many of these specifics in an article published by Yale University last year.
Second, China is experiencing a perfect storm of trends that ensures the harsher realities of the BRI are not publicly aired or even understood in China. China has a notoriously closed domestic media – ranked near the bottom in press freedom globally – that is intolerant of government criticism.
Beyond this, the BRI is the signature enterprise of President Xi Jinping, who has become the de-facto ruler of China for life. Thanks to President Xi, the BRI is now formally enshrined in the constitution of China’s Communist Party, making it a crime for any Chinese national to criticise the program. This has had an obvious chilling effect on public discourse. Indeed, I have had Chinese colleagues withdraw as coauthors of scientific papers that were even mildly critical of the BRI.
Third, China is becoming increasingly heavy-handed internationally, willing to overtly bully or covertly pull strings to achieve its objectives. Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University has warned that Australia has become a target for Chinese attempts to stifle criticism.
Remember the ape
It is time for a clarion call for greater caution. While led by China, the BRI will also involve large financial commitments from more than 60 nations that are parties to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, including Australia and many other Western nations.
We all have a giant stake in the Belt and Road Initiative. It will bring sizeable economic gains for some, but in nearly 40 years of working internationally, I have never seen a program that raises more red flags.