“Just as in the former Soviet Union, central planning, with its mantra of “produce first, live later” has wreaked untold damage. But in China the cost has been amplified by demographic and geographic peculiarities. Only about half of China is habitable, so most of its 1.3bn people – a fifth of humanity – are squeezed on to and around only 7 per cent of the world’s cultivable land.
The stress this imposes is exacerbated by industrialisation and urbanisation at a speed unprecedented in human history. In the past 20 years about 200m people have moved from the countryside to towns and cities and by 2020, 300m more are expected to have migrated.
To many, the crisis now unfolding is qualitatively different from environmental issues elsewhere in the world. In most places, the degradation is a matter of degree; in China it is measured in absolutes.
Unless the country overhauls its current approach to development, ecological collapse in large areas of China appears assured. Huge subterranean holes now gape beneath cities in northern China as aquifers are depleted, and deserts, which already cover 18 per cent of China’s land area, expand by hundreds of thousands of square kilometres every year. Even national leaders sequestered behind the walls of Zhongnanhai, their compound in Beijing, are not immune to the dust storms that whip in from the north each spring.
Pan Yue, the outspoken deputy head of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), is adamant that China’s developmental trajectory cannot last. “If we continue on this path of traditional industrial civilisation, there is no chance that we will have sustainable development,” Mr Pan says. “China’s population, resources, environment have already reached the limits of their capacity to cope. Sustainable development and new sources of energy are the only road we can take.””