China, a rising new global force, prioritized development over the environment for several years, which resulted in the worst polluted skies and waterways in the world. No superpower in history of the world has emerged as a major industrial power without creating environmental damage that can take decades to repair.
The country relies heavily on coal and is the world's leading CO2 emitter. As the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China took the notorious title of the United States of America.
In 2008, China contributed 22% of global emissions, followed by the United States with 20% of emissions. Rapid industrialization and development of heavy industries created an overwhelming demand on the energy supplies. Such growth at any expense also raised vast environmental concerns and problems.
In recent years there have been numerous examples of industrial spills that have damaged waterways and harmed residents. Local officials often overlook environmental pollution, worker safety and public health problems.
Pollution problems increase
But just as the speed and scale of economic growth have no clear parallel in history, the pollution problem surfacing has shattered all precedents. Despite a recent interest in environmental reform, environmental issues that might be considered catastrophic in some countries can seem as common. Roughly 70% of the world's discarded computers and electronic equipment ends up in China, where it is scavenged for usable parts and then abandoned, polluting soil and groundwater with toxic metals.
Chinese industrial cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud, so thick that people rarely see the sun. The children are getting sick from lead poisoning or other types of local pollution. Only one percent of the country's 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Parts of the coast are swamped by algal red tides causing large sections of the ocean no longer sustainable for marine life.
Publicly speaking about environmental pollution and the related health consequences is difficult for Chinese people due to the culture focused heavily on economic development. With 20% of the world's population but only 7% of global water resources, China meets with another severe challenge.