Soil pollution in China
China’s rockiest environmental problem: its soil. Cleaning filthy soil is much harder than cleaning foul air.
China would be a more convincing green champion if it did not treat pollution data as state secrets.
AFTER Donald Trump said on June 1st that America would pull out of the Paris accord on climate change, many people congratulated China for sticking with it. With America on the sidelines, some see China as the leader of the fight against global warming—an idea that the Chinese Communist Party is eager to promote. Although it is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, China has made a determined effort to cut back. It has burned less coal in each of the past three years. In 2016 it installed more wind-power capacity than any other country; three times as much as the runner-up, America. Some analysts believe that China’s CO2 emissions may peak in 2025, five years earlier than the goal it set in Paris. Yet it is premature to call China a champion of greenery.
Its air and water are notoriously foul. Less noticed, but just as alarming, much of its soil is poisoned, too. As our briefing explains the scale of the problem is hard to gauge, largely because China’s government is so opaque. A soil survey conducted between 2006 and 2011 was at first classified as secret. Many of its findings are still not public, but one grim statistic has emerged: one-fifth of Chinese farmland contains higher-than-permitted levels of pollutants, some of which threaten food safety. This is bad news for a country that has 18% of the world’s population but only 7% of its arable land. And it will be exceptionally costly and difficult to clean up. Soil just sits there, meaning that toxins linger for centuries.
Public alarm is growing. For evidence, ask any Chinese about “cadmium rice”, which contains a heavy metal that, if ingested, can eventually cause kidney failure, lung disease and bone damage. Leaks from factories sometimes seep into paddy fields, and thence into rice-bowls. In 2013 the nation was horrified by a report that in Guangzhou, a southern city, nearly half of the rice tested by inspectors in restaurants and canteens was laced with cadmium. The story aroused a new awareness among citizens: that soil pollution was not just a local problem in China, manifest here and there in the high mortality of “cancer villages”, but a national threat, and that the government had been sparing with the truth about it.
The government is more forthcoming about air and water pollution. That is because these forms are usually more visible, making them harder to conceal. But it was not until 2013, after years of mounting public anger, that the government began to release real-time data for its biggest cities on levels of PM2.5, the finest of airborne poisons that lodge deepest in the lungs. A documentary on China’s air pollution, released in 2015 by a Chinese journalist, was scrubbed by censors from Chinese websites after it attracted more than 200m views.
Officials are keenly aware of the public’s anxieties. In 2014 the prime minister, Li Keqiang, promised that he would “resolutely declare war” on pollution. Last year the government unveiled an almost impossibly ambitious plan to make 90% of polluted soil usable by the end of the decade. In March Mr Li promised to “make our skies blue again”; PM2.5 levels would fall “markedly” this year, he said.
All this is welcome, but if China is to lead the world in the creation of a greener planet it must do more than build wind farms and erect solar panels. It must also come clean about the full extent of the problems it faces, and then demand no less from other countries. If the Paris accord is to succeed, transparency will be crucial—because pledges that cannot be verified are of little use in binding countries to a common cause.
One way for China to accomplish this would be for it to go beyond the letter of the Paris accord and allow international monitoring of its carbon emissions. At the very least Chinese officials should no longer remain so secretive about other kinds of pollution that pose an immediate threat to the lives of their own compatriots. Openness would enable the Chinese to understand the risks they face, and to hold officials to account for failing to stop polluters from poisoning them. Sunlight—something our readers in Beijing may only dimly remember—is the best anti-pollutant.