China’s path? Pollute first, clean it up later?

Quite a few Chinese people hold the view that pollution is associated with certain stage of economic growth.


1. How big is the price China is paying for the economic growth? In which areas it is most visible?

2.  Is the protection of environment an issue for the significant part of society in China or first of all is the issue for the handful of environmental activists?


Hongyan He Oliver, Former Research Fellow, Energy Technology Innovation Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University

1. The number could be very different depending the method one use to estimate the loss. The most recent and authoritative estimation was done by the World Bank about a year ago. It just issued a report together with the State Environmental Administration on this issue. It says that the costs of air and water pollution in China added up to about 5.8% of its GDP annually. You can more about the study and the report at:

2. Although the public in China are paying more attention to environmental problems the country faces, my perception is that majority Chinese people are still struggling for life necessities and the sad fact is that environment is not on the top of their priority list, unless their livelihood or health was clearly destroyed by a few identifiable local polluters. The country still has a lot of urgent social issues yet to address, such as employment, accessibility and affordability of a medical system, inequality (the income gap between urban and rural residents has increased in the last 10 years), affordable housing, equal opportunity for education, etc. Yes, Chinese government does care about the environment, but at this point of the time it probably feels that other issues are more critical to maintain social stability (its primary concern).

Quite a few Chinese people (including some environmental researchers and officials) also hold the view that pollution is associated with certain stage of economic growth, and China cannot avoid the path of “pollute first, clean it up later”. (I disagree on this view though).

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