Science in Society Archive

Greening China

China's Pollution Census Triggers Green Five-Year Plan

China is poised to launch it's next green five-year plan as it's national census finds wastewater runoff from farms to be a far greater source of pollution than industry; a holistic approach to greening food and energy is needed Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

First nationwide pollution census reveals major pollution from farms

China’s first nationwide pollution census just completed finds 30.3 million tonnes of pollutants (chemical oxygen demand, COD) discharged into water in 2007, more than double the 13.8 million tonnes reported that year [1]. The census included for the first time, measurements of wastewater runoff from farms using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which accounted for 13.2 million tonnes of COD. The report, which mapped data from 5.9 million sources, showed that China discharged about 209 billion tonnes of wastewater and 63.7 trillion m3 of waste gases in 2007.

The main water pollutants were 1.73 million tonnes of ammonia nitrogen, 900 tonnes heavy metals, 4.73 million tonnes nitrogen, and 423 000 tonnes phosphorus.

Other pollutants [2, 3] included:

· Sulphur dioxide emissions, 23.2 million tonnes

· Nitrogen oxides, 17.98 million tonnes

· Dusts, 19.21 million tonnes

· Soot, 11.7 million tonnes

· Solid waste, 3.8 billion tonnes (of which 45.7m tonnes hazardous)

· Livestock faeces, 243 million tonnes.

· Livestock urine, 163 million tonnes

· Plastic film on cropfields, 121 000 tonnes (80.3 percent recycled)

Wang Yanliang of the ministry of agriculture acknowledged the high contributions from intensive livestock farming and excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides in the fields.

That is due to the immense size of China's agricultural sector and the country's massive dependency on artificial fertilizers [2].

China uses only 7 percent of the world’s land to feed 22 percent of its population. (According to a recent Greenpeace report, the country consumes 35 percent of the world’s nitrogen fertiliser.) Wang Yanliang said the ministry would improve the efficiency of pesticide and fertiliser use, expand biogas generation from animal waste, which it has already supported in successive five-year plans [4] (see Biogas China, SiS 32) and change agricultural lifestyles to protect the environment.

The extent of agricultural waste could prove a larger problem than the many factories dumping pollution into China’s rivers and lakes because it is easier to control factories than millions of farms [5].

Reliance on chemical farming not necessary

Wen Tiejun, dean of the school of agriculture and rural development at Renmin University, said his research suggested that Chinese farmers used nearly twice as much fertilizers as they need, and the census should be used as a turning point [2]. He said: 'For almost all of China's 5 000-year history, agriculture had given our country a carbon-absorbing economy but in the past 40 years, agriculture has become one of the top pollution sources, Experience shows that we don't have to rely on chemical farming to resolve the food security issue. The government needs to foster low-pollution agriculture.'

Indeed, Chinese peasants have farmed sustainably according to the circular economy of nature, as, for example, in the [6] Circular Economy of the Dyke-Pond System (SiS 32) that in its heyday, supported 17 people per hectare without using fertilizers and pesticides.

The pollution report comes at an opportune time as the country’s 11th five-year plan (2006-2010) is drawing to a close, and officials are preparing the groundwork for the 12th five-year plan. Environmental protection is given the top priority [7].

The new five-year plan aims to reduce carbon intensity – carbon emissions/unit GDP – up to 45 percent by 2020, when 15 percent of its energy use will be non-fossil fuel [8]. It also aims to reverse deforestation by increasing the total forest cover by 40 hectares and increasing the total forest stock volume by 1.3 billion m3.

The plan will set specific targets for different economic regions of China and will become domestic law, so firms will be legally required to meet the emission reduction targets. Some experts estimate that environmental degradation currently costs the Chinese economy up to 8 percent of its GDP, so the plan, though painful to firms, is undoubtedly beneficial for China’s long term economic growth.

The plan is likely to call for more than $450 billion in investment to protect the environment [8], more than double the $219 billion of the 11th five-year plan. Wastewater treatment companies will be hoping to reap the benefits. China’s environmental protection industry is reported to be growing at between 15 and 20 percent a year. The Ministry of Environmental Protection has estimated that the production value of the industry will reach $161 billion in 2010.

Next ‘green five-year plan’ offers opportunity to restore ‘circular economy agriculture’

What appears to be missing from the 12th five-year plan is a systems-approach that combines environmental protection with food and energy production. This is particularly important as new findings also reveal widespread acidification of the soil in China’s major croplands since the intensification of agriculture began in the early 1980s [9] China’s Soils Ruined by Overuse of Chemical Fertilizers (SiS 46), which is reducing soil productivity.

One approach based on the anaerobic digestion of livestock and other wastes already supported by the Chinese government, is envisaged in a ‘Dream Farm 2’ [10] How to Beat Climate Change & Post Fossil Fuel Economy (SiS 29), which recreates the circular economy that has served China so well in the past. It uses anaerobic digestion to prevent pollution by retaining and recycling the wastes into food and energy resources, while incorporating renewable energies at the microscale such as wind, solar and hydroelectric, making use of locally available resources as much as possible.

In a comprehensive report [11] Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS/TWN publication), we documented how organic agriculture and localised food and energy systems can provide food and energy security, mitigating all greenhouse emissions and free us from fossil fuels altogether. This is amply confirmed in a subsequent analysis [12] Organic Agriculture and Localized Food & Energy Systems for Mitigating Climate Change (SiS 40). In our most recent report on truly renewable and sustainable energies [13] Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050 (ISIS/TWN publication), we show it is both possible and profitable to phase out fossil fuel use altogether by 2050 for all nations of the world, rich and poor, provided there is sufficient political will, wisdom, and international cooperation.  

Article first published 24/03/10


  1. “Pollution ‘likely to peak at earlier stage of growth’”, Li Jing, China Daily, 10 February 2010,
  2. “Chinese farms cause more pollution than factories, says official survey”, Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, 9 February 2010,
  3. “National survey takes the lid off China pollution”, Zuo Likun, 9 February 2010, China Daily,
  4. Li K-M and Ho MW. Biogas China. Science in Society 32, 34-37, 2006.
  5. “China report shows more pollution in waterways”, Jonathan Ansfield and Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, 9 February 2010,
  6. Ho MW. Circular economy of the dyke-pond system. . Science in Society 32, 38-41, 2006.
  7. “Green 5 year plan”, Alexander Pan, China Blawg, accessed 12 February 2010,
  8. “China to double environmental spending” Global Water Intelligence 2010, 11,
  9. Ho MW. China’s soils ruined by overuse of chemical fertilizers. Science in Society 46.
  10. Ho MW. Dream farm 2. How to beat climate change and post-fossil fuel economy. Science in Society 29, 10-14, 2006.
  11. Ho MW, Burcher S and Lim LC. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuels Free, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2008,
  12. Ho MW. Organic agriculture and localized food & energy systems for mitigating climate change. Science in Society 40, 24-28, 2008.
  13. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Energies, 100% Renewables by 2050, ISIS/TWN, 2009,

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