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China's environmental challenges

A grand-scale ecological experiment

It is the most populous country in the world. Half the country is arid or semi-arid and mountains cover three-quarters of it. Natural resources are scarce. Yet 1.3 billion people live in China, which is undergoing a remarkable rate of economic growth. At the same time, China's environmental problems of energy and water shortages, water and air pollution, cropland and biodiversity losses are escalating.

The September issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment devotes itself entirely to exploring China's environmental challenges and potential solutions, with all of the articles written by Chinese scientists.

As the lead guest editorialists Drs. Jingyun Fang and Chia Kiang (both of Peking University) note, "China's extraordinary rate of economic development makes it a historically unique, grand-scale socioeconomic and ecological "experiment," and one that will have an unprecedented impact on the world as a whole.

The journal's research communications examine the ecological consequences of the rapid urban expansion of Shanghai as well as the state of biodiversity in China's mountains. Focusing on major cities such as Shanghai, Shuqing Zhao (Peking University) and colleagues discuss the major challenges faced by Chinese policy makers in managing the tradeoffs between urbanization and environmental protection. Meanwhile, the country's mountainous regions still host a surprising number of plant and animals species. Zhiyao Tang (Peking University) and fellow researchers identified ten hotspot regions in China's major mountain ranges they say should be priorities for the country's conservation plans.

One of the review articles in the issue examines the phenomenon of so-called city clusters in China, which, in contrast to the United States, tend to be much more concentrated and densely populated with little room for natural areas. In the city of Guangzhou, for example, space between residential buildings is so tight that people refer to them as "handshaking buildings." City clusters often enhance the competitiveness of a region, catalyzing economic growth. The downside is the environmental pollution wrought by rapid urbanization, particularly on water and air quality. Min Shao et al. (Peking University) predict that by 2020, 50 percent of China's population will be living in towns and cities, and that domestic water needs will be double those of 2000. The amount of sewage generated will go up by a factor of at least 1.3, putting the country's already fragile freshwater systems under greater strain.

The authors wonder: will China "…..continue down the same road as in the past two decades, or will environmental quality, energy efficiency, and the conservation of resources no longer be sacrificed at the altar of economic development?"

Authors Wei An and Jianying Hu (Peking University) tackle the topic of endocrine disrupting chemicals in China's rivers and coastal waters, looking particularly at the impacts on Chinese sturgeon, night herons, and carp--all of which have exhibited sex organ malformations.

Frontier's Finishing Lines columnist Katherine Ellison highlights Goldman Environmental Prize Award winner Yu Xiaogang, a Chinese watershed activist. She notes that the Chinese government realizes it must rely on the support of the private sector and that the country now boasts more than 2000 environmental organizations, working on issues ranging from public transit to the impact of mega-dams.

Nadine Lymn | EurekAlert!
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