Cities Are Cleaner, Greener and More Livable in the People's Republic of China

Article | 13 June 2014

The People's Republic of China (PRC) has made progress in improving the environmental quality of its cities. Yet more work needs to be done to achieve its ambitious targets for reducing pollution.

A study made by ADB shows that though the overall livability and quality of life in some cities have improved, the People's Republic of China (PRC) continues to face many environmental challenges that could impede inclusive and sustainable growth.

Over the last decade, the urban economy of the PRC has grown rapidly based on a pattern of high input, high consumption, and high emissions. High consumption of resources, relatively low technology, and rapid economic development and urbanization have created serious pollution problems throughout its cities.

For example, 300 of more than 600 cities in the country suffer from water shortages. Despite recent improvements, few cities boast Class 1 or pristine air quality and the level of inhalable particulate matter (PM10) is serious in many areas.

Rapid urbanization, increasing transport needs, and a sharp increase in private vehicle ownership combined have resulted in higher emissions of nitric oxide. In some cities, vehicular pollutants are overtaking soot as the main pollutant. Several cities with a population of more than 10 million are experiencing a high concentration of fine particles and low visibility, high atmospheric oxidizing capacity, and regional air pollution.

With rising populations and increased per capita consumption, urban refuse is growing but the capacity to treat solid waste sanitarily is limited. Contaminants from untreated waste permeate the ground, causing acidification, alkalization, heavy metal pollution, and hardening of the soil. If disposed into rivers, lakes, or the sea, waste pollutes the country's waters, and if left to organically decompose, it produces harmful gases.

Other environmental issues faced by cities in the PRC include noise pollution, deterioration of the urban ecological environments, biodiversity loss, and alien species invasions.

Indexes of progress

ADB has ranked 33 cities in the PRC according to their environmental "livability," through a series of indexes using 2011 data developed under a technical assistance project.

"The project designed a comprehensive index of urban environmental sustainability, including a monitoring system and city rankings. This will provide policymakers with valuable scientific data on which to base their decisions and take action."

- Sergei Popov, ADB Principal Environment Specialist

"The project designed a comprehensive index of urban environmental sustainability, including a monitoring system and city rankings," said ADB Principal Environment Specialist Sergei Popov, who led the study. "This will provide policymakers with valuable scientific data on which to base their decisions and take action."

The study found that urban livability is generally higher in southern and coastal cities of the country - and areas with higher levels of development - than in northern, western, and northwestern cities. The 33 cities were chosen based on the availability of data. The project also carried out more in-depth studies of six cities - Beijing, Guangzhou, Lanzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan for which historical data were available.

According to the study, environmental livability in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Wuhan rose significantly since the year 2000, while growth in the other two cities was slower. But problems remain in all six.

In Beijing, there have been environmental improvements over the period, but water resource and air quality indicators remain poor. The city has low per capita water resources, high concentrations of nitrogen oxide, and limited ability to tackle these problems.

In Shanghai, a comparison with 2000 data shows that air quality and solid waste indicators have been successfully addressed. However, the water resource indicator shows no improvement.

Guangzhou has consistently improved its environmental management indexes between 2000 and 2011. Further work is needed on per capita water resource and water recycling rates, which remain low.

Wuhan has recorded significant improvements in water resources and air quality since 2000, but its indicators in these areas remain low as it needs to strengthen water conservation and utilization, as well as its response to air pollution.

Lanzhou's air and water resource indicators remain weak, despite improvements since 2000 because of high concentrations of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and particulates in the air, limited wastewater treatment capacity, and high water consumption.

Shenyang showed strong growth in the water sector (up 150% between 2000 and 2007) but its ecological and environmental management indexes dropped because of rising groundwater exploitation and insufficient investment in urban environmental protection.