China's rapid economic growth and industrialization is posing a major challenge to the environment with air pollution likely to rise five-fold in 15 years, officials warned Monday.
"In the future 15 years, the population of China will reach 1.46 billion and the GDP will double, the pollution load will increase by four to five times according to the present resource consumption rate and pollution control level," said Zhang Lijun, vice minister of China's environmental agency SEPA.
Zhang was speaking at an air pollution conference organized by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), the US Environmental Protection Agency, the environmental directorate of the European Commission and the Italian Ministry for the Environment and Territory.
China's GDP growth of more than nine percent is causing more pollutants to be emitted, as more coal is burned for energy and more polluting factories are built, experts at the conference said.
A list of the world's most polluted cities includes several in China. Thirty percent of China is polluted by acid rain, Zhang said in a speech, while one fifth of the population is living in areas seriously polluted, including by dust, acid rain, smog and fine particles.
"The major challenge in China is that they have a fast growing economy, a lot of construction of power plants and use of energy," said Matti Vainio, deputy head of the European Commission's clean air and transport unit.
"Because of this, the emissions, potential emissions are huge," he said.
"In just five years, the emissions of one type of pollutant, sulfur dioxide, rose from about 20 million tons a year in 2000 to the current 26 million tons." Worsening air in China, especially in major cities, is leading to "more and more serious" health problems, including respiratory and lung illnesses, Zhang said.
"It's very important to get those numbers down," Vainio said.
"So the challenge is basically how to manage this prosperous economic growth, and at the same time reduce the environmental impact of the growth," he said.
China has already taken steps to reduce this future impact with a plan for economic growth between 2006-2010 placing a strong emphasis on minimal harm to the environment, a SEPA official said.
"There will be significant changes because of the five-year plan," Li Xinmin, deputy director-general of SEPA's pollution control department told AFP adding that the country could not continue down the path of "polluting first and cleaning up later". Chinese officials said China was toughening laws and adopting measures to reduce factory and vehicle pollution while SEPA planned to publish a list of cities that did not meet national air quality standards.
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