In its quest to develop alternative -- or rather, additional -- energy sources, in early November China's government announced subsidies to speed the development of shale gas. Although the International Energy Agency has estimated China's total theoretically recoverable gas reserves from shale beds to be 150 percent that of the United States -- a vast quantity -- production has so far been a trickle, largely because China's shale beds tend to lie in mountainous and geologically difficult to access regions. If shale gas production picks up in earnest, it would provide a cleaner-burning fuel source, but could also aggravate water scarcity problems and contribute to ground-water contamination in a country where regulations meant to protect farmers living adjacent to mining sites are often trampled in the name of rapid development.
And then there's climate change. China has since 2010 been the world's top emitter of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, but it is also among the countries most vulnerable to its impacts. Scientists estimate that extreme weather events -- such as last summer's prolonged drought and the severe blizzard of 2008 -- cause the loss of nearly 10 percent of China's grain output annually. The diminished flow of the Yangtze River last year stalled hydropower plants and led to rolling blackouts. Climate change will alter the intensity and duration of monsoon seasons across Asia, but models remain fuzzy as to what the future of regional agriculture will look like. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently listed China's Pearl River Delta -- including the megacity port of Guangzhou -- as among the urban areas most likely to be engulfed by sea-level rise.
When it comes to China, Jonathan Watts, author of When a Billion Chinese Jump and until recently the Asia environment correspondent at the Guardian newspaper, argues that the environment is everything -- "a prism" through which to assess the country's worsening economic and human health. As Watts explained at the 2012 China Environmental Press Awards in Beijing this spring: "Mostly the environment is treated as a subcategory and posted away to certain pages in newspapers and on the websites. But it should not be a niche interest; it should be mainstream. The ecology is the basis for the economy, not the other way around."