Weijian Zhou

Ecological Environment Management in China

Summary and Recommendations

Ecological environmental protection is important for everyone and the future of the world. Since China’s reform and opening up, great achievements have been made in economic development and great progress has been made in ecological environmental protection. China has incorporated the construction of ecological civilization into the Five-sphere Integrated Plan (to promotes coordinated economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological advancement), which refers to China’s overall plan for building our beautiful motherland.

China has carried out a series of actions to prevent and control pollution. As a result, the environmental quality has improved significantly. The proportion of days with good air quality in cities, the proportion of surface water sections (sites) with good quality, and the safe utilization rate of polluted farmland, increased significantly.

In order to protect the ecological environment, it is recommended that the international community should cooperate to promote global ecological and environmental governance, actively carry out pollution prevention and control, actively include the role of science and technology in improving energy efficiency and resource production and utilization efficiency, and increase the proportion of clean energy.

The Industrial Revolution led to an acceleration of the development of human society. With the surge of world population and the rapid development of industry and economy, the impact of human activities on the ecological environment has become more and more acute. Therefore, the “Anthropocene” epoch has been proposed. Global problems of ecological destruction and environmental pollution have become increasingly serious. For example, the Antarctic ozone hole, global acid deposition, and global-warming resulting disasters constitute global environmental problems, which obviously endanger the survival and reproduction of all human beings, and have attracted great attention from the international community. Ecological Environment protection has become a central issue related to the development of all human beings. The term Anthropocene was popularised by scientists to illustrate how human impact has made our world so vastly different from the world we inherited.

On June 5, 1972, the United Nations held the first world conference on the human environment in Stockholm, adopted a series of principles and set out the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment. In June 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the future destiny of the earth was discussed, and Agenda 21, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity were signed. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted at the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), serving as the overall framework to guide global and national development action. In 2015, the Paris Agreement was adopted at the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference, providing a framework for global actions to address human induced climate change.

The signing of a series of important international conventions shows that the international community’s awareness of ecological and environmental protection has been greatly enhanced and international cooperation has been strengthened. The international community’s joint efforts to address global ecological and environmental problems and build a shared future for all life on earth, have brought great hope for the harmonious development of human and nature.

1. Background and policy of Ecological Environment Management in China

Between 1972 and 1988, a Leading Group of Environmental Protection of the State Council was established and later upgraded to the State Bureau of Environmental Protection (SBEP, an independent organization) (Xie, 2020).

During the period from 1989 to 1998, the government implemented the “33211” and “one control and two compliances” environmental pollution control programme. The SBEP strengthened the environmental protection. (“33211” refers to: the three rivers: Huai River, Hai River, Liao River, and three lakes: Dianchi Lake, Taihu Lake, Chaohu Lake; “2” is dual-control area: sulfur dioxide and acid rain control area; “11” is one city (Beijing) and one sea (the Bohai Sea); “one control and two compliances” refers to: by 2000 the country’s total pollutant discharge should be controlled at the level of 1995, the pollutant discharge of industrial pollution sources as well as environmental quality of the environmental function zones of key cities should comply with the standards).

During the period from 1999 to 2008, China. continuously intensified its efforts in energy conservation, in emissions reduction, and the control of the total discharge of pollutants, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) was established (Xie, 2020), greatly strengthening pollution prevention and control.

Since 2009, China has carried out a series of actions to prevent and control pollution, launched air, water and soil Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plans, and implemented the nationwide battle to prevent and control pollution (three major actions to keep the sky blue, water clear, soil clean). China’s ecological environment protection is entering a critical period in which carbon reduction is the key strategic direction, green transformation of economic and social aspects is being promoted. (The State Council, 2013, 2015, 2016; The CPC Central Committee, The State Council, 2018, 2021; Xie, 2020). Increasing, attention has been directed to conservation of China’s biodiversity.

2. China’s achievements on Ecological Environment Management

2.1 Ecological Environment Protection System

China has set up and improved systems for ecological environmental protection including ecological conservation performance assessment and accountability, ecological compensation, and the designation of river, lake and forest chiefs. China has formulated and revised a series of laws and regulations regarding environmental protection, forming a relatively comprehensive legal system for ecological environment protection. China has strengthened the administrative law enforcement team for ecological environment protection, and established the system of central inspection on eco-environmental protection, conducted supervision of the central government in 31 provinces to deal with major typical cases of ecological environment destruction. (Ministry of Ecology and Environment, QIUSHI, 2022). All these provide an institutional and legal guarantee for ecological environment protection.

2.2 Great achievements in land greening programs

China has carried out large-scale land greening programs. The country’s forest coverage and forest stock volume have been increasing over the past 30 years. After more than 70 years of afforestation, China’s forest cover rate increased by 2.6 times. By the end of 2020, the forest cover area of China reached 23.04%, and the forest area was 220 million hectares. The forest stock volume has increased from 15.137 billion cubic meters in 2016 to 17.56 billion cubic meters in 2021 (Ministry of Ecology and Environment, The People’s Daily, 2021). As shown in Figure 1. China has also increased the amount of conservation areas.

2.3 Air pollution control

Through large-scale air pollution control, air quality has continued to improve. The proportion of days with good or excellent air quality in cities at or above prefecture level increased year by year from 2015 to 2021, and reached 87.4% in 2021, 10.7% higher than that in 2015; the concentrations of major air pollutants decreased gradually: PM2.5 decreased by 40%; SO2 decreased by 64%; NO2 decreased by 23% (Ministry of Environmental Protection, 2016; Ministry of Ecology and Environment, 2018, 2020, 2022) (Fig. 2).

2.4 Water pollution control

From the 1980s to the 1990s, China carried out large-scale pollution control actions. Since the 21st century, the efforts to control water pollution have been stepped up. Water quality has improved significantly. The proportion of surface water sections (sites) with excellent and good water quality increased from 66% in 2015 to 83.4% in 2020. The proportion of nearshore marine water with excellent and good sea water quality increased from 73.4% in 2016 to 81.3% in 2021. The proportion of monitoring sections for rivers that flow into the Sea with excellent and good water quality increased from 46.8% in 2016 to 71.7% in 2021 (Ministry of Environmental Protection, 2016, 2017; Ministry of Ecology and Environment, 2021).

2.5 Soil pollution control

China has gradually incorporated soil pollution prevention and control into the key work of environmental protection, and has carried out a series of basic surveys and pollution control actions (Liu et al., 2021). Over the past decade, obvious progress in the prevention and control of soil pollution has been achieved. By the end of 2020, the safe utilization rate of polluted farmland reached about 90% (Ministry of Ecology and Environment, 2021), successfully fulfilling the objectives set out in the soil pollution action plan.

2.6 Comprehensive utilization of solid waste

China attaches great importance to the resource utilization of solid waste. During the period from 2016 to 2020, about 13 billion tons of bulk solid wastes have been comprehensively utilized, which reduced over 0.0667 million hectares of land occupied by solid waste and produced new products (State Statistics Bureau, 2022; Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Statistical Bulletin, 2020). In 2021, “Guiding Opinions on the Comprehensive Utilization of Bulk Solid Wastes in the 14th Five-Year Plan” was issued, proposing that by 2025, the comprehensive utilization rate of newly added bulk solid waste should reach 60%.

3. China’s “dual carbon” strategy

China attaches great importance to its response to climate change, and formulated and released the National Strategy of “peaking carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality” (dual carbon). In 2020, China announced new targets and measures. China aims for peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060; to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25 percent by 2030.

Since the “dual carbon” strategy was put forward, China has taken actions to reduce carbon emissions and has made great achievements in energy conservation, emission reduction and new energy development (Fig. 5).

4. Technology boosts ecological environment protection

4.1 Conducting long-term monitoring program of tracing atmospheric CO2ff by 14C to provide scientific data for the evaluation and control of carbon emission reduction

Based on accurately understanding of the levels and spatial-temporal variation characteristics of atmospheric fossil fuel derived CO2 (CO2ff), we can provide scientific data for the evaluation of carbon emission reduction. Radiocarbon is a unique tracer for the identification of atmospheric CO2 emitted from fossil fuels, because 14C is depleted in fossil fuels due to their great age, in comparison with the 14C half-life of 5730 ± 40 years. The marked difference in 14C content can be used to distinguish between atmospheric CO2ff and CO2 from other sources. Usually, 14C in air samples has been used to quantify the CO2ff with different time-resolution. Plants assimilate carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and preserve a record of atmospheric 14C during their growth period, so 14C measurement of plant material is an alternative way to monitor atmospheric CO2ff on large-spatial scales and long-time scales.

My research team proactively carried out monitoring program of quantitatively tracing atmospheric CO2ff by radiocarbon from 2010 in Xi’an, the largest city in northwestern China, and then the atmospheric 14C observations gradually expand to more major Chinese cities and background sites, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and so on. In the past decade, our team has obtained a series of basic atmospheric 14C data by air samples, annual herbaceous plant samples and tree rings. Based on those data, model simulation and source analysis have been carried out to figure out the transportation and main source of CO2ff. Through those efforts, we have obtained a general picture of Chinese urban CO2ff and characteristics of its spatio-temporal variations at different scale, and established an effective atmospheric 14C monitoring system.

The multi-year (2011-2019) observation in Xi’an showed that CO2ff has higher value in winter than that in summer. The annual averages of CO2ff concentrations decreased from 40.1 ± 3.8 ppm during 2011-2013 to 25.7 ± 1.1 ppm during 2014-2016 (a decrease of 35.9 ± 6.6%), due to the implementation of the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Air Pollution from 2013 (Fig. 6). The model and source analysis results showed that local CO2ff inputs from coal combustion was the main contributor in Xi’an (Feng et al., 2018; Zhou et al., 2020). Using tree ring 14C archives, we reconstruct an historical CO2ff time series in Xi’an. CO2ff concentration increases from both urban and rural sites during 1991-2015, with more significant increases among urban sites. The persistent rise in CO2ff was attributed to increasing energy consumption caused by regional socio-economic development, which are corroborated by strong correlations between CO2ff and socioeconomic parameters (Hou et al., 2020).

Observations in major Chinese cities showed that the northwestern cities have relatively high CO2ff concentrations in winter (Fig.7), thus they are the key points to reduce carbon emissions, especially the emissions from coal consumption. We also found significant correlations between PM2.5 and CO2ff in Chinese cities, which imply the feasibility of reduction of both carbon and atmospheric pollutants in China through similar policy measures (Zhou et al., 2020; Zhou et al., 2022).

4.2 Reinforcing scientific research to comprehensively utilize industrial solid waste and develop new technologies for tailings utilization

Our group has developed a new method for the utilization of solid waste with catalyst as the key, and the recovery rate of major elements in the tails can reach 90%. For example, two 600,000 KW power plants could produce about 1 million tons of fly ash, and all the fly ash could be comprehensively utilized to extract 440,000 tons of alumina and 375,000 tons of silica gel, 22,000 tons of red iron oxide, 55 tons of gallium, and consume 510,000 tons of CO2. By the technology zero emissions of solid waste and CO2 could be achieved.

5. Summary

1) Ecological environmental protection, a critical issue for the world, the countries, and the people, mainly depends on the government’s governance and input. It requires the government to issue relevant laws and policies, and implement ecological environment protection actions. Meanwhile, arouse public awareness is also indispensable;

2) The technology advancement and technical exchanges are the key to solving global ecological environment problems, such as new technology for coal utilization in an efficient and low-emission way. They will make important contributions to energy conservation and emission reduction;

3) The international community should strengthen cooperation and build a beautiful world.


1.       Zhenhua Xie, China’s historical evolution of environmental protection along with the forty years’ reform and opening-up, Environmental Science and Ecotechnology, 2020, 1, 100001.

2.       The CPC Central Committee, The State Council of China, a guideline to comprehensively enhance ecological and environmental protection and win the battle against pollution of air, water and soil. 24 June 2018 (in Chinese).

3.       The CPC Central Committee, The State Council of China, a circular on further promoting the nationwide battle to prevent and control pollution. 2 November 2021 (in Chinese).

4.       The State Council of China, Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Air Pollution, 2013 (in Chinese).

5.       The State Council of China, Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Water Pollution, 2015 (in Chinese).

6.       The State Council of China, Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution, 2016 (in Chinese).

7.       Ministry of Environmental Protection. Report on the State of the Ecology and Environment in China 2015/2016. Beijing, 2016/2017.

8.       Ministry of Ecology and Environment. Report on the State of the Ecology and Environment in China 2017/2019/2020/2021. Beijing, 2018/2020/2021/2022.

9.       Ruiping Liu, Zhixiao Song, Xuan Cui, et al., Progress and Prospect of Soil Environmental Management Policy in China, Chinese Journal of Environmental Management, 2021, 5, 93-100 (in Chinese).

10.    Ministry of Ecology and Environment, China’s forest coverage rate exceeds 23 percent, The People’s Daily, 17 March 2021 (in Chinese).

11.    State Statistics Bureau, China Statistical Yearbook 2021, Beijing, 2022 (in Chinese).

12.    Ministry of Ecology and Environment. National Ecological environment Statistics Bulletin (2016-2019), 2020 (in Chinese).

13.    Ministry of Ecology and Environment. Ecological civilization in the new era, QIUSHI, 2022, 11 (in Chinese).

14.    Weijian Zhou, Zhenchuan Niu, Shugang Wu, et al., The fossil fuel CO2 traced by radiocarbon in fifteen Chinese cities, Science of the Total Environment, 2020, 729, 138639.

15.    Weijian Zhou, Zhenchuan Niu, Shugang Wu, et al., Recent progress in atmospheric fossil fuel CO2 trends traced by radiocarbon in China, Radiocarbon, 2022, 1-11. doi:10.1017/RDC.2022.32

16.    Tian Feng, Weijian Zhou, Shugang Wu, Zhenchuan Niu, Peng Cheng, Xiaohu Xiong, Guohui Li, Simulations of summertime fossil fuel CO2 in the Guanzhong basin, China, Science of the Total Environment, 2018,624:1163-1170

17.    Yaoyao Hou, Weijian Zhou, Peng Cheng, Xiaohu Xiong, Hua Du, Zhenchuan Niu, Xia Yu, Yunchong Fu, Xuefeng Lu, C-14-AMS measurements in modern tree rings to trace local fossil fuel-derived CO2 in the greater Xi'an area, China, Science of the Total Environment, 2020, 715, 136669.