Social and economic growth in China’s most vital lake basin no longer comes at the expense of the environment, a new international study finds.

The in-depth study, carried out by researchers in China, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, Great Britain and South Africa, shows that signs of decoupling, or separation, between economic growth and environmental degradation could already be observed in China at the turn of the year. of the 20th century.

Using evidence from socioeconomic records, sedimentary DNA analysis and climate models, the team examined Tai Lake, also known as Taihu, in the Yangtze River Delta. This delta, according to state media reports, represents just 4% of the country’s land area, but a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP).

“We present compelling evidence of signs of unprecedented decoupling between socioeconomic growth and eco-environmental degradation, particularly over the past two decades in the Taihu Lake watershed,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April.

“We cannot say with 100 percent certainty whether this dissociation entered a stable state or just appeared,” said Zhang Ke, study author and researcher at the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in an interview. “We cannot predict the future. But for now, the sign is positive.”

Researchers studying Taihu, one of China’s largest freshwater lakes, say rapid environmental degradation in the region has stopped, or even begun to reverse, and from 2000 to 2020 the region’s gross domestic product increased eightfold. Photo: CCTV

Taihu, China’s third-largest freshwater lake, lies in the Yangtze River Delta, “one of the most densely populated and intensely modified landscapes in the world,” the researchers wrote.

“As a harbinger of China’s development, the Yangtze River Delta region has witnessed unprecedented social progress and economic prosperity, accompanied by critical environmental degradation,” the article states.

To study the watershed, researchers drilled holes in Taihu to obtain mud cores, which they examined layer by layer to reveal the lake’s characteristics at different times – including evidence of heavy metal pollution and vegetation DNA.

Zhang said that “organic, inorganic, living and non-living things are collected in lake basins and buried” over time, and that the team could “resurrect” this information by studying their contents.

They also obtained information about the region’s social and economic activity through historical records and used model simulations to determine climate characteristics such as precipitation and temperature.

“At the heart of our research is using the past to understand the future,” Zhang said.

The team found that before the 1950s, human activity did not cause lasting damage to the Taihu watershed. Zhang said this was a “relatively harmonious time between man and nature.”

After the 1950s, China’s population and agriculture “developed intensively” with rapid social and economic development that peaked in the 1980s, he said.

“Typically, socioeconomic development is associated with a strongly altered and degraded eco-environmental state,” the team wrote in the paper.

During this period, researchers stated that there was an “unprecedented acceleration in soil erosion, water eutrophication and ecosystem degradation.”

However, another major change occurred in the Taihu watershed at the beginning of the 21st century.

“Around 2000, the economy was developing, but the environment was not degrading and part of the environment was even improving,” Zhang said.

Their investigation indicated that, at some point between 2000 and 2010, a “decoupling signal” appeared between socioeconomic growth and environmental degradation.

The team observed that, during this period, although there were still high levels of algae in the lake, they began to show a downward trend. They also found decreasing signs of erosion and less plant DNA collected in soil layers.

A report released this year by the government of Jiangsu province, where Taihu is located, said water quality and algae levels had been at safe levels for the past 16 years, according to the Jiangsu Economic Newsowned by the state Xinhua Daily.

Although rapid environmental degradation in the region has stopped and even begun to reverse, from 2000 to 2020 the region’s gross domestic product increased eightfold, the article states.

The transformation of the Taihu watershed has been “unprecedented” due to China’s rapid economic and social development, Zhang said.

“From the time of reform and opening up until about 2000, China effectively went through a process in 20 to 30 years that may have taken the West a hundred years as they industrialized,” Zhang said.

The phenomenon of decoupling in this region offers “insights not only for the Yangtze River basin, but also for regions around the world that face similar sustainability challenges,” the team wrote.

In a production power index report released by the Chinese Academy of Engineering last year, the United States had a clear lead in first place, while China – in fourth place – was quickly catching up to Germany and Japan. The difference between China and Japan decreased from almost 32 index points in 2012 to just under 2 points in 2022.

With the help of policies, production around the Taihu watershed has changed from low-cost, high-energy-consuming and polluting industries to high-end industries, Zhang said.

Many of the country’s key industries are now concentrated in the Yangtze River Delta, including manufacturers of chips, electric vehicles, robots and batteries, as well as software and artificial intelligence developers. Every 10 seconds, a new energy vehicle is completed in this region, according to Xinhua.

Zhang said what the Taihu watershed had and would experience could “represent at least some of the problems” countries may face in the future. He said this could make the region an example for other countries seeking the kind of economic growth that does not come at the expense of the environment.

Countries like Germany and Japan have seen their own decoupling of carbon emissions from economic activity. The decoupling between emissions and GDP growth has occurred steadily since the 1990s in the European Union, and this century in Japan.

The International Energy Agency said China began to see its carbon emissions and GDP growth diverge this decade, and a decoupling could occur by the end of the decade.

Via South China Morning Post


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