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China’s official news agency, Xinhua, has reported that over 40 percent of the country’s fertile land has been degraded.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), land degradation is caused “by multiple forces, including extreme weather conditions, particularly drought, and human activities that pollute or degrade the quality of soils and land utility, negatively affecting food production, livelihoods, and the production and provision of other ecosystem goods and services.”

China’s land degradation is believed to be the result of an increasingly polluted environment. In 2007 the country surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest polluter, and currently emits 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This has led to extreme health impacts, such as an over 50 percent rise in pollutant-induced lung cancer in Beijing. Scientists recently reported that particulate pollutants from coal-burning power plants (about a quarter of the pollution that makes up smog), were a major factor in 670,000 premature deaths in 2012. Over time, such particulates lead to strokes, lung cancer and heart disease, which has pushed many citizens to demand the Beijing government to ban coal.

Natural color satellite image of a smog event in China. The gray in the center is a combined smog and fog event (Beijing has been identified with a red circle). / Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Credit Jesse Allen

Natural color satellite image of a smog event in China. The gray in the center is a combined smog and fog event (Beijing has been identified with a red circle). / Source: NASA Earth Observatory / Credit Jesse Allen

China’s rapid development and reliance on coal for 70 percent of its energy is also affecting the regional climate, leading to record-breaking heat waves and drought in its historically dependable breadbasket. For the last two decades, industrial runoff has also fouled the nation’s third largest lake, Lake Tai, leading to toxic algae blooms and poisoned soil.

China’s Agriculture Ministry has reported that the soil in its northern Heilongjiang province (part of China’s bread basket) is thinning, while in its southern region, the soil is acidifying. With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, the government is duly concerned with fixing its blighted environment. It has announced that it plans to deal with soil pollution and create 53 million new hectares of connected farmland by 2020.

The government has also announced that it will regulate its carbon emissions by implementing a nationwide cap-and-trade program by 2016.

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