China's Lifted Its One-Child Policy and Here's What That Means for the Environment

The Chinese Communist Party announced on Thursday that families will be permitted to have two children, which could impact a wide range of environmental issues like carbon emissions, consumer consumption, and traffic.
October 29, 2015, 5:25pm
Foto di William Hong/Reuters

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China placed a big bet on its demographic and environmental future Thursday by getting rid of its decades-old policy that limited most urban families to one child.

China once touted the 1979 decree as an environmental benefit. Government officials estimate it shaved between 300 and 400 million people off the expected growth of its population, and Chinese negotiators have said that reduced annual emissions by as much as 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide and other gases.

With Thursday's announcement by the ruling Communist Party that all families would be allowed to have two children, Beijing appears to be gambling that it will have its horrific pollution and enormous carbon footprint reined in by the time those kids grow up, said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"Even if that policy is put in place immediately, you're not going to see any significant impact until probably 20 years from now," Huang said. "And 20 years from now, they expect the environmental issues will be effectively addressed, and the population impact will not have a big impact on the environment."

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The one-child policy reined in an urban population boom that Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the country's post-Mao system, feared would obstruct China's modernization. But it was unpopular at home, and when disasters like earthquakes or plane crashes struck, it left some families childless.

It was condemned by both the Vatican and Planned Parenthood and "not at all consistent with Western values," said Lucia Green-Weiskel, of the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation in Beijing. And now China has the opposite problem — its population of about 1.4 billion is skewing heavily old, and it needs more workers to support what's now the world's largest economy.

"Basically, they're saying the demographic problem is more worrying than social unrest from industrial pollution and climate change," Green-Weiskel said.

The decision is part of China's new Five-Year Plan, which guides China's economic policy through 2020. The plan, which must be approved by the country's top legislative body, shoots for more innovation in science and technology, "medium-high" economic growth, and a doubling of its 2010 GDP by the end of the decade, according to the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Huang said one of the leading arguments for the one-child rule was that controlling population would result in less damage to natural resources. But he said some scholars now argue that it may have resulted in an outsized environmental impact by individual Chinese.

"The privileged status of this one child that has now entered the middle class led to an increase in consumption of food, energy, and other goods that could have a detrimental impact," Huang said — but he added, "We don't have strong evidence to support that."

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The policy had already been eased in stages. Couples currently are allowed to have a second child if one of the parents was an only child. But the high cost of living in Chinese cities means most couples aren't likely to have a second child anyway, Green-Weiskel said.

"Women having fewer children is a trend that's happening globally," she said. China's announcement will have some effect, "But I don't think we're going to see a situation where suddenly the population is growing exponentially."

If there's one area where it might set back China's progress, she said, it's transportation. Chinese consumers already are buying cars at a rate "that's wildly unsustainable," and increased urban populations might make that worse.

"A very small perentage of China's population owns cars, but the projections for oil consumption and the sheer traffic problems that are happening are just completely out of control," she said.

In the past decade, China has become the world's largest economy and the world's largest source of the greenhouse gases blamed for driving up global temperatures. Beijing has pledged that its emissions will peak by 2030, a target many observers say it will beat — and Green-Weiskel said Thursday's news isn't likely to affect that goal.

"If you want to know where China can really tighten its belt in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it's not individual consumption," she said. Improving the efficiency of its power plants and shifting from a high-carbon manufacturing base to a more service-oriented economy "are way, way more important."

"If China makes less plastic junk, then it's better for Planet Earth," she said. "And only in that way do we have a way to stave off the worst impacts of climate change — if we have a chance at all."

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