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[BEIJING] China's rapid economic growth is creating a historically unique, large-scale "experiment" in how to balance development and environmental protection, say Chinese researchers.

They say its outcome will be key to the sustainability of China's growth, and will have unprecedented impacts around the world.

Writing in the September issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, a special issue devoted to China's environmental challenges, scientists describe the ecological consequences of rapid urbanisation, the state of biodiversity in mountainous regions, and pollution in coastal 'city clusters'.

Most of the authors are from Peking University.

Zhao Shuqing and colleagues note that Shanghai's air and water have been heavily polluted over the past 30 years. But they say concentrations of smoke and major air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide have now decreased, mainly due to less coal burning by industry and homes.

"Maintaining a balance between environmental sustainability and the continuing process of urbanisation is a major issue facing the Chinese," write the researchers.

Although much of China's biodiversity is being threatened by rapid economic development and human activities, Tang Zhiyao and colleagues report the existence of ten biodiversity 'hotspots' in mountain ranges that remain largely unaffected.

Protecting these mountainous areas is critical for conserving China's biodiversity, they say.

"Many of these are protected areas," Tang told SciDev.Net. "Our findings show that the right protection measures can conserve China's biodiversity despite the threat of economic development."

In another article, Shao Min and colleagues report high levels of pollution in China's city clusters — extremely densely populated urban areas whose growth has contributed to their regions' economic competitiveness.

Min's team say China must become more energy efficient and moderate its use of natural resources if it is to strike a balance between economic development and environmental health.

An Wei and Hu Jianying look into chemical pollution in China's rivers and coastal waters. They say the release of chemicals that interfere with hormones has led to sexual organ malformations in fish and birds.

Link to September issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment