Journal of Geographical Sciences ›› 2019, Vol. 29 ›› Issue (8): 1261-1282.doi: 10.1007/s11442-019-1658-2

• Research Articles • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Assessing China’s human-environment relationship

YANG Yu1,2, LI Xiaoyun1,2,*(), DONG Wen3, POON P H Jessie4,*(), HONG Hui5, HE Ze1,2, LIU Yi1,2   

  1. 1. Key Laboratory of Regional Sustainable Development Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, CAS, Beijing 100101, China
    2. College of Resources and Environment, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
    3. Academic Divisions of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100190, China
    4. Department of Geography, University at Buffalo-SUNY, Buffalo, NY 14261, USA
    5. China International Engineering Consulting Corporation, Beijing 100048, China
  • Received:2018-09-10 Accepted:2018-11-01 Online:2019-08-25 Published:2019-12-13
  • Contact: LI Xiaoyun,POON P H Jessie;
  • About author:Yang Yu (1984-), Professor, specialized in energy geography and regional studies. E-mail:
  • Supported by:
    National Natural Science Foundation of China(No.41430636);National Natural Science Foundation of China(No.41571159)


China’s coupled human-environment system (CHES) is assessed here via a systems schema that emphasizes the complex interactions of components and their attributes. In addition to the human and environment components, we identified two other components to evaluate the relationship. The four components are human activity intensity, resource carrying capacity, ecological constraints and system’s openness. Based on their interactions, we derived a cognitive schema for classifying the level of strain or stress of an area. The analysis draws on 11 indicators and 29 sub-indicators including remote sensing data and statistical data that are used to estimate the four components. The findings indicate that human activities are highly intense in a few geographical areas, particularly large urban systems and trade and investment zones on the eastern coastal areas. Nonetheless, these areas are also well-endowed in water resources and fertile soils although urban systems are increasingly stressed from negative pollution externalities. They are also open systems which allow them to bear a higher level of pressure and adjust accordingly. Desertification and soil erosion point to relatively fragile biophysical systems in the west and southwest, but human activities are still relatively less intense compared to their coastal counterparts. As a whole, only 14% of areas may be said to be relatively or highly strained. This however belies another one-third of areas that are currently unstable, and likely to become strained and thereby vulnerable in the near future.

Key words: coupled human-environment relationship, systems, human activity intensity, resource-carrying capacity, ecological constraint, openness, China