In remarks posted on the ministry Web site, Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian said, "Natural resources are shrinking, degenerating and drying up. Ecological and environmental decay has become a bottleneck and a serious obstacle to our economic and social development."
Zhou is pushing for environmental protection to be a key component of China's new Five Year Plan (2011-15) to be debated during the National People's Congress set to begin Saturday.
"If our homeland is destroyed and we lose our health, then what good does development do?" Zhou wrote.
In January, for example, state-run news agency Xinhua reported that 200 children in eastern China had elevated lead levels. While there are laws prohibiting factories from being located within 1,600 feet of residential areas, the affected children lived close to battery factories.
"Environmental concerns will play a major role in massaging the way the economy is going to grow in the 12th five-year plan," said Zhang Jianyu, head of China's environmental defense fund, the Financial Times reports.
China, the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases, emits 6.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, U.N. statistics indicate.
The country's new five-year plan is expected to include targets for reducing energy intensity and carbon dioxide intensity as well as to address a wider range of pollutants than previous plans.
Zhang said the plan would be a challenge because China will be moving from an export and investment-oriented approach toward "a more stable, balanced, sustainable approach."
On Sunday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao lowered the target for average gross domestic product growth to 7 percent from 7.5 percent, saying there was a need for slower, cleaner growth.
"We must not any longer sacrifice the environment for the sake of rapid growth and reckless rollouts, as that would result in unsustainable growth featuring industrial overcapacity and intensive resource consumption," said Wen in an Internet chat reported on by state media.
While China's previous five-year plan had a growth target of 7.5 percent, the economy actually grew 11.1 percent from 2006-10.
Under that plan, China sought to reduce energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 20 percent compared with 2005 levels by the end of 2010.
But as a last-ditch effort to achieve those pollution-reduction targets, some local governments had resorted to enforced blackouts.