Chinese Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian has warned that pollution and the demand for resources threaten to choke the country's economic growth.
He says the conflict between development and the environment has never been so serious.
If China means to quadruple the size of its economy over 20 years without more damage, Mr Zhou says, it will have to become more efficient in resource use - or pay a painful price.
The minister wants to see environmental protection become a key plank of the new Five Year Plan (2011-2015) to be debated during the annual session of the National People's Congress, which opens on 5 March.
His comments came in an essay posted, unusually for a minister, on the website of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
They appeared a day after Premier Wen Jiabao said China was lowering its annual economic growth target from 7.5% to 7%, in part because of the impact on the environment.
Call for paradigm shift
The BBC's Beijing correspondent says Mr Zhou's essay is an open call for a paradigm shift away from the model of high input, high-resource consumption, and high pollution, and towards sustainable growth.
"In China's thousands of years of civilisation, the conflict between humanity and nature has never been as serious as it is today," he wrote. "The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the deterioration of the environment have become serious bottlenecks constraining economic and social development."
He suggested that his ministry should take on a greater role in tackling greenhouse gas emissions and that new development projects be assessed for their impact on climate change.
The Chinese government has repeatedly promised to tackle pollution, but failed to enforce its apparent decisions.