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China’s Poison Air Is Becoming Its Leading Export

Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

A woman wearing a face mask poses on Tiananmen Square during a sand storm in heavily polluted weather in Beijing on February 28, 2013. Beijing residents were urged to stay indoors as pollution levels soared before a sandstorm brought further misery to China's capital. Close

A woman wearing a face mask poses on Tiananmen Square during a sand storm in heavily... Read More

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Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

A woman wearing a face mask poses on Tiananmen Square during a sand storm in heavily polluted weather in Beijing on February 28, 2013. Beijing residents were urged to stay indoors as pollution levels soared before a sandstorm brought further misery to China's capital.

Sitting on a Tokyo runway last week, the captain announced that our flight would be delayed for reasons few of us could believe: sandstorms.

Chuckles filled the aircraft. The woman next to me quipped: “What, are we in Egypt?” As we all craned our necks to look out the windows, it really did feel as if we were taxiing in Cairo or Marrakesh, not the capital of a Group of Seven nation.

The sand is compliments of China’s boom. Thanks to deforestation and overgrazing, more and more of the Gobi Desert’s grit, along with industrial pollution, is being carried by prevailing winds to Japan. In recent weeks, people in Japan have been Googling “PM2.5,” or fine airborne particulates that cause disease and premature death in high concentrations. They also are loading up on air purifiers as China’s environmental crisis becomes Japan’s.

The geopolitics of pollution has the potential to turn toxic. If you thought Asia’s territorial disputes were a barrier to peace and cooperation, just wait until blackened skies dominate summit meetings. And they will, as nationalists in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan use pollution as a rallying point to gin up anti-China sentiment; business leaders in Hong Kong express anger about having trouble recruiting foreign talent; China lashes out at independent reports on health risks; and the world points fingers at the Communist Party as climate change accelerates.

Bad Air

“Asia can barely get along now, never mind when we throw air pollution into the mix,” said Alistair Thornton, a Beijing-based economist at research company IHS Inc.

Environmental disputes already abound. I touched base with Elizabeth Economy, author of the 2004 book “The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future,” to see what tops her list: disputes over water with Kazakhstan, India and the nations downstream on the Mekong River; conflicts over illegal logging with Indonesia; and the lack of corporate social responsibility by Chinese companies in Vietnam and Myanmar. Add to that China’s shipments of acrid air to Japan.

“How China grows its economy and protects, or doesn’t, its environment affects the entire Asia-Pacific,” she says.

Pollution is a clear danger to the Communist Party’s legitimacy. Record smog blanketed Beijing in January, when air particulates exceeded the World Health Organization’s limits every day to such a degree that it was akin to 20 million people living in an airport smoking lounge. The WHO considers PM2.5 readings of 25 micrograms per cubic meter safe. Beijing registered as high as 993 micrograms in recent months.

China is already home to some of the world’s most polluted rivers and water supplies. Of the 20 dirtiest cities on the globe, 16 are in China, according to the World Bank. And public fury is rising at a time when China’s censors are fighting a losing battle against the Internet. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing also refused to stop issuing hourly air-quality updates.

Images of Shanghai officials pulling more than 13,000 putrefying pig carcasses out of the Huangpu River are tarnishing China’s global brand. So are projections that pollution will get even worse. As China’s 1.3 billion people get richer, they will buy motorbikes, cars, and air conditioners and travel on airplanes. Increases in emissions and demand for coal might make China’s air 70 percent worse by 2030, according to Deutsche Bank AG.

China can go green, so long as it acts now and drops the delusion that solar farms and wind turbines will do the job. In a recent report, Jun Ma, the chief China economist at Deutsche Bank, argued that the government needs “big bang measures,” including sharp reductions in coal usage and automobile demand and massive investments in clean energy, subways and railways.

Go Slow

The problem is political will. Flush with $3.3 trillion of currency reserves, China has the money to succeed. Yet almost any route it takes to go green requires slower growth. China’s leaders for the next 10 years, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, are under pressure to boost today’s 7.9 percent growth rate and placate a populace seething over income inequality.

Bulls assume China can emulate Britain’s success in overcoming the Great Smog of the 1950s, when airborne pollutants killed 4,000 people. Yet China is significantly more reliant on manufacturing than the U.K. was then. Also, enterprising politicians are making way too much money from the current structure to tolerate a quick shift toward a more services-based economy. That means smokestacks may continue to foul Asia’s skies for years to come.

China is reaching its physical limits, and the unchecked pursuit of economic growth now offers rewards that are compromised by environmental degradation. The strains are becoming a geopolitical headache that will reach a whole new level once PM2.5 becomes China’s main export.

Could pollution actually lead to military conflict, a possibility raised by Terry Tamminen, the author of “Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction”? I doubt it, but it does mean China has an even bigger challenge on its hands than growing fast.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek in Tokyo at wpesek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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