Beijing’s most vexing problem isn’t the slowing economy, corruption or social harmony. It’s dirty air. A thick blanket of smog blows into urban areas in China, home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, sending frantic citizens to their mobile phones to check air-quality levels. Pollution is shortening lives in the world’s most populous nation and, by some accounts, is the main cause of social unrest. It’s providing a pervasive reminder of the trade-offs at the heart of China’s transition from developing country into prosperous, modern nation, forcing the Communist Party to balance the rush for economic growth against the threats to life and health. Can China clear the air?
Public concern exploded last year as the skies over Beijing grayed. Levels of PM2.5, the tiny particles posing the greatest risk to human health, were stuck at hazardous levels for a week this year and peaked at 35 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit in 2013. Trapped in a cloud worse than most airport smoking lounges, the capital’s 21 million residents donned face masks, kept their kids indoors and complained on social networks. State-backed media provided surprisingly critical coverage of the crisis and foreign outlets called it an “airpocalypse.” Discrepancies between official air-quality readings and those from the Twitter feed of the U.S. Embassy’s rooftop monitor helped push the government to provide more real-time data from around the country. A pile of recent studies have also raised alarm bells. One report said people in northern China may be dying five years sooner because of air pollution-linked diseases and another linked pollution and lung cancer. Chinese authorities responded, shutting smoke-belching steel mills, limiting the number of cars and unveiling more investments in solar and wind power. Meanwhile some Chinese and expatriates left the country or moved south, where they were followed by record levels of pollution in December that grounded planes. The pollution blew into Japan and contributes to smog as far away as California.
Air pollution has been killing people since the dawn of industrialization, and China’s is no worse than London’s 19th-century pea soup or Japan‘s smog of the 1960s. Yet more is known about its risks now, and global warming raises the stakes: China overtook the U.S. as the biggest source of greenhouse gases in 2006 and has put the globe on a path to exceed United Nations targets for the rise in the Earth’s temperature. Yet with coal still providing about 65 percent of China’s energy, it will take years to reverse its dependence on polluting fossil fuels. As the issue threatens to expand from small pockets of environmental activism to a public obsession, China’s leaders have pledged to be less secretive, vowing not to repeat mistakes that cost them public trust during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and a tainted milk scandal in 2008. China’s contaminated water and soil are also prompting more public worry, along with food and drug safety.
While the scale of the problem is massive, so is China’s top-down response. It’s the world’s biggest spender on clean energy, experimenting with carbon markets and building more solar capacity in 2013 than the total installed base in the U.S. President Xi Jinping said in February that air pollution was Beijing’s “most prominent” challenge, even as polls suggest social security and anti-corruption measures remain the top concerns of citizens nationwide. Is China at a point where the cloudy air might temper the country’s ambitions? At least seven provinces have lowered their goals for economic growth for 2014 amid pressure for air pollution controls. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection is challenged by other powerful bureaucracies and must battle local officials and other vested interests to ensure government directives are followed.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg Visual Data map of China’s air pollution and coal plants.
- The World Bank and Development Research Center’s report on China 2030 and the World Bank’s 2007 research paper on the cost of pollution in China.
- The World Health Organization’s topic page on air pollution.
- Website providing unofficial aggregation of China’s air quality data.
- Economist magazine report on China’s environment.
- Greenpeace campaign for reducing air pollution in China.