For many people in China, the most visible problem isn’t the country’s slowing economy, corruption or social harmony. It’s dirty air. China has more pollution-related deaths than any other country. When its thick blanket of smog blows into urban areas, frantic citizens pick up their mobile phones to check air-quality levels. Pollution is shortening lives in the world’s most populous nation and, by some accounts, has been the main cause of social unrest. It’s a 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. President Xi Jinping has pledged to unleash an “iron hand” to protect the environment. Can China clear the air?
Progress tackling air pollution has begun to slow after almost two years of continuous improvement, according to Greenpeace. Beijing signaled its first red pollution alerts — the highest on the scale — in 2015 then another in late 2016. One-third of China's cities opened 2017 by issuing smog-related health alerts, as off-the-scale pollution readings were recorded in industrial provinces such as Hebei. Public concern exploded in 2013 when Beijing’s levels of PM2.5, the tiny particles posing the greatest risk to human health, peaked at 35 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit. 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 a crisis that foreign outlets dubbed an “airpocalypse.” Health studies have raised alarm bells. One report said people in northern China may be dying five years sooner because of air pollution, the WHO estimates that more than 1 million Chinese died from dirty air in 2012, while another study put the tally at 4,000 deaths a day. Other research links pollution and lung cancer. Chinese authorities responded, tightening environmental laws, raising fuel tax, shutting some coal-burning power plants, limiting the number of cars and unveiling more investments in solar and wind power.
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 helped 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 two-thirds of China’s energy, it will take years to reverse the nation’s dependence on polluting fossil fuels. China’s leaders have pledged to be less secretive and 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 public worry, along with food and drug safety. China’s air pollution blows into Japan and contributes to smog as far away as California.
While the scale of the problem is massive, so is China’s top-down response. It signed a historic agreement with the U.S. in 2014 to limit greenhouse gasses and promised for the first time that its carbon emissions will peak around 2030. China is the world’s biggest clean-energy investor and will introduce a national carbon market in 2017 and an environmental tax targeting heavy industry and mining companies the following year. Yet it's still adding coal capacity, with enough projects to build a new plant every week for nearly seven years, according to Greenpeace. Is China at a point where the smoggy air might temper the country’s ambitions? At least seven provinces 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 Brief’s special report on China’s air.
- “Under the Dome,” a documentary film by former China Central Television reporter Chai Jing.
- Website providing unofficial aggregation of China’s air quality data.
- Rand Corp. report from 2015 on the costs of policies to address China’s air pollution.
- Greenpeace campaign for reducing air pollution in China and the World Health Organization’s topic page on air pollution.
- Bloomberg Visual Data map of China’s air pollution and coal plants and a live graphic showing how much carbon dioxide the world is churning out.
- 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.
First published March 4, 2014
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