China vs. Pollution

Written by Camille Trinh and Liou He


Known as the world’s largest emitter of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide yet the greatest investor in renewable energy, China’s explosive growth is damaging its environment. It has not been until now that the government began to take aggressive action to tackle this problem. In April 2014, the government amended the country’s environmental protection laws and imposed tougher penalties for polluters. The law will establish „environmental protection as the country’s basic policy.”

graphchinaAccording to a report issued by the MEP (China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection), in the past two years, only 3 out of 74 cities were able to meet China’s new air quality standards. The MEP also indicated that pollution was most severe in the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei area (BTH). The average amount of fine particles, known as PM2.5 level (particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less, which can embed themselves deep in the lungs), and among these cities was ten times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended standard. China’s air pollution situation is “extremely severe” and has “long exceeded environmental capacity.”

As a popular joke goes in China, with thick noxious haze shrouding the cities, you can barely see your dog while walking it, but can only see the rope that is tied to it. Pollution has become the main cause of social unrest in China. People in China are unhappy because air pollution is leading to systemic damage to their health. In fact, life expectancy is supposed to decrease, especially in large, northern cities. Some Chinese people humorously remark that at least air pollution makes them more equal, since everyone is suffering, whether he is rich or poor.

To make matters worse, widespread air pollution has put extra pressure on China’s limited water supplies. In addition, the farmland is contaminated by pollutants such as cadmium and arsenic. All in all, China is now facing a massive environmental degradation which could, in return, wreck its economy.

Why is it that bad?

China has always been a resource-hungry dragon. The uneven distribution of its natural resources has only exacerbated the problem. The three main regions of Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei (BTH), Yangtze River Delta (YRD) and Pearl River Delta (PRD) that the current pollution action plan has primarily focused on, have occupied merely 8% of the country’s total area, but are responsible for 55% of national steel production and 52% of gasoline and diesel.

The country’s economic growth has long been fed by coal, which is also known as the main culprit in the degradation of air quality. Even though energy efficiency has improved, China still accounts for about one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The price of coal is cheap and China has been using coal to produce 69 percent of its energy.

Another reason is the staggering pace of urbanization. Over 55% of China’s population is drawn to urban areas by both the expectation of higher incomes and the scarcity of cropland relative to the rural population.  Since urbanization is seen as a crucial way of rebalancing China’s economy by increasing domestic consumption, it will be difficult to slow down its rate.

What has been done & what will the future bring?

As a matter of fact, several measures have already been put in place (you wouldn’t use the verb ‘to do’ with ‘measures’) to redress the environmental consequences of rapid industrialization and urbanization. In some big cities, vehicle restriction rules have been imposed in order to reduce car emissions, as well as decreasing traffic jams. Take Beijing as an example. Since the 2008 Olympic Games, it officially issued an odd-even car ban, requiring alternate driving days for cars with odd- and even-numbered license (the British term for this is ‘registration plates’) plates. This cut down the number of private vehicles by about a half. Moreover, Beijing was the first city to adopt car purchase restrictions. Since 2010, before people can purchase a car, they have to first win the right to do so, just like a lottery. Over the years, car restrictions have been covering more and more cities in China, with stricter controls.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared in 2013 at the Davos World Economic Forum that China won’t take the “treatment after pollution” formula and shouldn’t pursue economic growth at the expense of the environment.  Later that year, China’s National Action Plan on Air Pollution Control was published by the State Council, which included tougher standards, higher goals, and more concrete measures. The target sector is coal-fired power plants, energy saving policies and road transport. Hopefully, a new environmentally friendly China, led by new leaders, will impress the world with stringent laws for its environment.

Change is hard and change is slow. After all, implementation is everything.

Photo credit: Agustín Ruiz


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