Both the Chinese economy and its people are choking. The reason for this is pollution, which costs the country 6,5 percent of its gross domestic product … and well over a million lives per year
Assuming you’re sitting somewhere in South Africa while you’re reading this article (a fair hypothesis unless you’re reading online), I’d like you to do me a big favour. Walk outside. Breathe in the air. Take a huge, deep breath. Enjoy!
Right now, I envy you. I cannot do that – because I’m in Beijing, which is one of the most polluted cities in the world. I arrived two days ago and my host gave me two welcome gifts: a hug and a respiratory mask. “Really? You want me to wear this?” I asked.
“Well, you don’t have to. They’re not compulsory. Some stupid people don’t wear them,” she responded.
At least my mask is a pretty shade of pink, but I hate the damn thing. It makes my face all hot and sweaty. I feel as though I cannot breathe and you cannot see me smiling, so I look permanently grumpy.
Still, the other option (not wearing the mask) doesn’t really hold much appeal. I would never have considered a mask on my previous visits to this city, but – this time around – things are different. After all, the air quality here in Beijing is now 16 times worse than New York City. It just feels stupid NOT to wear the silly little thing.
The locals call it “fog” or “smog” – depending on who you’re speaking to, but, irrespective of whether you call it fog, smog or pollution, it’s now totally out of control. The World Bank states that, out of the
20 worst cities (in terms of air quality) in the world, 16 are now in China.
Furthermore, it states that only one percent of China’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by European Union standards. Things are especially bad in north-eastern China. In fact, a recent study done by the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the amount of airborne suspended particulates in northern China are almost 20 times what WHO considers to be a safe level – which is kind of scary.
You can actually see the pollution; it’s like a dull haze that permeates the cities. On some days, it’s very hard to see across the street. Sometimes the airports in Beijing and Shanghai need to be closed due to poor visibility. It’s impossible to see a car that’s four or five car lengths ahead of you; the vehicles just disappear into the “fog”. (I’ve seen so-called “clean air country tours” being advertised; I can certainly understand the appeal…)
It’s not just a visual problem; the “fog” is killing people. Chinese government sources now concede that about a fifth of urban Chinese breathe heavily polluted air regularly. As a result, over 1,6-million people die in this country each year. It’s easy to understand why when one looks at the global figures pertaining to greenhouse gas emissions; China is now the largest emitter by far (it passed the United States in 2007 and, thanks to the growth in its economy, it has galloped along happily, spewing more and more emissions into the atmosphere each and every year).
Where is all this pollution coming from? Well, coal is the number one source of air pollution in China (the country derives 80 percent of its electricity and 70 percent of its total energy from coal). A whopping six-million tonnes of coal is burned every single day to power factories, heat homes and cook meals!
The burgeoning number of cars on the roads isn’t helping either – the number of electric vehicles (e-bikes, electric motorcycles and electric cars) is increasing, but there are still millions of vehicles with combustion engines on the roads.
Then there is the massive industrialisation; even in big cities, I’m seeing factories pumping pollution into the (already grey) skies. Urbanisation is compounding the problem, too. (The government wants to have more than 60 percent of the Chinese population living in cities by 2020, up from 36 percent in 2000.)
The situation is now so bad that it’s going to be extremely hard to fix. Some say that China doesn’t even want to fix the problem – my host tells me that 155 new coal-fired power plants were approved here last year, and that the country has been underreporting its annual coal consumption.
Still, there are some moves afoot to address the issue. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), since January 2014, the central government has required 15 000 factories to report real-time figures pertaining to air emissions and water discharges. Importantly, this has also been applied to the large state-owned enterprises.
The government has also pledged to spend US$ 275 billion (R3,9 trillion) to clean up the air via various programmes. Furthermore, China is one of the biggest investors in renewable energy, investing nearly US$ 90 billion (R1,3 trillion) in 2014 as part of its pledge to cut its carbon intensity (far outspending the United States’s US$ 51.8 billion (R730 billion).
Some 2 500 so-called “polluting firms” are being shut down in Beijing this year alone. Additional measures include the use of mist cannons (which shoot a spray into the air to disperse smog particles), the deployment of carbon-tracking satellites that track and reduce carbon emissions, and the development of artificial intelligence to predict bad pollution.
Experts believe that the country’s move towards a service-based economy will reduce emissions, too.
Is it a case of “too little, too late”? Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the CFR, says: “It’s too early to tell if the war on pollution is working, but the intention is there. Top leadership has made a commitment to address the problem for the first time in decades.”
In the meantime, I think I will stick to wearing my mask…