Extreme Air Pollution Levels In Beijing Indicate A Deep Environmental Crisis In China – Can The Country Grow The Economy While Spending Hundreds Of Billion To Fix The Environment? A Huge Political Challenge For The New Leaders

By Paolo von Schirach

January 12, 2013

WASHINGTON – News reports indicate that Beijing air pollution is off the charts. In the last few days air quality has been so bad that municipal authorities invited people to stay indoors.

Air pollution Beijing

How bad is bad? According to international standards, any reading of PM 2.5 particulates below 50 means good air quality. Anything about 300 is hazardous to human health. Well, readings in Beijing in the last few days topped 500. Readings at the monitoring station located at the US Embassy gave a whopping 845.

In simple language, this means that Beijing residents live in the functional equivalent of a toxic waste dump. Of course, these are extreme readings, tied to the largely unpredictable interaction between pollution, temperature, prevailing winds and what not. Air quality will not stay this bad indefinitely.

Environmental crisis

But these readings indicate serious trouble ahead. Air and environmental degradation in China are not the fruit of bad lack or random events. They are the cumulative results of decades of unrestricted and unregulated economic development. The goal was economic growth. And by all measures it was achieved. But nobody cared about the side effects.

Fast forward to today in you have a paradox. China is doing immensely better. As a result of decades of 10% a year economic growth, there is now a large and vibrant middle class. People who own homes, cars and who can take vacations abroad. Except that they live in a highly polluted country. And it is obvious that in China pollution represents a real and immediate threat to health.

Paradox: more money, unhealthy living conditions

And so, here is the actual paradox. With efforts and sacrifice, the middle class emerged. But now it cannot enjoy a higher quality of life simply because the economic development strategies that delivered growth and prosperity did not take massive environmental damage into account.

Because of all this, environmental quality, a sensitive issue in most developed countries, is potentially explosive in China. So much so that the Chinese authorities until not too long ago refused to provide the PM 2.5 air quality readings –the international standard that measures the truly hazardous microparticulates in the air. In other words, they did their best to hide the truth of the atrocious air quality levels prevailing in most large Chinese cities. They used different metrics that gave essentially false readings of mostly good or fair air quality. It was only after a long campaign engaged by bloggers and other groups that the authorities gave up.

Today they publish the real data. And the emerging picture is grim. Beijing has a population of about 20 million. Shanghai has 25 million. All in all, China has more than 160 cities with population above a million. Many of them have air pollution problems. The urbanization phenomenon continues, and so will air quality issues.

Can the environment be fixed?

Combine health issues in cities with toxic waste that has been dumped in rivers and on the ground for over three decades and you get the picture. China achieved incredible economic growth results in just 30 years, a world record. But the price paid has been horrendous; and now people want change that can be delivered only through massive investments.

Balancing growth and quality of life issues

Going forward it will be more and more difficult to meet growth targets while trying to improve quality of life through higher environmental standards. So difficult that in some instances, short of closing down industrial facilities, coal fired power plants and severely restricting automobile traffic, it may be outright impossible.

Good luck to the recently empowered Chinese new leaders who have inherited this mess. Finding a path to sustainable growth that will include the protection of public health may also be the only way for their political survival.

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