Persistent Heavy Smog In Beijing Off The Charts Foul air triggered open debate about new economic model. Growing the economy while preserving the environment? More easily said than done after 30 years of degradation

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WASHINGTON – I wrote recently, (see link above), that Beijing’s dismal air quality signals a tough road ahead for China’s economic development and for its Communist Party managers. Indeed, under Party supervision, impressive growth was achieved in large part because of total disregard for environmental protection. The unanticipated byproduct of runaway development is heavy smog in Beijing and elsewhere.

Bad quality of life

Fixing the damage accumulated over 30 years of unrestrained development will be difficult and costly. In the meantime, bad quality of life for millions of Chinese compelled to breathe foul or below acceptable quality air will build unrest and resentment against the Communist Party, supposedly the wise steward of unprecedented growth and prosperity.

New York and Beijing, different stories

Two figures, 50 and 800, illustrate the point. 50 is the PM2.5 reading of air quality in New York City a few days ago. According to accepted international health standards this reading indicates very low levels of particulates. The air in NYC is safe. 800 is the reading in Beijing in the same time frame. Again, according to the same internationally accepted standards, readings above 150 indicate danger; while anything above 500 would constitute a public health emergency. If 500 is really bad , how bad is 800?

Chinese media now report

The situation in Beijing is now so dire that even Chinese official media had to report it and comment on it. No way to downplay this emergency. The English edition of The Global Times has an article titled “Smog could aggravate winter flu, say experts”. Another headline in the same paper reads “Dense smog envelops East and Central China”. This piece says that air pollution got to be so bad that it triggered “calls from the public to shift the country’s development model away from the previous fixation on economic growth”.

Yes, nice idea. But how can China get to a new sustainable model that will properly balance growth and environmental protection? The NYC air quality reading of 50 as opposed to 800 in Beijing is not a fluke. It is the outcome of more than 40 years of US policies, (controversial at times), aimed at safeguarding the quality of the air Americans breathe.

How to fix this mess?

To put it mildly, China has a lot of catching up to do. The super heavy smog blanket enveloping Beijing these days is the result of coal-fired plants emissions, industrial fumes, car exhaust, and more.

Most of China’s power generation is fueled by coal. Most of the power plants are old and dirty. Not much happening in China regarding Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). All in all, moving away from coal to other cleaner sources of power generation while enforcing tough emission standards for all industries –all this in the world’s second largest economy, with a population of 1.3 billion– is a monumental task.

Unsustainable growth

Much to their surprise, the Chinese are discovering that their development model is not sustainable. Getting to a new one in which growth takes place within proper environmental safeguards, while cleaning up the mess accumulated over decades, will be very, very expensive. Resources previously devoted to increase industrial capacity will have to be diverted to improving quality of life. Therefore, expect an economic slow down in China.

And all this assumes good policies in place and the will to enforce them, while the public patiently waits for improvements.

Now people know

In all this the only piece of good news is that at least the information about air pollution is now publicly available. Let’s not forget that until very recently the Chinese authorities refused to publish real data. Now the data is out there, the media report abou it, and the public knows.

That said, fixing the problem while people openly voice their unhappiness is not going to be easy.

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