China Needs To Tackle Its Environmental Crisis Major cities, especially in the north, have become virtual gas chambers

By Paolo von Schirach

November 3, 2013

WASHINGTONThe Economist‘s cover story is about the upcoming plenum of the Chinese Communist Party during which (in secrecy) China’s leaders are likely to set a sweeping new policy agenda. The magazine strongly recommends that reform of rural communities, including local finances and farmers’ property rights, should be on top of the list, along with real reforms of the State Owned Enterprises, so that these inefficient and often money losing corporations will be transformed into something more modern. I fully agree. If China wants to become a market economy, these major deficiencies should be tackled.

Add the environmental crisis to the list 

But I would add the environment as an item that has to be at the top of any list. China’s rapid development, successful as it is, has taken place in almost complete disregard for any commonly accepted environmental safeguard. The outcome is unmitigated disaster. For example, many of China’s major metropolitan areas are now virtual “gas chambers”, with air pollution levels that routinely exceed the maximum level considered acceptable by all international health organizations.

Air pollution in Harbin

Here is an example of what happened recently in Harbin, (Northern China), according to NASA’s Earth Observatory:

“Some neighborhoods experienced concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) as high as 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter. For comparison, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards say PM2.5 should remain below 35 micrograms per cubic meter. It is extremely rare for particulate levels to reach that high in the absence of a dust storm or forest fire.

Chinese authorities grounded airplanes, shuttered thousands of schools, and closed major roads in response to the surge in pollution. A few days after pollution levels started to rise, Harbin hospitals reported a 30 percent increase in admissions related to respiratory problems, and several Harbin pharmacies were sold out of pollution facemasks, according to media reports.

Cold weather and the lack of wind helped fuel the pollution outbreak, but human factors also played an important role. Wheat and corn farmers in the region light fires in the fall to burn off debris following the harvest. Also, city officials turned on Harbin’s city-wide, coal-powered heating system just prior to the pollution outbreak, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.”

Imagine that: particulates levels literally off the charts. Hospitals besieged, schools shuttered, roads closed. Such an emergency situation may not be an everyday occurrence; but it is not uncommon in many large Chinese cities.

Can they fix this?

It is obvious that these are the poisoned fruits of China’s fast industrialization. At some point this situation will become untenable. But how can the Beijing authorities enforce strict environmental standards without shutting down most polluting industrial plants and power generation facilities? I am not sure that China’s leaders have an answer for this, but they better try their best.


, ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *