Choking China


For many people in China, the most visible problem isn’t the country’s slowing economy, corruption or social harmony. It’s dirty air. China is home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, and when its thick blanket of smog blows into urban areas, frantic citizens pick up their mobile phones to check air-quality levels. Pollution is shortening lives in the world’s most populous nation and, by some accounts, is the main cause of social unrest. It’s providing a pervasive reminder of the trade-offs at the heart of China’s transition from developing country into prosperous, modern nation, forcing the Communist Party to balance the rush for economic growth against the threats to life and health. Can China clear the air?

The Situation

China closed factories and limited traffic to clear the skies for a military parade to commemorate World War II in Beijing Sept. 3 , as it had before the APEC summit in November 2014 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Earlier in the year, a documentary film on China’s filthy skies drew more than 100 million viewers online before it was scrubbed from websites. Public concern about air pollution exploded in 2013 as Beijing’s levels of PM2.5, the tiny particles posing the greatest risk to human health, peaked at 35 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit.The city’s air was stuck at hazardous levels again for a week in early 2014. Trapped in a cloud worse than most airport smoking lounges, the capital’s 21 million residents donned face masks, kept their kids indoors and complained on social networks. State-backed media provided surprisingly critical coverage of the crisis and foreign outlets dubbed it an “airpocalypse.” Discrepancies between official air-quality readings and those from the Twitter feed of the U.S. Embassy’s rooftop monitor helped push the government to provide more real-time data from around the country. A pile of recent studies have raised alarm bells. One report said people in northern China may be dying five years sooner because of air pollution, and another said it kills 4,000 people a day. Other research has linked pollution and lung cancer. Chinese authorities responded, tightening environmental laws, raising the fuel tax, shutting coal-burning power plants, limiting the number of cars and unveiling more investments in solar and wind power.

Source: Greenpeace using Chinese government data and U.S. EPA standards
Source: Greenpeace using Chinese government data and U.S. EPA standards

The Background

Air pollution has been killing people since the dawn of industrialization, and China’s is no worse than London’s 19th-century pea soup or Japan‘s smog of the 1960s. Yet more is known about its risks now, and global warming raises the stakes: China overtook the U.S. as the biggest source of greenhouse gases in 2006 and has put the globe on a path to exceed United Nations targets for the rise in the Earth’s temperature. Yet with coal still providing about 65 percent of China’s energy, it will take years to reverse its dependence on polluting fossil fuels. As the issue threatens to expand from small pockets of environmental activism to a public obsession, China’s leaders have pledged to be less secretive, vowing not to repeat mistakes that cost them public trust during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and a tainted milk scandal in 2008. China’s contaminated water and soil are also prompting more public worry, along with food and drug safety. China’s air pollution blows into Japan and contributes to smog as far away as California.

The Argument

While the scale of the problem is massive, so is China’s top-down response. In November 2014, it signed a historic agreement with the U.S. to limit greenhouse gasses and promised for the first time that its carbon emissions will peak around 2030. China is the world’s biggest spender on clean energy; It’s experimenting with carbon markets and built more solar capacity in 2013 than the total installed base in the U.S. President Xi Jinping said in February 2014 that air pollution was Beijing’s “most prominent” challenge. Is China at a point where the cloudy air might temper the country’s ambitions? At least seven provinces lowered their goals for economic growth for 2014 amid pressure for air pollution controls. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection is challenged by other powerful bureaucracies and must battle local officials and other vested interests to ensure government directives are followed.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg Brief’s special report on China’s air from May, 2015.
  • “Under the Dome,” a documentary film by former China Central Television reporter Chai Jing.
  • Website providing unofficial aggregation of China’s air quality data.
  • Rand Corp. report from 2015 on the costs of policies to address China’s air pollution.
  • Greenpeace campaign for reducing air pollution in China and the World Health Organization’s topic page on air pollution.
  • Bloomberg Visual Data map of China’s air pollution and coal plants.
  • The World Bank and Development Research Center’s report on China 2030 and the World Bank’s 2007 research paper on the cost of pollution in China.

First Published March 5, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Natasha Khan in Hong Kong at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Leah Harrison Singer at