A documentary film on China’s filthy skies similar to “An Inconvenient Truth” drew more than 100 million viewers online, returning the spotlight to the issue in early 2015. It was later removed from websites as the nation’s lawmakers gathered for their annual conference. Public concern about air pollution exploded last year as Beijing’s levels of PM2.5, the tiny particles posing the greatest risk to human health, were stuck at hazardous levels for a week and peaked at 35 times the World Health Organization’s recommended limit. 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 also raised alarm bells. One report said people in northern China may be dying five years sooner because of air pollution-linked diseases and another linked pollution and lung cancer. Chinese authorities responded, raising the fuel tax, shutting smoke-belching steel mills, limiting the number of cars and unveiling more investments in solar and wind power.
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. In November, China closed factories and limited traffic to clear the skies before the APEC summit of world leaders, as it did before the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
While the scale of the problem is massive, so is China’s top-down response. In November, it agreed for the first time to set a goal for when its carbon emissions will peak. China is the world’s biggest spender on clean energy, is 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, even as polls suggest social security and anti-corruption measures remain the top concerns of citizens nationwide. 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
- “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.