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China: the US circa 1970

Though famously dynamic, centralised and booming China is an environmental crisisJennifer Duggan in Beijing 

Heavy smog has shrouded a number of Chinese cities since the start of the new year as air pollution reached off-the-chart levels.  The ‘airpocalypse’, as it was dubbed by Chinese microblog users, resulted in the cancellation of flights, a rise in the number of patients attending hospital with respiratory problems and a shortage in shops of masks and air purifiers.

The recent air pollution has covered “a large swathe of northern and eastern China” says Alvin Lin, China Climate and Energy Policy Director with the National Resources Defence Council in Beijing. “A lot of it is tied to a very coal-dependent development model – coal fuels 70 percent of China’s energy use”.

Levels of PM2.5 pollution – fine airborne particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less – reached an alarming 993 micrograms per cubic metre in the capital Beijing on 13 January, believed to be the highest level since the recording of air-pollution levels in the city began. This type of pollution is considered to be the most dangerous, as the fine particulates lodge deep within the lungs and enter the bloodstream. According to the World Health Organisation, a reading above 100 is unhealthy for sensitive groups and a level of 300 is considered to be hazardous, while the air-quality scale itself has a maximum reading of 500.

The US Embassy in Beijing has since 2008 measured air pollution levels on its rooftop and publishes the results throughout the day on Twitter, using US Environmental Protection Agency standards to describe the levels. The figures are stark with its Twitter feed describing the air quality as “beyond index” on a number of days in January. On a previous occasion in 2010, when the air pollution reached levels above 500, an inventive embassy worker whose general China-friendliness is not recorded described the levels as “crazy bad” on the feed.

The Chinese government initially disapproved of the US embassy providing air-quality information and called on foreign embassies to stop publishing what it described as “inaccurate and unlawful” data. But the authorities have since bowed to public pressure and have begun measuring and publishing PM2.5 levels in Beijing and a number of other Chinese cities.

Steven Q Andrews, an environmental and legal consultant working in Beijing, says the move by the Chinese authorities to measure and publish the PM2.5 levels is a welcome one, but that issues still remain. “One is how accurate are the data that are being reported. And the other is how the data are being described to the public.   Bad levels continue to be described as excellent air quality”.

“The descriptions are far different from those the World Health Organisation or the US Environmental Protection Agency would use. That is part of the reason the US embassy monitor had such a big impact,” he said.

The authorities in Beijing announced plans to try to reduce air pollution in the future which included cutting the number of cars on the roads and shutting factories when the air-quality levels dropped. However, such measures will have “some minimal impacts”, said Alvin Lin as “overall you have an economy that is so focused on heavy industry”.

Worldwide, China is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, releasing around twice as much carbon per unit of energy produced as even the squandersome US. It emits around 10 billion tonnes of carbon – though some say up to 20% more – annually compared to not much more than half that in the US; and emissions per head are around 7.2 tonnes by comparison with around 17 in the US and 10 in Ireland. In 2011, China’s total greenhouse gas emissions rose by 9 percent and it now accounts for around a third of the world’s total emissions. China plans to reduce carbon intensity by 17% from 2011-2015, which means an annual reduction of roughly 3.5%, even though it has no obligations under Kyoto – although it is a signatory. China aims to reduce its carbon intensity by 40-50% by 2020 relative to 2005 figures, a target that is spurring an increase in demand for renewable, efficient energy.

China’s environment has paid the price for the country’s rapid industrialisation and economic boom. The World Bank estimated in 2007 that China has 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

Coal, which powers factories and supplies electricity in China, accounts for almost 20 percent of the country’s pollution. According to a new study carried out by consultancy firm Ecofys for Greenpeace, a planned coal-mining expansion in China’s western provinces which aims to increase coal production by 620m tonnes by 2015, will generate an additional 1.4bn tonnes of CO2 emissions a year by 2020.

This ‘airpocalypse’ has led to renewed public concerns and has put the government under pressure to take action. It received unprecedented attention and debate in Chinese state news media which usually avoids addressing the issue of pollution. Over recent years the number and size of large-scale protests over environmental concerns have increased in size and frequency. Many citizens take to the internet to voice their concerns. Social media such as the Chinese microblog site Weibo have made it easier for the Chinese public to air their opinions and criticism, something which is generally not encouraged. “There is sort of a silver lining to these very serious pollution situations we are having,” said Alvin Lin. “There is a lot more public recognition, awareness, discussion, criticism and even humour on Weibo”.

Some citizens have taken creative approaches to highlighting pollution and environmental issues. Michael Zhao is editor and founder of the website, ‘China Air Daily’, which provides a daily record of pollution levels in a number of Chinese cities and compares them with cities in the United States. The difference between the cities is striking with buildings in Beijing and Shanghai barely visible through the smog while the skies in Chicago and New York are blue and clear.

The idea for the website “came from a simple idea that taking a picture every day is a direct way of seeing what the pollution looks like,” said Michael Zhao. “If you look at the pictures of Beijing, at some times of the year the air pollution is really bad”.

While China will find it difficult to move away from coal power, it is also one of the world leaders in renewable energy. It is the world’s largest wind power market and has more than doubled its installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2011 China accounted for one third of the world’s total 1.7 billion tonnes potentially avoided carbon emissions from renewable energy use.

China has planned reasonably well for its growing population, though obviously central planning militates against democratic input into urban-planning decisions.  In 2005 Bertie Ahern boomily fancied their no-nonsense planning regime: “I would like to have the power of the Mayor [of Shanghai] over highways: if he wants to by-pass an area he just goes straight up and over”.

With 1.3bn people, China has four times the population of the US within roughly the same area. China’s urban population is growing rapidly; between 1950 and 2009, the percentage of the population living in urban areas quadrupled from 14% to 48%. The central government has established a tiered planning and legal system to guide urban development and construction in accordance with the national economic plan through master plans, something Ireland perhaps failed to do during its boom with its toothless national spatial strategy. The model for fast-growing urban areas is the global city. China has pioneered eco-cities like Tianjin which is guided by 26 ‘Key Performance Indicators’ for quality of life, and Dongtan; with spectacular modern architecture. Meanwhile, the undynamic rural population is declining, opening the landscape in areas that are not urbanized. Rural Chinese typically live in small scale urban settlements of about 500 to 700 persons each, with men travelling daily by horseback or bicycle to a nearby plot of land. Often, entertainment and social activities are agglomerated in the larger urbanised settlements that are often planned to service roughly twenty-five surrounding hamlets. From 2010 to 2025, it is estimated by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development that 300 million Chinese now living in rural areas will move into cities.

The Center for American Progress has described China’s environmental policy as similar to that in the United States before 1970. Dysfunctional indeed. Where this places it relative to Ireland might require analysis by an eco-psychiatrist.