A recent tongue-in-cheek video circulating in China is an imagined future of Beijingers, a response to the notorious smog decried as “airpocalypse” in Beijing and several northern cities in China. The video shows the young and the old, pets et al going about their daily tasks with one thing in common-long flowing nostril hair (a few feet long or more in some cases). The implication is that if the Communist Party (CPC) did little to reign in the deteriorating situation of smog (smoke+fog), the individuals themselves must: i.e, naturally adapt by growing nostril hair to filter emissions of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter (PM) out.
Though the video elicited laughs, it not only reflects the underbelly of China’s breakneck development but also rising citizen discontent-protestors are not students (as they were in Tiananmen, 1989), nor poor rural farmers and workers (as were through the spate of protests in the 2000s) but a cross-section of urban citizens whose dissatisfaction may be potent-bringing protests from the far rural countryside and rust belt into major cities such as Beijing and Chongqing. How then is the CPC responding?
In much of December, Beijing and its surrounds showed neither clear water nor blue skies, as the World Bank so wished for China in 1997. Worse still was the grey Chinese New Year with PM2.5 (fine breathable pollutants, said to be 100-times thinner than human hair) at 547 micrograms per cublic meter (the World Health Organisation (WHO) benchmark is 10 micrograms per cubic meter as annual mean and 25 micrograms per cubic meter as 24-hour mean).
Not just Beijing, but several northern cities have been affected, partly because the freezing-cold northern belt (also known as the “rust belt” because of concentration of iron and steel, machinery and automobile industries) use coal for heating, and then there are the industries in the region which use coal.
No surprises, that China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (overtaking the US in 2007) because it is heavily reliant on burning fossil fuels such as coal (over 70%) and oil (19%). In post-reform China (post-1978) its “energy consumption has ballooned, spiking 130% from 2000 to 2010”.
China is also the world’s largest coal producer (consumer and importer). The characteristic air-pollution in Beijing, as Chinese scholar Cao Hongfa says is “coal-smoke-smog”, resulting from coal combustion and insufficiently controlled industrial discharges. Another Chinese scholar Xu Xiping estimates sulphur dioxide emissions from coal combustion (which causes acid rain) stands at about 18 million tonnes a year for China (India is the world’s second largest emitter of sulphur dioxide after China). Sulphur emissions, as the World Bank reported (1997) was pre-eminent in southern China which uses high-sulphur coal.
Based on the Regional Air Pollution Information and Simulation Model-Asia (RAINS-Asia), “sulphur deposition already exceeds the critical load”. Today, acid rain impacts one fourth of China’s territory, as it does China’s neighbours, Japan and Korea included. Sadly, scholars have lamented that life expectancy in China’s north is down 5.5 years.
While Beijingers and Delhiites deal admirably with the persistence of smog in Beijing and Delhi, we often forget how lethal smog can be. London’s “Black Smoke” in December 1952 enveloped the city and brought it to a grinding halt. The causal effect was additional deaths, pulmonary and respiratory diseases. The other case of smog in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948 was equally damaging. Both incidents, are regarded as the turning points in environmental history; the sub-text was that industrial and domestic consumption of coal pointed to the writing on the wall.
Since then, situation has changed for good (in London) and bad, such as in several cities in Europe and Asia such as Copsa Mica (Romania), Pernik and Plovdiv (Bulgaria), Krakow (Poland) and Beijing and Delhi, of course. Several countries, such as China and India, embattle the onus of transportation, urbanisation, industrialisation and migration. And, then are the blues of development -relying on cheap and accessible sources of energy such as coal, (as America and England once did in their heyday of growth).
Thus, China does, as India does, depending on coal for its energy needs (in comparison Japan, the US and India account for 17%, 23% and 51% of coal for energy needs). Noted American scholar Michael McElroy has noted that 8.5% of the coal in China is used domestically, but an overwhelming part-63% and 26% is used in industrial applications and generation of electricity.
But it’s not just coal, but the sum of many factors (as above) that is the culprit. In 2004, American scholar Elizabeth Economy’s “The River Runs Black” in chronicling the slow death of the Huai River Valley (in eastern China) presented a larger reflection on China’s march towards deforestation, degraded grasslands, garbage, incomplete burning of bio-mass and increased emissions from transportation-the immense social cost of development, as we from Delhi to New York profit from cheap goods “Made in China”.
Fortunately, the author also chronicled China’s response to the crisis. China has developed institutional teeth such as National People’s Congress (NPC), the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and the judiciary.
Activists in China (less-known in India) and an array of NGOs with prominent figures such as Liang Congjie (who set up China’s first environmental NGO, Friends of Nature, but who is no more), Tang Xiyang (author of “ A Green World Tour” 1993), He Baochuan (author of “China on the Edge” 1988), Dai Qing (author of “Yangtze!Yangtze!”in 1989), Shi Lihong (associated with Green Plateau Institute) and Hu Kanping (editor of China Green Times) have decried China’s measure of growth based solely on economic statistics.
China’s CPC has passed several landmark environmental laws, such as the Environmental Protection Law (EPL) of 1979 and 1989. In fact, these firmly reiterate not only prevention but also the “polluter pays” principle.
A regulatory and legal framework has been created, but the problem in China, much like the Indian dilemma, is not policy per se, but lack of enforcement and loopholes. Like Delhi’s quagmire, “Made in Beijing” policies are implemented at the local level, across the spectrum of provinces, with great discrepancy or “diversity”.
Further, a finer reading shows that there are several grey areas in China such as the small and medium-sized Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) which have escaped regulatory compliance, as they are dispersed, small and located in rural areas. In fact, much like India’s “Green revolution” (1960s) that backfired going “brown” instead of “green” as anticipated, the jury is out on TVEs in China as bane, not boon.
And, while much is said about the investment that pours into China with Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea among others, setting up factories in China, it is said, that they do so, taking advantage of the laxity in environmental laws. Unfortunately, the Chinese say that it is a case of the tail chasing the head, as much of the pollution flies back, as acid rain.
Is there hope for China? China watchers say that part of China’s problem is using coal without desulphurisation. China lacks sulphur dioxide controls such as “ scrubbers” which make sulphur dioxide manageable turning it into easily disposable solid or liquid.
Today, there are also ways and means to negotiate coal dependency-with real pricing (which induces efficiency in usage) and technology such as better boilers and stoves. Pre-combustion methods such as coal washing (to reduce emissions) to post-combustion methods (such as cyclones and electrostatic precipators) to still savvier methods such as atmospheric fluidised bed technology (AFBT) and integrated gasification combined technology (IGCT) are said to address this-but at what financial costs, is unclear.
It is said that China follows “all of the above” strategy-harnessing fossil fuels as well as investing in renewable energy initiatives. But as the social costs of development unfold, China has begun taking active steps such calculating “green GDP”, partnering with technologies and companies for cleaner air and tightened the “polluter pays some more” principle.
Decidedly, short-sighted development aiming at short-term goals and regulatory loopholes do not come for free: the bane of air pollution has been causing such low visibility in several cities in China that one observer called China the “Land of Rising Smog”. India is “bhai-bhai” on this count with China.
In China, the CPC has announced a march towards “Two Centenary Goals”-to double GDP of 2010 by 2021 and and transition into a moderately developed country by 2049. But as China slips into a “ new normal” of lower growth, there is greater emphasis that growth should be slower but of higher quality.
Beijing’s “airpocalypse” is impacting both leaders and policy-makers, echoing in China’s 13th five year plan (2016-2020) paying heed to “coordinated development”, “green development” and “shared development”-which for now, is a foot in the right direction. But where it is going and what will come of it-is more critical, which will be watched by its citizens-a lesson that should not be lost on Delhi.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. She is the author of
“Finding India in China”.
Views are personal