China has a dilemma.
On the one hand, popular protests due to increasing levels of pollution are an expression of growing unrest among China’s rising middle classes, all conscious of environmental issues.
Too Much Pollution
Pollution is a source of international shame that has prompted Beijing to take the drastic steps of closing down coal-fired power generation and coal-consuming heavy industry around cities hosting major events such as the Olympic games and flower festivals, so that the People’s Republic can show a clean face to the world.
On the other hand, that same coal is mined by some 5 million coal workers who have already come onto the streets to protest loudly and publicly about proposed rationalization in the industry and Beijing is nothing if not sensitive to public protest.
So, what to do? close coal mines and coal-fired power stations or keep them open and suffer the atmospheric pollution and health hazards that involves?
The answer, as with so much else in China, is export it so it’s someone else’s problem. In this case, the policy appears to have been to export the pollution and hence the problem westwards and centrally to less-affluent and less-populated areas.
According to the Financial Times, pollution has decreased in Beijing and Shanghai while it has increased in the interior. Beijing’s smog has been lifting, the average concentration fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) is down 28% year-on-year in the first three months of this year.
Shanghai, by comparison, fell by 12%, although it must be said Beijing’s at 67.7 microgrammes per cubic meter of air (µg/m3), although well behind the world’s most air-polluted city, New Delhi which recorded 153 in 2013, still remains well ahead of Hong Kong’s air at 21, or once-smog famous London on 16.
Pollution’s Down, But Some Cities Saw Increases
Overall, average PM2.5 levels across 355 Chinese cities surveyed fell 9% compared with the first quarter of last year, according to the FT, but the distribution is far from even with levels falling sharply in affluent eastern cities but rising in the west. Of the cities surveyed by a Greenpeace report, 91 saw air pollution intensify in the period year-on-year. The worst-affected were in China’s center and west, of which 69 cities saw air pollution increase an average of more than 20%.
This matters greatly to the citizens of those central and western cities, but should we worry? I’m not trying to sound callous, but is this not China’s problem? Well, apart from the humanitarian plight of the populations concerned, yes, we should be concerned for selfish reasons.
Public policy in China, particularly where it impacts commodity consumption such as industrial and power generation policy impacts us, too. It influences market demand and prices for a whole range of commodities and for the cost of production of goods manufactured in China, so, for across a spectrum of issues these developments have consequences for us, too.
China would claim that all countries which have gone through industrialization have suffered adverse environmental damage in the process and this is part of a regrettable, but natural, cycle. That is a spurious argument. The experience of eastern cities that have seen rapidly falling levels of atmospheric pollution shows that development and prosperity do not have to be at the expense of the environment and the health of the general populace.
Past generations, such as those living through London’s smog of the last century, suffered because there were no other technologies available for power generation, but today we have wind, solar, even natural gas would be a dramatic improvement on coal, so alternatives exist. In quiet recognition of this fact, Beijing is pouring billions into wind and solar subsidies, arguably leading the world in developing renewable power sources, but in the process power costs are rising and this will be an issue that will have significant consequences for the Chinese economy in the years ahead.