On Jan 13 2013 the air pollution index in Beijing catapulted far ‘beyond index’ peaking (according to a report by Adam Minter) at an astonishing reading of PM2.5; 933. This far surpassed a previous headline inducing high, when in 2010 the person at the US Embassy in charge of posting air quality information grew startled that the index was moving above the hazardous line. With no more descriptives left on the chart, the US official in Beijing tweeted that air in the capital was ‘crazy bad’ which sparked a minor diplomatic incident (and inspired one of the more creative labels for the latest atmospheric event: ‘Beyond Crazy Bad’)
Much has been written about Beijing’s most recent airpocalypse (Louisa Lim of NPR is one of the best people covering the story). Yet, almost all of the commentary on the thick blanket of smog that engulfed Northern China, (and subsequently spread South) insisted that the heavy pollution is an inevitable consequence of high-speed economic growth. The implication being that if China is to seriously address its environmental problems it must slow down. While the causes of toxic air that plague China’s cities – industry, cars, and construction — are all, of course, tied to economic development, the assumption that environmental disaster is the necessary consequence of a high-growth economy deserves, at the very least, to be questioned.
Regardless of any potential environmental benefits, most would agree that it is hardly desirable to return to a pre-industrial state (even if this were possible). Few voluntarily leave behind the warmth, connectedness and conveniences of modern life. From this state of privilege it is hard to begrudge those who, when faced with a record cold winter and no other energy sources, burn coal to stay warm.
What, then, is to be done?
One clear culprit of China’s air pollution is the ever-increasing use of automobiles. As an urbanist, I would love to see this drastically curtailed — few things are more destructive of city life than having all the urban arteries clogged with automobile traffic. Yet, beyond a direct impact to the car industry (which may be offset by a move to clean tech), is it really the case that reining in the use of motor vehicles would result in negative growth to the overall economy? Strategies for curbing car use include road tolls, gas taxes and other economic incentives (Shanghai auctions off its limited car licenses. The latest ones sold for over 70 000 RMB each!) These counter-measures need to be coupled with mass investment in public transport (one of the best things about new Chinese metropolis), as well as a libidinal turn ‘back’ to more greener modes of transport (which makes the ubiquitous use of e-bikes (see Evan Osnos Green Giant) as well the recent embrace of bikes by China’s super rich highly encouraging. But does this transformation in urban transportation really necessitate slower economic growth?
A day after Beijing’s air calamity a cold front blew into Shanghai. This, along with the emergency measures implemented in the capital (including insisting that officials stop being chauffeured around) meant that for a brief period at least, Shanghai PM2:5 readings overtook Beijing’s. Stepping on to the Shanghai streets during these periods of high intensity haze it was immediately apparent that by far the most important factor in China’s horrendous air quality is coal – on days when the PM2.5 reading is high you can smell, feel and taste the burning soot. Coal was also, as many have recently noted, the source of the Great Smog or Big Smoke of London 1952, which prompted the Clean Air Act . Many now hope that Beijing’s air on Jan 13th will function as a similar turning point. But, again, is the best path to alternative energy sources really slower growth? Isn’t it more likely in fact, that the opposite is the case and that the conversion from coal to natural gas and other clean energy sources becomes increasingly likely the more wealthy the country gets?
In the ten years I have been here, Shanghai has become not only richer but cleaner and greener as well. This is most obvious along Suzhou Creek, which not that long ago was widely known by its nickname ‘the smelly river.’ The waterway was so clogged with pollutants that it would, on occasion, spontaneously burst into flames. This is not an argument for complacency. As Jeff Wasserstrom wrote for Slate the environment has become one of the most politically contested zones in urban China and undoubtedly one of the critical challenges for the country’s new regime. One of China’s great priorities is a cleaner, less toxic environment. My bet, however, is that it is a dynamic high growth economy, not an economic slow down that will, ultimately, enable those of us who live in China’s ever-expanding megacities, all to breathe easier.