Record-breaking pollution in Beijing and other environmental problems in China are the result of unchecked government power, one of the country’s former top environment officials has said.
On 12 January, Beijing’s pollution hit a nauseating 755 on a US Environmental Protection Agency-designed 0-500 scale. Below 25 is considered the safe daily level by the World Health Organisation. Stores sold out of anti-pollution face masks, flights were delayed and hospital respiratory wards were overrun with coughing patients. Internet users called it the "airpocalypse".
"I have to admit that governments have done far from enough to rein in the wild pursuit of economic growth, and failed to avoid some of the worst pollution scenarios we, as policymakers, had predicted," Qu Geping, a top environmental protection administrator from 1987 to 1993, told the South China Morning Post.
Qu said that Chinese authorities could have pre-empted the crisis by adhering to a 1983 policy "stipulating that economic and urban construction should synchronise with environmental protection". Yet they haven’t, and the country’s air, water and soil continue to deteriorate. "Why was the strategy never properly implemented?" he said. "I think it is because there was no supervision of governments. It is because the power is still above the law."
One week after that chart-busting Saturday, Beijing proposed new measures to combat pollution, including increased fines for excessive vehicle emissions and factory shutdowns on particularly bad days. But experts say the sheer scale and diversity of the pollution’s underlying causes means that Beijing residents may not be able to breathe freely for decades.
Deborah Seligsohn, an expert on China’s environment at the University of California, San Diego, said that there is no silver bullet for the country’s air pollution. The underlying causes are dynamic and diverse: power plants, small factories, automobile emissions, rampant construction, farmers burning coal for heat. "One of the things about the air quality in Beijing is that it varies a lot more than it used to," she said.
Beijing’s air quality fluctuates with the weather – a strong wind from the north can blow the smog to sea, she said, while south-eastern winds trap the air against a nearby mountain range, drowning the city in a pea-soup haze.
During the "airpocalypse", levels of PM2.5 – a type of particulate matter that can burrow deep into the lungs, causing serious health effects – rose to 993 micrograms per cubic metre in Beijing, according to the US embassy’s pollution monitor, the highest since the embassy began measuring the city’s air quality in 2008.
"The thing about PM2.5 is there are four different sources: chemical reactions from sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, and black carbon [soot]," said Seligsohn, "so you need to regulate a large number of sources to solve the problem."
Beijing has taken significant steps to combat pollution – it invested an estimated bn before the 2008 Olympics to raise emissions standards, replace residents’ coal stoves with natural gas heaters, and relocate a ring of steel plants on the city’s outskirts. Yet Beijing still shares its airspace with six surrounding provinces which may not adhere to comparable environmental standards.
"One of the fundamental problems is that the environmental regulators don’t have sufficient authority and resources to overcome the forces that are creating the pollution," said Alex Wang, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on China’s environmental law.
The US embassy’s air quality readings in the past elicited strong protests from Chinese authorities, whose official readings were dramatically lower. Until a flurry of newspaper reports cast light on the discrepancy in late 2011, state-run media typically downplayed heavy pollution by calling it "fog".
This month’s crisis has been different. Authorities quickly introduced emergency anti-pollution measures – they ordered 30% of government cars off the roads, halted construction in some areas of the city, and cancelled outdoor grade-school gym classes. "How can we get out of this suffocating siege of pollution?" asked the Communist party mouthpiece People’s Daily in a front-page editorial.
Analysts say that the transparency could be a precursor to change. "What everyone is wondering is, will this be the ‘silent spring’ moment?" said Wang. "People have been wondering that in China for a long time."
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