The city “by reason of the excessive coldness of the air, hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of…coal, that hardly can one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one would scarcely breathe.”
The description could fit many a modern northern Chinese city on a coal-heated winter day. It happens that the author, diarist John Evelyn, was writing about London in the 17th century – a good reminder that choking on growth is nothing new. Indeed, Monet captured London’s haze when painting there in the late 19th century:
But for those of us doing the choking today, it’s still a favorite topic of conversation. We are survivors together. We are amazed we, along with millions of other Chinese city-dwellers, can breathe this stuff and live to tell the tale. Some of us avidly check the US embassy in Beijing’s Twitter page, which relays real-time readings from two air quality monitors kept on embassy grounds, in eastern Beijing – just a mile or so from my home. Today (Dec. 3, 2010), a relatively clear day, my view from my kitchen window looked like this:
The air quality reading at the time was 175 – or “unhealthy” on the international scale for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers. That’s the stuff so small it can only be seen with an electron microscope, so small it can lodge in your lungs and other organs, and cause serious long-term health problems. In cities, such pollution comes mainly from vehicle exhaust and coal-fired power plants.
On that same international scale, 300 is considered hazardous – as in, close the schools, stay home, and try not to breathe too much, hazardous. The international scale goes up to 500. In mid-November, the reading on the US embassy monitors was 520, and the same view out my kitchen window looked like this:
It would be comforting to think of this as fog, and some Chinese do. The Chinese weather forecasts certainly like to call it that. But this is really more like the Victorian “fog” that gave a hint of romanticism to Sherlock Holmes, striding in his cape, sucking on his pipe, or a cover for Jack the Ripper, or set the scene for Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, in which at one point he talks about November smoke from coal that seemed to cause “the death of the sun.”
There was talk, over time, in 19th and early 20th century London, of taking steps to clean up the factories and reduce emissions. But economic growth came first, and coal was the fuel driving it. Dramatic and lasting change didn’t come until after the “fog” of all “fogs.” Here’s a glimpse of what it looked like:
Five days of intensive smog in December 1952 caused 4,000 deaths more than would have regularly occurred during that period, with another 8,000 deaths above the normal level over the next two months. Four years later, Britain passed its Clean Air Act, and the famous and seemingly permanent “London fog” of the industrial age retreated into memory.
China now has the same kind of economic ambition and has made many of the same choices as Britain did more than a century ago – grow first, use coal, worry about the environment later. The example of Britain – and of the United States after its own Clean Air Act helped save lives and reduce health care costs – shows what political will, with the regulations and enforcement to back it up – can do, and how quickly it can work.
To the credit of Chinese policy-makers, they’re not waiting as many decades as both Britain and the United States did to start trying to clean up their act. Although still at a much lower level of GDP per capita – they’ve set a goal for China to use 45 percent less energy per unit of GDP by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.
China’s leaders have also introduced a ladder system of electric fees, so consumers pay more per unit as they use more. They’ve been experimenting with clean(er) coal technologies, doubling wind energy use every year for the past five years, and ramping up solar energy – although, consumer subsidies and a standard feed-in tariff would ramp it up even faster. They’re also building nuclear power plants and ever more dams – both of which have significant environmental issues of their own, but at least don’t increase the emissions that take lives early and contribute to climate change.
These are all positive steps, and by any measure, a significant change for the better. The nagging question is whether they’re enough.
Although China aims to reduce emissions per unit of GDP, its overall emissions are expected to continue to grow, along with its economy, until at least 2030, and possibly until 2050. Much of that growth is centered on heavy industry, dominated by the large state enterprises the Communist Party tries to protect. In addition, some 350 million Chinese are expected to move from rural areas to cities, where, on average, urban dwellers use 2.5 times more energy per capita than rural dwellers. Current projections say that means a huge amount of new climate changing CO2 emissions – and that’s not even counting what a growing India, might contribute to emissions, or Brazil, or Russia, or Africa, whenever more countries there gain economic traction.
The official Chinese response to this is, “look, we’re being a lot more responsible than you Western countries were, when you were developing. We’ve just come a little late to the table. But that doesn’t mean we don’t get to eat.”
But those same Chinese policy-makers are, every day, breathing the kind of air you see in the Beijing photos above. So are their kids, and grandkids. Whatever they say in public, in forums like the climate change talks in Cancun, their actions show that they’ve already begun to rethink how much economic growth is worth the long-term cost to the environment and human health. By some calculations, including by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, those costs almost wipe out China’s GDP growth.
Much comes down to political will. Giving the right incentives to improve energy efficiency and use cleaner energy, and sufficient penalties to those who don’t, could yet help China clean up long before 2050. If it does, the world – and especially residents of China, whose lungs will no longer be quite so inflamed – will have reason to breathe a deep sigh of relief.