Earlier this year Chai Jing shone a spotlight on the issue of China pollution with the self-funded documentary Under the Dome. Chai wanted to learn about the causes of China’s pollution problems so spent one year interviewing heads of local environmental protection bureaus and Chinese environmentalists.
The result was a 104-minute documentary that explored the general public’s lack of awareness in regard to reducing their carbon footprint, the absence of environmental protection legislation in China and the failure of local governments to implement existing environmental rules.
In 2010, the Chinese government conducted its first national pollution census. This study involved 570,000 people and collected 1.1 billion pieces of data from nearly 6 million sources of pollution. The study took two years to complete.
Heavy air pollution has long been a side-effect of strong economic growth. Though China is the worst offender right now, the study showed that most Chinese cities are no more polluted than Japan’s were in 1960.
China has grown unusually fast but it’s simply following a pattern set by Britain, America and Japan from previous generations: ‘grow first, clean up later’. By 2020 The Chinese government hopes to get 20% of its energy from renewables.
Below I’m going to look at 11 facts about pollution in mainland China. Everyone has heard in the media that China is terribly polluted, but I’ve set out to look into the details myself. I believe the facts speak for themselves.
1) In 2013 an article in the medical journal The Lancet claimed that between 350,000 and 500,000 people a year in China die as a result of air pollution. The highest estimates say that this figure goes up to 750,000 people. Using the highest figure this works out to be 0.01% of the population of China that die due to air pollution.
A 2012 study by MIT says that in Britain 13,000 people a year die from air pollution and 200,000 people in America die from the same cause. This means that 0.02% of the population of Britain die as a result of air pollution and in America it’s 0.06% of the population.
2) As mentioned, air pollution is a common problem for developing nations. 70% of the air pollution in Chinese cities is caused by exhaust from car tailpipes. Air pollution is not a recent phenomenon in the world. In 1952 between 8,000 and 12,000 people died due to The Great Smog of London.
3) While Beijing makes plenty of headlines because of its bad air pollution, it isn’t the worst offender in the world. The world’s most polluted city is New Delhi in India. The five worst cities in America for air pollution are all in California.
In fact the American Lung Association report that 40% of Americans breathe unhealthy air with California the worst offending state. Around 25,000 people a year in California die from air pollution or around 0.06% of the population of that state.
4) China is the world’s biggest consumer of energy. In 2013 3.6 billion tonnes of coal were burnt in the country. 300 million tonnes were burnt in Hebei Province alone, the majority burnt for the steel industry.
Although China is the biggest consumer of energy overall, America is still by far the biggest per-capita energy consumer. The average American uses five times as much energy as the average Chinese person.
5) One problem in China is that there are obstacles preventing individuals from legally challenging environmental problems. The Civil Procedure Act means NGOs in China don’t have the right to file a legal claim or be a legal entity in a lawsuit meaning only 1% of environmental disputes go to court.
However, a new environmental law recently brought in says that as long as an organization has been involved in environmental protection for five years and does not have any criminal records, they then have the right to act as an entity in a lawsuit.
This signals that there is a change in attitude towards pollution in China with as many as 700 environmental organizations now having the right to challenge offending organizations. As we move into the future these new laws will be tested.
6) According to a Harvard Business Review article from 2010, China is investing about 75 to 100 billion USD each year in clean energy. This is part of the ten-year plan between 2010 and 2020.
7) China and Germany are leading the “race for a Green Economy” according to a 2010 Deutsche Bank report titled The Green Economy: The Race is On. The same report says that America, “lags behind, where political debates over climate change-related policy actions are hindering opportunities and leadership in this space”.
8) In 2010 China held the top spot in the world as the leading investor in low-carbon energy technology, so reported US Pew Environment Group. This suggests that China sees clean energy as a “great economic opportunity”.
9) China accounted for almost 50% of all manufacturing of solar modules and wind turbines in 2010. 47% of all wind energy investments globally were also made by China suggesting that the leaders of the country want to tackle the pollution problems so prevalent in the media.
10) A report titled China: Asia in Focus from 2010 stated that the Chinese government has a national goal of reforestation with 23% of the country covered by forest by 2020. Between 1990 and 2010 China’s forest cover increased from 12% to 18%.
11) In 2008 China banned stores from handing out free plastic bags. All shops, supermarkets, and department stores now charge for plastic bags and the State Council hopes people ‘use baskets and cloth sacks’ instead.
So there you have it, an alternative look at China pollution.
Although there are pollution issues in China it’s probably no worse than the problems that countries such as America, Britain and Japan faced when they were industrializing.
The Green Economy
With regards the drive for the green economy, I think this is something the Chinese government is taking seriously, but the proof is in the pudding as they say.
Although the electric car market is increasing with Chinese firms like carmaker BYD accounting for 40% of this market, the electric car share of the overall Chinese car market is still just 0.45%.
But the fact that BYD has around 800 electric taxis that operate in Shenzhen shows that efforts are being made to reduce air pollution in some of the most industrialized cities in China.
Living in China I see the effects of the ‘green economy’ on a daily basis with most people using alternative forms of transport like ebikes and other environmentally friendly forms of transport.
Cover image: www.huffingtonpost.com