Nearly 40 years of impressive economic growth in China has offered higher incomes and more promising lifestyle opportunities to a rising middle class. However, this new prosperity has come at a significant price, as unrelenting pollution challenges threaten nationwide public health and stability. In an analysis conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), China was ranked the deadliest country in the world for outdoor air pollution, revealing that more than one million people died in 2012 from dirty air. This, compared with 600,000 air pollution-induced deaths in India—number two in the WHO rankings—illustrates the severity of the problem faced by China.
China’s uncontrollable pollution issues, which also include severe water contamination problems in rural regions and growing food safety concerns, have been caused predominantly by excessive dependence on coal-fired manufacturing plants. The benefits have long been clear, as using this cheap—yet environmentally harmful—fossil fuel source has enabled China to achieve major development targets and become the world’s second largest economy in an extraordinarily short amount of time. However, this preference for fossil fuels has also made China the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter and leading contributor to irreversible climate change effects. Suffocating pollution—measured as PM2.5 (particulates 2.5 microns in size)—directly penetrates the lungs and enters the blood stream, causing cancer and various respiratory and cardiovascular diseases that can lead to premature death.
Prevalent in urban and rural regions alike, China’s persisting air quality challenges are inciting growing unrest among a national population that is increasingly resistant toward this highly undesirable aspect of modern Chinese life. Mounting public dissatisfaction—compounded by rising international expectations that China fulfill its Paris Agreement commitments—is putting pressure on Beijing to craft a national development agenda that more comprehensively takes into account environmental considerations.
Social backlash toward these problems is manifesting itself in a variety of forms. Chinese have taken to social media, including Weibo—China’s Twitter equivalent—to discuss and complain about this nationwide problem, while sales of heavy-duty facemasks and household air filters are growing rapidly. Many citizens, increasingly affluent as a result of a steady four decade-long rise in income, are paying higher premiums to live in cities and regions where environmental conditions are safer and healthier. Those with enough money are choosing to emigrate China altogether for the US, Canada, Europe, and other Western countries to avoid exposing themselves and their children to polluted air and contaminated water and food. Life satisfaction surveys in China indicate that, despite rising consumer spending power and improving middle class amenities, large numbers of Chinese remain unhappy, many citing unrelenting pollution as a primary reason.
Recognizing these emerging social trends, the Chinese government has recently begun taking steps to address the problem. China’s State Council, declaring pollution as one of the greatest threats to public health, has pledged to establish what it calls the “strictest environmental protection system”—monitoring construction projects, noise and atmospheric pollution, soil and water quality, and the rural environment. This new system, part of China’s broader “Healthy China 2030” strategy published last week, proposes to identify high-risk pollution zones, while creating a unified disclosure platform for environmental information. The plan—which confronts other social/health challenges in China such as dirty drinking water, public sanitation, smoking and alcohol abuse, infant mortality, gender imbalance, chronic disease and psychological illness, and traffic deaths—intends to raise average life expectancy in China from 76.3 in 2015 to 79 by 2030.
Unlike the 2000s, during which time research reveals that Chinese government agencies often manipulated data to offer more desirable pollution readings, sharper competition in the market for accurate environmental information has led Beijing to publicly acknowledge actual pollution levels and commit to new solutions. Additionally, the State Council announced last week that China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection will oversee a working group administering the country’s second national census on pollution sources, beginning in December 2017. According to a circular signed by Premier Li Keqiang, the government will employ remote sensing satellites and drones to collect accurate data for the census, while those who falsify or refuse to submit pollution figures will face legal consequences.
These census and air quality reporting requirements are admirable and represent an important step in the right direction. However, proper enforcement will prove more challenging. In the same week that the State Council announced these census compliance measures, five officials from a local environmental protection office in Xi’an were detained after investigators discovered they had manipulated smog level readings by jamming cotton gauze into their air pollution monitors. This latest scandal, occurring in one of China’s largest metropolitan centers, suggests that achieving a comprehensive environmental monitoring system by 2030 is a tall order. It also demonstrates that, in addition to establishing and maintaining higher pollution control and public health standards, the national government must institute a new culture that incentivizes provincial and local governments to prioritize environmental stability and social prosperity over ambitious economic development targets.
Working to meet its global climate commitments, while also reassuring its people that this daunting challenge is being tackled thoughtfully, China faces an uncertain environmental future. Yet, capable of transitioning from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest in a span of less than 40 years, China has proven an ability to accomplish impressive national goals. Should China, in fact, find the will to successfully enforce its improving environmental protection and energy saving standards over the coming years, there is no telling what type of progress it might achieve. Given the dire condition of China’s present environment, however, such progress will remain merely a hope for time being.