China's impressive economic growth has been fueled by a wealth of factors, one of which is a rather nonexistent view of environmental regulation. That China is willing to raze mountains (as is the US, of course) is as old a story as those about Chinese cities' incredible smog problems. But is Beijing tired of being called out by the World Bank for presiding over 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities? For the moment, it looks like it.
According to local reports, many Chinese cities have been swathed in air pollution to start the new year. To counter that, officials first announced new plans to curb auto emissions, including limiting the use of official cars. That's a step towards countering the effects of China's booming auto economy. China has been the world's largest producer and market for automobiles for four years running. From Xinhua:
China will take effective measures to limit the total amount of nitrogen oxide emitted by vehicles and intensify supervision over the production, use and elimination of motor vehicles, said Tao Detian, spokesman for the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
The ministry will make more efforts to step up urban public transport development and promote the use of clean energy to cut vehicle exhaust, which is the main factor contributing to the smog in cities, Tao said.
But wait, there's more. Officials have also ordered construction projects and factories in Beijing slowed or closed until air quality improves. According to China.com.cn, "Construction was suspended at 28 construction sites and 54 businesses reduced their emissions by 30 percent, with Beijing Hyundai Motor Company halting production on Sunday, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau said."
It's all designed to counter a rise in respiratory illnesses being reported by Chinese hospitals and, surprisingly, being covered by Chinese press. China also instituted real-time monitoring of air quality to a stricter PM2.5 standard in 74 cities on January 1st. PM2.5 measures the amount of particulates in the air sized smaller than 2.5 micrometers, which are small enough to deeply penetrate lungs, and thus are considered more hazardous than the larger particles measured under older PM10 standards. A PM2.5 reading over 25 parts per cubic meter is often cited as the threshold at which air quality becomes unsafe. Last week, Beijing readings regularly topped 700, a level higher than the U.S. embassy's own system tops out at.
While the new concern over air quality has health officials and the general public feeling more optimistic, others are wondering whether China's pollution problem will hamper its steady growth, which is projected at 8.1 percent for 2013. From an economic standpoint, shuttering factories because people can't breathe isn't a great sign.
But neither is dealing with the incredible health and human costs of air pollution. According to a report from Greenpeace and Peking University's School of Public Health released in mid-December, deaths attributable to high levels of PM2.5 pollution totaled an estimated 8,572 in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi’an and Beijing in 2012. The total economic losses in those cities during that span was estimated to be $1.08 billion.
That cost is nothing to blink at, and it's one that's will only get worse of air quality doesn't improve. So while leaving construction sites and factories idle is a blunt short-term solution, Beijing needs to look at healthier long-term growth drivers–giving up coal, developing cleaner facets of China's economy to counter its heavy reliance on manufacturing, construction, and infrastructure development–if it wants to develop a more sustainable economy. I mean, booming sales of air purifiers can only last so long.