January 28, 2008

Facing Internal and External Pressures, China Looks to Improve Pollution Issues

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On one day in late December, the view from an airplane window at the Beijing airport was clouded by air so thick with pollution it was white. Walking out of the airport was like walking into a crowd of smokers, intensified by the large numbers of people smoking cigarettes as they waited in lines for cabs and buses.
The following day, the pollution ranked 500 out of a maximum 500 on a government scale. About 10 years ago, Beijing developed the Blue Sky days program to monitor air pollution above the city. The highest rating in the Blue Sky system is 500, but the pollution level could actually be higher than the rating system goes. [img_assist|nid=26889|title=Smoky sunset.|desc=A view from a train shows a polluting factory. Photo: Matt Hintsa|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]
The city aims to have as many days score below 101, called “Blue Sky” days, as possible. Just two days after the scale hit 500, Beijing met its target goal of 245 Blue Sky days in 2007, Reuters reported. This number is a great improvement over the approximately 100 Blue Sky days in 1998, according to The New York Times.
Reuters also noted that the Blue Sky standard is not widely accepted by international scientists.
Beijing, home to approximately 13 million residents, has been considered one of the most polluted cities in the world since the 1980s. Efforts to control pollution started soon afterward, and have been a major focus of the city government since 1997. After Beijing won the 2008 Olympic bid in 2001, the city further increased its environmental efforts.
Many factories have been moved outside the city or closed altogether, and emissions caps have been instituted. [img_assist|nid=26890|title=Gotta go.|desc=Traffic fills Beijing’s streets. Photo: Matt Hintsa|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Auto emissions are rising quickly, however. In 2004, The People’s Daily reported that the city had two million vehicles; The Beijing News reported this month that that number is now up to 3.3 million.
Vehicle traffic is less of a problem in Shanghai, where license plate tags are much more expensive; the tags cost 5,000 yuan (about $690) in Beijing compared to 35,000 yuan (about $4,900) in Shanghai.
Though the subway system is being expanded, the public transportation system is already overburdened, deterring officials from discouraging vehicle use.
Moreover, exponential growth in the construction industry — in Beijing and all around China — has created more pollution and causes. In Beijing alone, since 2002 more than 1.7 billion square feet of new construction has been started, according to The New York Times. Most of the buildings in the heavily populated areas of the city appear to have been built in the past 10 years.[img_assist|nid=26891|title=Careful crossing the street.|desc=Bikes, mopeds, buses and cars share the street in Shanghai. Photo: Matt Hintsa|link=node|align=right|width=|height=0]
Growth on farms has also increased quickly, causing more water pollution, according to Vice President of Southeast University Yuepu Pu, who studies public health. Conversely, he added, the government has invested $10 billion for a water tablet treatment system in Shanghai.
In urban areas, China has been expanding urban sewage treatment and developing more green spaces. Recycling programs have also been implemented, especially in Beijing, where most public trashcans also have sections for recyclables.
While the country is still dependant on coal energy, nuclear plants are being built, and natural gas is increasingly replacing coal furnaces.
U.S. Consul General of Shanghai Kenneth Jarrett ’75 attributes much of this progress to pressure from the population on the government. There has also been consistent international pressure to improve air quality in Beijing for the Olympics.
Not all of the outlooks for China’s pollution problems have been optimistic, however. One government report found that pollution and environmental degradation cost the country $200 billion a year, China Daily reported in 2006. Research at Peking University argued that in 2002, airborne particles contributed to about 25,000 premature deaths in Beijing, The New York Times reported.
Internal and external pressures to improve environmental conditions have spawned conservation programs, but the pollution issues facing China are far from eradicated.