7 Things You Should Know About China’s Pollution Problem

7 truths you need to know about China’s environmental notoriety.

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing for my return trip to Chongqing, China after a two-month vacation living at home with my parents in beautiful (albeit morbidly freezing) Fargo. While I’m reveling in the fact that I’ll be going to a place with weather over zero, I’m a little less psyched than last September when my boyfriend and I first left for China, with hearts full of hope and three suitcases full of dreams.

Hope and dreams aside, it’s principally the glamor of living in a foreign country that was crushed in the months that ensued after my arrival, during which I studied my brains out, Chinese style (I’m studying Mandarin – learning 30 completely different hieroglyphs daily and being tested on them the next), got to do my laundry by hand, and slept “comfortably” each night with my boyfriend on a lovely spring-loaded twin mattress.

The great thing about international travel is that you learn what you can truly live with (and without). In this case, I learned I can live with all of the aforementioned, plus long layovers, 14-hour flights, ten-times-crazier-than-New-York cab drivers, and much much more. In retrospect, I can even laugh about most things.

But this is what I can’t laugh about: pollution boogers.

I’m sorry, dear reader, but the thing I am dreading above and beyond all else, is waking up with my nose plugged full of black, coal-sooty, shall we say, “organic matter”.

You may have heard all about China’s pollution problems. You may know that China is the biggest net CO2 emitter, having overtaken the U.S. in 2007. You may have even heard that 16 of the world’s 20 most disgustingly grimy, unlivable, unbreathable cities in the world are in China. But nothing compares to actually waking up to the lovely smell of pollution.

Here are seven things you need to know about China’s environmental problems, from an un-seasoned, non-scientist, pollution-breather. For these purposes, forgive me if I wax a little more serious, but let’s be honest: this is serious stuff.

1.  The human cost of China’s pollution woes is concretely and directly related to astronomical cancer rates and unforgivably low quality of life in many areas.

Take a look at China’s infamous “cancer villages,” villages and towns in China where the entire population has experienced the effect of pollution-linked cancer either personally or inter-personally. These horrifying areas of China reflect the degree to which pollution has directly harmed not just the land and the air, but the people as well. Cancer is China’s #1 cause of death. Only one percent of Chinas 560 million urban dwellers breathe air that the European Union’s standards would consider breathable. While Cancer Villages are poor examples of the whole, they are microcosms of the thousands if not tens of thousands of towns and cities where China’s coal reliance, unclean industry and waste practices have left their mark by a layer of soot and grime that most Chinese treat as a standard feature of the urban landscape.

2. When individuals speak up about this human cost, especially if they tackle environmental problems as a human rights issue, they put themselves at great risk.

One risk is being targeted by rich factory owners and industrial moguls whose wealth is a powerful tool for bribery and an incentive to all around thuggery. The other, more remote but very crushing risk is being deemed subversive and inimical to state stability and becoming a political prisoner for it. It’s downright sad that the greed and corruption underpinning the risk of pissing off the powerful, undermines and reduces environmental advocacy and results in little to no change. It’s even sadder that beneath the risk of becoming a political prisoner there’s a fundamental irony: stifling the voices of people who don’t want heavy metals in their children’s food or have no desire to see their neighbors drop dead from pollution-caused cancer could, even more than letting people advocate for human and environmental rights, become a truer risk of social breakdown.

3. Most of the worst pollution is concentrated in comparatively poorer Northern and inland areas.

Collectively, these areas are the engine that is moving total economic progress forward. They are where coal (China’s life support) is mined, heavy metals are extracted, heavy industry is booming, and domestic goods are produced. They are also the nexus of growing inland-coastal inequality that correlates to urban-rural and poor-rich disparities. Heavily polluting industry is kept away from the wealth and health of coastal poster cities like Shenzhen, not to mention from the newly rich who live there and the tourists who come to see the glossy side of China. There are no aforementioned “cancer villages” on the Southern coast.

4.  The U.S. and China are both part of an import-export machine that drives the global economy, but goods aren’t the only thing we trade.

While the U.S. exports more and more black money-making chunks of carbon to fuel China’s coal dependence, China exports its fair share: acid rain and particulates. If you take a look at this graph, you can see that coal exports from the United States into China sky-rocketed from 386,950 tons in 2009 to 4,071,837 tons in 2010. That’s more than 10 times in one year, proof that pushing to green public policy is not enough- we need to be global. That’s not all, if you’re reading this in Los Angeles, you’re breathing multinational pollution, and some of it is from China. As the New York Times put it, “China’s problem has become the world’s problem. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides spewed by China’s coal-fired power plants fall as acid rain on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo. Much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China, according to the Journal of Geophysical Research.” 

5. The central government actually has some comparatively brawny environmental regulations, hefty fines for non-compliance, and significant investments in green technology, and to a degree, it’s helped. But it’s not the whole story.

While a degree of mistrust is certainly appropriate, for the most part media reports about China’s greening efforts are reporting the truth. In 2009, China’s state council ambitiously stated that it plans on reducing its carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 (from 2005 levels). Its newly released 12th, five-year plan  (China’s centrally-designed map toward continued progress in 2011 to 2015), clearly indicates a continuing commitment to reducing its environmental issues, including big investments in green energy aimed at kicking its carbon habit and expanding what’s now in place. For example, China has not only overtaken the U.S. in carbon emissions, but according to the Guardian, it has also left the U.S. in the dust with its wind-power generating capacity. 

Here’s the part where we tend to fall prey to China’s image machine: While the central government is by all appearances trying, it isn’t trying that hard. The problem is that centrally designed incentives for local governments are structured around the economy not the environment. Social (re: economic) stability (re: growth) trumps environmental concerns. If a regulation will harm the local economy–say the expense of alienating factory owners by forcing them to put caps on a factory’s smokestacks, a local official just won’t follow it. And the central government, big investments aside, just isn’t willing to change its incentives.

6. Most Chinese feel for the environment and recognize that its destruction is a bad thing, but hope for continuing economic ascension trumps the fear of environmental decline.

Just as in the United States, when it comes to daily decision-making, whether it be by average, everyday people or by high level local officials and factory owners, “the bottom line” is what most people think about. And the bottom line in China is this: Now is the time to get rich (er, “moderately prosperous“) or die trying.  While the die trying part will likely come from destroying the environment, the reward is success in a society that desperately wants to prove its global clout after a century and a half of humiliation by Western powers. 

It’s also important to know that there’s just not the same level of “green” awareness in China as there is in the West and Japan right now. For example, in Chongqing there is a series of slogans run by the charismatic and well-connected mayor called “the Five Chongqings,” which are five visions of Chongqing’s future that are meant to guide its development into a global metropolitan city. One of them is translated into English as “Green Chongqing,” that is, a Chongqing with more trees. More trees is good, but the goal is not necessarily undertaken from an environmental standpoint. In this case, the vision is aesthetic. More trees means a prettier city that more people will want to visit, which means more tourism, and more inflow of capital.

While an expanded notion of “green” and an expanded sense of responsibility toward the environment would be great, most Chinese don’t see themselves as having the luxury to place that above its long economic project that has to date raised millions and millions of people out of abject poverty. And as far as they’re concerned, that project is nowhere near complete.

7.   We are implicated, and in a more complicated way than you may think. It goes without saying that China’s industry produces our products and supports our consumption. There’s no denying it. Just go to Wal-Mart and check every plastic thing you can find. But while we cannot escape this fact, self-flagellation isn’t quite the right response either. Our imports from China have been the linchpin in China’s export machine, the very mechanism that has supported the incredible feat that some call China’s miracle; its aforementioned poverty-elimination project. 500 million Chinese escaped poverty between 1981 and 2004, and in just the 3 years after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, poverty was cut by another 3rd. Our consumption, while we often lament its destructive facets, is a huge part of China’s ability to make that happen.

Let me put it in real terms: Tomorrow I may wake up with black boogers, but in a few months I’ll go home to my country, go to Target, and buy a Chinese-made plastic storage bin so I can organize all of the crap I bought while I was in Chongqing. And while I’m fueling the environmental cause of the current source of my sticky goober dread, I’ll be contributing to a global supply chain that is exploitative, harmful, and has performed the previously unimagined feat of building for my Chinese friends a system in which they can support themselves economically without the need of a communist leadership to give them an “iron rice bowl.” Oh, the ambivalence.

Images: Justin D, Lance Webel, Robertg6n1, blacksmithinstitute, malouenfrankinchina, J_Ensley