Battling Pollution in China

No country in the past has emerged as an economic superpower without leaving behind a trail of environmental damage that would take years and years of effort, along with a lot of money, to undo. For China, just as their robust growth has never seen a parallel in history, neither have their pollution problems. Environmental degradation in China has reached such a level that pollution has become a long-term burden for the Communist Party.

The problems that the pollution brings with it are already apparent in China. Cancer is now the leading cause of death, as specified by the country’s Ministry of Health itself. Air pollution itself can be blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year, in short making the pollution problems as large scale as the Atomic Bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It is estimated that nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water, and that only 1 per cent of the urban population gets to breath the air that the European Union would consider safe. Beijing had to frantically search for ways to lower the pollution levels to host a successful Olympics, in the end resorting to measures such as temporarily shutting of factories and lesser usage of private vehicles.

China’s problems are becoming the World’s problem. Studies show that they would become the leading Greenhouse Gas emitters within the next couple of years. Acid rain in Seoul and Tokyo has been blamed on the coal-fired power plants, and much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China, as per the Journal of Geophysical Research.

China is choking on its own success. The economy is on a historic run, posting a succession of double-digit growth rates. But the growth derives, now more than at any time in the recent past, from a staggering expansion of heavy industry and urbanization that requires colossal inputs of energy. Most of the government’s targets for energy efficiency, as well as improving air and water quality, have gone unmet. And there are ample signs that the leadership is either unwilling or unable to make fundamental changes.

While it is true that most nations have had to face the challenges posed by pollution and environment degradation only after they have become rich, it is vital that China tackle the issue now itself. China needs to come up with its own model, which would allow them to chase economic growth without harming the environment. The need of the hour is not to be shortsighted, and look at the long term implications.

Checks need to be put in place to ensure that the mines and factories closed down by the Centre remain closed, since many have been reportedly reopened thanks to the Provincial officials.

Alternative energy needs are of great, great importance, since China relies on coal for two-thirds of its energy needs. This needs to change, and can be done so by the use of Solar and Wind power. Something on the lines of UNEP’s Solar Loan programme, which helped 100,000 people finance solar power in India, needs to be implemented. The programme was a success in India, and has since led to similar programmes in other parts of developing world like Tunisia, Morocco, Indonesia and Mexico.

Expanding car ownership, heavy traffic and low-grade petrol have made autos the leading source of air pollution in major Chinese cities. Subsidies need to be put in place for lower polluting cars, like hybrids and those run on cleaner fuels, like CNG.

Beijing has declined to use the kind of tax policies and market-oriented incentives for conservation that have worked well in Japan and many European countries. This needs to change.

Monitoring of pollution of all forms in China needs a revamp, since some major air pollutants like Ozone aren’t well-tracked.

Delay in bringing about a major change in China’s policies could lead to a scenario where the environmental crisis there becomes irreversible. At this time, it is important that the other countries support China in handling this problem instead of criticizing it, and at the same time, it is important that the opposition understand the severity of the situation, to stop defending China, and be a friend and help them realize that, for China, the time is now to save itself from the turmoil that it faces.

Raveesh Bhalla

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