Since the pace of economic development in Asian countries is much faster than that of the industrialized world, challenges related to poverty, environmental pollution and consumption — which are thought to be linked to different stages of development and have been faced by industrialized countries over a longer period of time — are confronting Asian cities within a short time span. In their quest for economic growth, a large number of Chinese cities have not paid sufficient attention to environmental pollution that often can be attributed to such factors as economic structure, technological level, political systems, governance capacity, institutional building as well as public awareness and social participation. China’s economic miracles over the last three decades have imposed enormous pressure upon the country’s already worsening environment and scant resources, with mounting ecological problems like air pollution, water pollution and shortages, soil contamination, desertification and loss of bio-diversity attracting close scrutiny from the Chinese government, domestic public and international community. To cope with some of these pressing environmental challenges, the Chinese authorities have tried to gear down its economic growth target to achieve the “new normal,” a low-growth threshold from which concrete steps can be made in curbing pollution.
Nevertheless, the chronic smog problems afflicting major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai have grown even bigger in the past few years when the country’s GDP growth decelerated from an yearly average of 10.5 percent for 2001-2012 to less than 7 percent in 2015. In mid-December 2015, smog in Beijing, the capital city of China, was so thick that the government was forced to issue a “red alert” for the first time, closing schools and limiting use of motor vehicles. About ten days later, a second red alert was issued when smog particles were reaching 20 times the level that is considered safe by the World Health Organization. Air pollution is killing an average of 4,000 people a day in China — as if “every man, woman, and child in China smoked 1.5 cigarettes every hour,” according to independent research group Berkeley Earth. The persistent smog problem has dealt a bigger blow to the credibility of the Chinese government than what the previous environmental crisis had done to China’s environmental politics. The toxic smog has angered residents, propelling the government and state media to report more openly on air quality instead of playing down the problem. Urban residents have been expressing their wrath on social media over the inaction of the government, as well as the economy-above-the-environment strategy taken by China in the past two decades. Zhong Nanshan, a renowned Chinese respiratory disease expert, claimed that every 10 microgram increase of PM2.5 (particulate matter with diameter ≤ 2.5 micrometers) per cubic meter of air from the normal level will lead to a 3.1 percent rise in hospitalization rate for respiratory diseases, and when the concentration of PM 2.5 rises above 200 micrograms, the average daily mortality rate for respiratory diseases may rise up to 11 percent. In addition to damaging the respiratory system, smog also affects the cardiovascular system, blood vessels in the brain, and the central nervous system.
Since environmental pollution has been deemed as an inevitable by-product of rapid economic development, it is often argued that China’s pollution level is now approaching the peak of a Kuznets curve, in which the developing country’s pollution level first increases during the economic takeoff stage, and then decreases after the country completes industrialization and starts to outsource much of its manufacturing activities. However, the exacerbation of China’s urban smog problem in the economic “new normal” has dampened many people’s wish for a cleaner environment in a low-growth economic scenario.
Actually, China’s deteriorating pollution problem is not merely a consequence of neck breaking economic development, it is also closely related to the unique way the country has been undertaking its massive urbanization as well as the existing implementation deficit in environmental governance and the inability of the administration to monitor and reduce pollution in this vast nation.
Air pollution is killing an average of 4,000 people a day in China, according to independent research group Berkeley Earth.
Like many other developing nations in the world, China is becoming more urban, with more than half of its population already dwelling in cities of various scales, most of which are being quickly industrialized and ready to absorb even more people from vast rural areas in the next two decades. As a consequence of poor urban planning, the swelling of residential population at an incredible pace has made many Chinese mega-cities, where local people suffer from traffic congestion, polluted air, water shortage and contamination, loss of greenery and land degradation, even less habitable. Most municipal governments, headlong in their pursuit for investment, infrastructure and local economic development, have failed to pay sufficient heed to growing environmental demands from their city dwellers, whose demand for a better ecological environment is often ignored in an authoritarian system. The experience of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union showed that growing environmental discontent often served as a catalyst for broader opposition to communist regimes. In China today, there remain limits to the openness of debates and to the room for societal action on certain environmental issues. However, the dividing line between those environmental topics that are and those that are not considered politically sensitive is constantly shifting and contested by societal forces, as well as by voices within the huge and heterogeneous state apparatus itself. The presence of social actors who can act as advocates for the environment and the integration of these non-governmental forces in processes of planning and policy-making can substantially enhance the opportunities for ongoing environmental transition.
The smog woes experienced by Chinese cities can also be attributed to the extensive use of coal, the growing number of motor vehicles, substandard petrol provided by state-owned oil companies and the local administration’s inability in curbing manufacturing sectors’ pollution and emissions. In fact, not only is China’s urban air pollution more serious than many southeast Asian cities whose per capita GDP levels are about the same or even lower, it is also above the pollution level of many western countries when they reached similar development status. China’s per capita gross domestic product is expected to reach US$11,000-12,000 by 2020, about the same levels as that of the US and Europe between the late 1970s and mid-1980s. However, the average PM2.5 concentrations in the US and EU at that time were about 18 to 25 micrograms per cubic meter, and their PM10 levels were 44 micrograms per cubic meter. In contrast, China’s 338 cities in 2014 recorded an average PM2.5 concentration of 50 micrograms per cubic meter and PM10 levels of 87 micrograms per cubic meter. This meant that if China wanted to lower its pollution levels by 2020 to that of the US and EU during their developing stages, it would have to halve its PM2.5 and PM10 levels in four years, a mission almost impossible to fulfill.
As the primary energy source, coal provides about two thirds of China’s energy needs, while crude oil, natural gas, and other low-carbon sources including hydro, nuclear and wind power accounts for about 19 percent, 4.4 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively. About 90 percent of China’s sulfur dioxide emissions and 50 percent of its particulate emissions are the result of coal use. Although Beijing has eliminated the use of small coal-fired boilers in downtown Beijing to reduce soot and sulfur dioxide emissions, coal is still allowed to be used in industrial facilities and large heating boilers in farther places. Coal makes up 40 percent of Beijing’s total energy consumption even though it is less dependent upon coal than other Chinese cities.
Hinterland provinces including Henan, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi provinces, notorious for their coal-fired heavy industries, have also a large part to play in China’s poor air quality. This means that controlling local pollutants alone will not be sufficient to attain air quality goal set for metropolitans. Of the 3 billion tons of coal consumed by China in 2009, about 47 percent was burnt for power generation, 7 percentage points higher than that in 2000. Beijing is surrounded by Hebei province, which is responsible for contributing between 50 percent and 70 percent of Beijing’s PM2.5 concentrations and 20-30 percent of ozone. A study shows that in the summer, Hebei, Shandong, Tianjin and Shanxi contribute 32 percent, 11 percent, 13 percent and 3.5 percent respectively to the PM2.5 concentrations in Beijing.
Another major source of urban smog is the fast-growing number of vehicles on the roads and the corresponding congestion problem. In 2009, China surpassed the US as the world's biggest car market; in 2012, the country’s auto sales hit 20 million units. About 40-50 percent of the major pollutants in urban air — nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and inhalant particulate matter — come from vehicle exhaust emissions.
Urban smog is an image problem as well as a health hazard for hundreds of millions of city dwellers. Many Chinese cities have taken ad hoc measures, including suspending construction projects, cutting back on burning coal, shutting down polluting factories and taking certain classes of vehicle off the roads on heavily polluted days to ensure clean air. Such temporary measures have reminded people of similar contingency plans rolled out before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which only have short-lived effect instead of offering a long-term solution to the smog problem.
Air pollution has been driving expatriates out of Beijing and other Chinese cities and making it harder for companies to recruit international talent in these cities. While local middle class families were also mulling the possibility of emigrating to other countries, such exodus caused by pollution concerns may become the government’s new angst due to its impact upon urban economy. In the long run, the slowing down of economic development will not be sufficient to solve the chronic pollution problem, which should be addressed with comprehensive socioeconomic therapies including the restructure of the economy and energy mix, the built-up of a full-fledged and open market economy, forceful government supervision over local manufacturing sectors based on rule of law, as well as improved institutional environment for the vibrant growth of environmental NGOs and effective media surveillance.