China Air Pollution

China air pollution is a topic of concern for everyone in the world. Because of its large population base, if it industrializes too fast, without putting proper pollution controls in place, the planet’s air quality could be damaged beyond our comprehension. The Chinese government needs to understand and act quickly to prevent the present levels of air pollution from getting worse. Attention needs to be given to the indoor air quality as well as outdoor air quality for the health of the Chinese citizens and visitors to the country.

China, in its efforts to become a global economic powerhouse, is rapidly becoming its biggest source of air pollution. If current trends continue, third-place China will soon surpass the U. S. as the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. China air pollution is becoming a big topic of conversation, especially with the upcoming 2008 Olympics.

China’s once agrarian economy is experiencing an industrial revolution similar to that which swept the United States in the 19th century. Tens of millions of workers are leaving the countryside for high-density urban areas, and erecting entire cities of factories which spew air pollution virtually without restraint.

China’s population is approximately four times that of the U. S. If China replicates the U. S. pattern of industrialization and air pollution, the result would be catastrophic not only for China, but for the entire planet. The prevailing winds carry air pollution across China and Southeast Asia, affecting megacities including the Chinese capital of Beijing, Hong Kong, and Bangkok in Thailand.

The eastern region of China, gateway to the American market that consumes Chinese exports insatiably, is littered with factory towns that specialize in goods ranging from socks to toxic chemicals. More factories are being built at breakneck pace, and their construction adds to air pollution in the form of dust.

China’s authoritarian government has enabled these changes to take place with startling rapidity. But the same iron-fisted control that gives the government great power to pollute allows it to control air quality with equal agility, given sufficient reason to do so.

Chinese officials imposed restrictions that took 800,000 cars off the streets of Beijing for three days in November, 2006. The result was a 30 percent reduction in the city’s automobile traffic and a 40 percent reduction in nitrous oxide emissions. Scientists worldwide were startled not only by the magnitude of air pollution reductions, but by how rapidly they were achieved.

China’s restrictions on Beijing drivers coincided with the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, held in Beijing November 4-6. Many observers believe the restrictions were a rehearsal for the Olympic games to be held in Beijing in 2008. National pride can often inspire action where common sense fails.

Beijing actually experienced 241 “good air quality” days in 2006, up from 100 days in 1998, according to Wang Wei, secretary general of the Beijing 2008 Olympics organizing committee. “We want to make sure the athletes have the best air quality,” Wang told the press in the spring of 2007.

But indoor air pollution remains the fourth greatest cause of deaths in China, killing 425,000 people annually, about 20 percent of all Chinese deaths. More than 75 percent of China’s rural population burns coal or biomass indoors for cooking and heating, according to a World Health Organization survey completed in 2006. While biomass use has remained stable, indoor coal burning has tripled in China over the past 20 years. Technological mitigations, such as stove improvements, have been more effective than public education campaigns in reducing exposure to indoor air pollution.

China has enormous potential to swing the fight against air pollution in either direction. Its strong central government must be persuaded that clean air is more than an occasional public relations tool, but an essential element of a world-class economy and a fundamental human right. With that understanding, the China air pollution situation will be an increasingly smaller problem.

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