China’s economy has grown around 9 to 10 percent for the last 20 years. One of the side-effects of this economic miracle is extreme environmental damage: Pollution in China is by now legendary, but the full picture is still emerging. On March 2nd, Chai Jing, a Chinese journalist and writer, released a documentary about air pollution that she produced herself “Under the Dome”. By March 3rd, 2015, the film had been viewed more than 150 million times in China, and sparked widespread discussions. On March 7, the film was blocked on Chinese websites. The Chinese government was consulted during the production of the documentary, and Chai worked to gain government approval before its release. In an interview with the People’s Daily, Ms Chai notes that she sent the documentary script and interviews to the National People’s Congress – China’s parliament – and the government office working on China’s new oil and gas laws. Both institutions offered comments and feedback, she says. The fact that the Chinese government decided after 4 days to remove the film, shows how afraid they are that the Chinese people will rise up and demand action.

What makes the problem so difficult to tackle is the systemic corruption, and the conflict between government-stimulated economic growth and what’s really good for the country. In essence, the Chinese Government emulates a capitalist system, but this system did develop as a true multi-agent system with checks and balances – it did not evolve organically, and it is therefore incapable of balancing itself. Government officials know that they are responsible, but they are afraid to face their own people, even if they admit that there is a major problem that needs to be addressed urgently. How can such a system possibly survive?

The documentary is very moving, and since it is banned in China, I include it in this post.

Here are a few more facts and details about air pollution in China:

  • Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “In February 2013 Deutsche Bank released an analysts’ note saying that China’s current economic policies would result in an enormous surge in coal consumption and automobile sales over the next decade. “China’s air pollution will become a lot worse from the already unbearable level,” the analysts said, calling for drastic policy changes and “a strong government will to overcome the opposition from interest groups.” The report estimated that the number of passenger cars in China was on track to hit 400 million by 2030, up from 90 million now. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 21, 2013]
  • China’s environmental protection ministry published a report in November 2010 which showed that about a third of 113 cities surveyed failed to meet national air standards last year. According to the World Bank 16 of the world’s 20 cities with the worst air are in China. According to Chinese government sources, about a fifth of urban Chinese breath heavily polluted air. Many places smell like high-sulfur coal and leaded gasoline. Only a third of the 340 Chinese cities that are monitored meet China’s own pollution standards.
  • China’s smog-filled cities are ringed with heavy industry, metal smelters, and coal-fired power plants, all critical to keeping the fast-growing economy going even as they spew tons of carbon, metals, gases, and soot into the air. The air pollution and smog in Beijing and Shanghai are sometimes so bad that the airports are shut down because of poor visibility. The air quality of Beijing is 16 times worse than New York City. Sometimes you can’t even see building a few blocks away and blue sky is a rare sight. In Shanghai sometimes you can’t see the street from the 5th floor window. Fresh air tours to the countryside are very popular.
  • Only 1 percent of the China’s 560 million city dwellers breath air considered safe by European Union standards according to a World Bank study. Air pollution is particularly bad in the rust belt areas of northeastern China. A study done by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the amount of airborne suspended particulates in northern China are almost 20 times what WHO considers a safe level.
  • Coal is the number once source of air pollution in China. China gets 80 percent of electricity and 70 percent its total energy from coal, much of it polluting high-sulphur coal. Around six million tons of coal is burned everyday to power factories, heat homes and cook meals. Expanding car ownership, heavy traffic and low-grade gasoline have made cars a leading contributor to the air pollution problem in Chinese cities.
  • A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center before the 2008 Olympics found that 74 percent of the Chinese interviewed said they were concerned about air pollution. Even in remote areas air pollution levels can be alarmingly high. On the nice new highway between Urumqi and Turpan in Xinjiang it s sometimes difficult to make out the wonderful scenery because brownish smoke produced by natural gas refineries and coal plants.