Environmental Degradation in Beijing, China

Modern-day China is facing an unprecedented challenge. Environmental degradation is evident within the country, and is the result of twentieth century reforms geared towards economic growth. This paper deals specifically with the air pollution prevalent in urban areas and the rapidly declining air quality within Chinese cities. In this paper, the Chinese capital of Beijing serves as the primary example of a city plagued by clouds of pollution. Beijing is currently experiencing levels of air pollution that are literally, off the charts. The levels of pollution in the Beijing air supply have been recorded as high as 3 times the level at which the city would be considered "severely polluted.” Needless to say, this amount of pollutants in an inhabited area is severely hazardous to human health, and needs to be mitigated quickly. In order to adequately address this pollution issue, the Chinese government must address both the direct causes of the pollutants (how the pollutants are being dispersed into the atmosphere), and the underlying ideology that has led China into this situation. Direct causes of the air pollution include; coal combustion by power plants, factories, and steel mills, and the increased number of vehicles present in the city. While the underlying ideology, the belief that economic growth is more important than environmental preservation, needs to be readdressed before any permanent solution can be achieved. As it stands, this troublesome believe is impeding the introduction of any policies that might better the hazardous situation in Chinese cities like Beijing. If China is able to address both the direct and ideological causes of its air pollution, it would not only benefit the citizens of China, but also people around the world. Particulates originating from Chinese air pollution have been found on the west coast of the United States. Clearly, this air pollution is a global issue that only China has the tools to solve.

Beginning with the self-strengthening movement in the mid-nineteenth century, leaders and officials within China have sought to shape their country into a modern, economic powerhouse that rivals the western nations. Unfortunately, reforms that were meant to help China to achieve this goal have had devastating environmental consequences. Currently, modern-day cities in China are facing an unprecedented decline in air quality. If one wishes to address this issue, then it is necessary that one possess a thorough understanding of the historical setting which has allowed this problem to arise.

China's overwhelming defeat during the Opium War of 1840-1842 established the Treaty of Nanjing and opened China's eyes to the powers of the west. After this point, China recognized the need to modernize and looked to foreign nations to gain an understanding of how to do so.“Reform-minded officials”l within China did what they could to foster positive interactions with foreign powers, and promote foreign studies in China. By 1880 China had ambassadors residing in the English, French, German, American, Japanese, and Russian capitals. Unfortunately, this movement did not succeed due to lack of support from the Qing court, and because many Chinese officials were unable to directly obtain help from the foreigners; treaty-port officials were the primary beneficiaries of any foreign involvement. In 1978, reformist Communist Party leader, Deng Xiaoping, once again embraced the spirit of the self-strengthening movement and initiated policies based on what he called, “the Four Modernizations." The Four Modernizations promoted by Deng Xiaoping were; agriculture, industry, technology, and defense.5 Deng believed that by addressing these four areas, he could create the preconditions necessary for constructing a truly socialist regime. Under Deng's reforms in industry, factories were “retooled” to help them meet new consumer demands, and foreign investments in China were encouraged. Because Chinese workers offered a source of cheap labor, foreign manufacturers began to set up factories in China that produced consumer goods intended for both the Chinese and western markets. These reforms provided a boost to the Chinese economy. However, China's attempts to make money at any cost led to the exploitation and rapid degradation of natural resources, as well as an increase in amount of corruption of entrepreneurs and officials in China.

Presently, China's capital city experiences periods of extremely poor air quality, and citizens are subjected to "gray, stifling skies”resulting from air pollution. In 2012, the Chinese government began monitoring particulates in Beijing's air supply (referred to as PM2.5) whose small size allows them to enter one's bloodstream, and damage lung tissue, and are considered to be very hazardous to human health. These tiny particulates are measured on a scale ranging from 0 micrograms per square meter (mcg/m?) to 500 mcg/m2. A PM2.5 level below 50 is considered to be "healthy” by Chinese standards, and a rating above 300 is considered to be "severely polluted.”ll Levels of these particulates in Beijing have been recorded as high as 900 mcg/m2. During periods when pollution levels are this high, traffic problems result from the reduced visibility, and the approximately 20 million citizens of Beijing are advised to stay indoors, and to refrain from taking part in any strenuous exercises.Industrial emissions account for a large portion of the pollution plaguing Beijing and neighboring cities. And other factors include, emissions from coal fired power plants, vehicle emissions, construction dust, and natural atmospheric conditions that stop particulates from moving elsewhere.However, it is clear that China's determination to create a strong economy heavily influences these factors and has exacerbated the problem.

As previously mentioned, Deng's industry reforms brought foreign interests to China in an effort to increase economic prosperity. However, this increased prosperity in China's capital had multiple consequences for the city's air quality. In addition to the emissions, full of toxic particulates, that newly founded factories put directly into the air, industry in China contributes to the air pollution issue indirectly as well.

The newly generated foreign interests, and new factories created in China greatly increased the demand for electricity, and encouraged the burning of fossil fuels (specifically coal) to meet this enlarged demand. Every year over one billion tons of coal is mined in China, and most of it is burned within the country. In fact, almost eighty percent of energy production in China results from coal combustion. Coal contains many elements that worsen air quality when released into the atmosphere during the burning process. Examples of these detrimental pollutants released during coal combustion include; sulfur and nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and toxic trace metals like mercury and arsenic." There is no method of generating electricity through coal combustion that is truly “clean." It is impossible to burn the substance without releasing pollutants into the atmosphere. That said, there are different types, or grades, of coal. And each higher grade produces more energy and contains less potential atmospheric contaminants than the grades below it. 

Unfortunately, much of the coal commonly found throughout China is very low quality, and thus does not burn for long periods of time, and contains more potential contaminants than do its higher-grade counterparts. Higher-grade coal from the northwest can be obtained for use by factories, power plants, and the like. However, the distances that this coal must travel before it can be used greatly increase its price, and encourage the use of locally obtained, cheaper, less efficient coal. It seems as if the impact of China's dependence on fossil fuels, and their role in China's deteriorating air quality is becoming clear to officials, who are making a point to monitor power plant emissions. This has prompted coal-fired power plants to invest more in buying coal containing small to medium levels of sulfur. Seemingly this is a good thing that could lead to lower amounts of sulfur (a noted pollutant) in China's air supply. However, if power plants purchase the majority of the country's low-sulfur coal, industrial and household consumers, who are poorly monitored by the state, will proceed to purchase and use larger amounts of the cheaper, high-sulfur coal From an environmental standpoint, this is a no-win situation. And the problem in cities like Beijing is compounded by an influx of potential workers, looking for a better life. Job opportunities in the capital brought large numbers of potential workers into the city that further contribute to the emissions released in the area. This mass immigration into Beijing and other urban areas of China is indicative of the growing middle class in China. These people are flocking to areas of economic development in China because they realize that their country's to take advantage of this limited-time opportunity while they can. In an interview with CNNMoney, Helen Wang, author of The Chinese Dream: The Rise of the World's Largest Middle Class and What it Means to You, estimates that China's urban middle class now numbers approximately 300 million individuals. Members of this growing social class contribute both directly and indirectly to the decline in China's air quality. Direct contributions include working in power plants, factories, steel mills, etc., that burn coal, and regularly driving vehicles. China's middle class contributes to the air pollution problem indirectly by lining up to buy consumer products made in Chinese factories that produce fossil fuel emissions in Chinese cities. The principle of supply-and-demand dictates that the greater the demand is for something, the more money can be made from supplying it. And according to Wang, in China, retail is "blooming like wildfire" and consumers are demanding many more services than they have historically. The increased desire for products created in polluting facilities (desire from foreign consumers in addition to Chinese consumers) only encourages facilities to maintain or even increase production of the sought after goods. Wang also notes that within China's rising middle class, over the last decade “everyone” has gotten a car. She goes on to report that some citizens even have multiple cars. With regards to air pollution in Chinese cities, this fact is very important because, while throughout all of China vehicle emissions account for only a small percentage of particulate matter pollution, in densely populated urban areas, vehicle emissions are a large contributor to air pollution. In Beijing for example, vehicle emissions account for 22% of the PM2.5 in the city's atmosphere. 

Over the last decade, the Chinese government has promoted purchasing vehicles as a method of growing the Chinese economy. In China, banks offer alluring car loans, and the majority of car sales happen in interior region of the country, where the government is attempting to encourage economic growth by providing larger salaries, and creating more disposable incomes.30 In Beijing alone there are currently a reported 5.18 million vehicles, 165% of the number of cars from five years ago. And each one of these vehicles is contributing to the city's pollution and is negatively affecting citizen's quality of life. Ironically, one Beijing resident claimed that on days when the pollution levels in the city are very high, he prefers driving his car rather than walking or using a means of public transportation.

The Chinese government has begun to realize the effect that environmentally negligent economic policies are having on pollution levels within the country, and has started implementing plans to lower the concentration of pollutants in the country's air. Between 2005 and 2010, through programs to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants, the government was able to reduce PM2.5 from the plants by approximately 21%.However, during the same time period PM2.5 emissions from China's steel and iron industry, which is fragmented and more difficult to control, rose by about 39%. In order to combat vehicle emissions, the Chinese government has announced plans to apply strict new fuel standards that will make low-sulfur fuels standard throughout the country by 2014, and will once again restrict the sulfur content of gasoline in 2017. This call for a new nationwide gasoline standard has been in the works for years and the plan was supposed to go into effect in 2011. However, because these low-sulfur fuels are more expensive to produce than their higher-sulfur counterparts, Chinese oil companies had lobbied for years to delay the new standards from coming into effect. Luckily, it appears that for many, as far as this matter is concerned, economic benefits no longer trump environmental degradation, and the new Chinese fuel standard will be enforced in the coming year.

Unfortunately, it has become clear that corruption among officials in China have led to misrepresentation or manipulation of data concerning China's pollution.And because of this, environmental policies have not been implemented or enforced to the extent that they should have been. Since lower-level-officials are able to achieve the same results as enforcing environmental standards by merely manipulating data, and there is a “lack of accountability" inherent in the system, it is clear that China's pollution issues will not be adequately addressed until this corruption issue is addressed.

China's air pollution issues clearly stem from the country's drive to create a thriving economy. If the Chinese government fails to reduce or eliminate this problem soon, not only will the health of Chinese citizens be negatively affected, but global health will also decline. The origins of air pollutants found on the west coast of the United States have been traced back to China. This global issue is one that only China can resolve, and it is crucial that Chinese lawmakers recognize that correcting environmental degradation is in many ways, more important than economic development.

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