I’ve written in the past about how “people power” and the so-called information age is spreading awareness about environmental problems in China. Protests against highly polluting factories opening in neighborhoods where they clearly aren’t wanted, court cases against chemical firms for contaminating local waterways and social media shaming have all been used as ways to curb the seemingly unstoppable industrialization of the country. Of course most successful protests have been anecdotal. China is still racing headlong into a cloud of smog.

According to some, China needs political change and a proper enforcement of pollution regulations.

Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently visited China and had this to say prior to her trip (via National Geographic):

We know public outcry in the 1950s and the 1960s led to significant change. China also is facing significant public outcry . . . The good news is we have been there before. We know the technologies that are available, and we know what planning can do. We think they can learn lessons from us and leap frog, and do it in a way that they can continue to build a clean energy economy.

A US factory in 1970. Pic: Marc St. Gil / EPA

What McCarthy is referring to is the hazardous air quality in Beijing, Shanghai and other industrial cities. Urban air pollution in China is at dangerous levels calculated to be 24 times higher than limits recommended by the World Health Organization. In the US, the creation of McCarthy’s EPA was the result of public outcry about similar pollution in the 1950s and ’60s, but the agency wasn’t actually formed until 1970. Furthermore, US industry (and therefore by proxy the US government) is actively campaigning against environmental regulations in China by protesting Chinese government subsidies in the renewable energy sector.

Then there’s another dirty secret: the mass exportation of petcoke from the US to China.

From Businessweek:

Petcoke is a solid fossil fuel derived from the oil refinery coking process, and it’s burned in much the same way as coal. But its toll on both the local environment and global climate change is much greater. Burning petcoke releases about 10 percent more carbon dioxide than burning coal (to generate the same amount of energy). And unrefined petcoke contains 50 percent to 300 percent more sulphur by volume than coal. Sulphur emissions contribute to PM 2.5 and other forms of air pollution that jeopardize human health.

To give some idea of how much of this ultra-dirty fuel the US is selling to China here are some figures: In 2008 the US sold nearly 2 million barrels of petcoke to China. In 2012 it sold 24 million and 28.5 million in the first two quarters of this year.

In case you haven’t guessed, whether it’s solar panels or dirty petcoke, the goal is making more money and not helping people or the environment – both are sacrificed by either country. 

State media in China has even made claims about the “positive” side effects of the thick smog blanketing the nation. Apparently it improves people’s sense of humor and prevents guided missile attacks. Because China is constantly being attacked by guided missiles. The articles have since been removed and even mocked by other state media. Hmm… maybe they were right about the humor part. Now what about those humorous mixed messages being sent to China by the US?

Beijing sun peaks through the smog. Pic: Morten Johs