The plan for dealing with the overwhelming smog problem stifling China’s cities seems to be adaptation followed by clean up. In the short term, children in Shanghai have been ordered to stay indoors and Chinese airline pilots are being required to master low-visibility landings. One forward-thinking measure has been to limit the amount of new car sales and vehicles permitted on the roads in urban areas. The coastal city of Tianjin has decided to join other metropolises by capping how many license plates it issues to 100,000 per year.

From the South China Morning Post:

Guangzhou last year capped registration for small- and medium-sized cars at 120,000. The city of 16 million people had about 2.4 million cars on the road as of May, local media reported at the time.

Starting next March, Tianjin will also restrict a fifth of private vehicles from using the road on workdays depending on their plate number — a practice first introduced in Beijing in 2008.

Snow and smog in Harbin. Pic: Fredrik Rubensson (Flickr CC)

Cars are a big deal, but coal is an even bigger one. China now burns as much coal as the rest of the world’s countries combined. The irony is that although coal is helping to drive China’s breakneck industrialization and economic growth, it also has the ability to shut everything down. This has been the case several times in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and the chilly northern outpost of Harbin. The chillier things get the more coal gets burned for heating purposes, which of course means more smog.

Another irony is that although pollution-related illnesses are on the up, according to Australia’s SBS News, China’s skin cancer rates are 1/50th those in the United States. Though this is probably partly due to the sun bathing habits of Californians and wide spread tanning-bed use, if you can’t even see the sun due to a blanket of smog, you’re less likely to develop melanomas.

No matter what economic or political system a country is living under, choking levels of smog will put a damper on how efficiently things run – or if they can even run at all. This works in practical terms (can’t breathe, can’t work) and in terms of the general contentment of the population. In short, people are sick of being sick.

From the Guardian:

In response, many Chinese people have taken measures into their own hands. Face masks have become a fashion statement; air purifier sales have spiked. An elementary school in north China’s Shijiazhuang, one of the country’s most polluted cities, has begun teaching its students a smog-defying aerobics routine involving acupuncture points associated with respiratory health.

Daytime in Tiananmen Square. Pic: Michael Davis-Burchat (Flickr CC)

So the Chinese government has a plan to significantly improve the country’s air by 2017: a 4-year, US 176 billion dollar clean-up scheme that involves cleaner cars, cleaner energy sources and cleaning up China’s dirty industry. The goal is to reduce airborne particulate matter in large cities by a minimum of 10%. According to the deputy head of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning, the massive clean-up will increase China’s GDP by $330 billion US and create at least two million new jobs.

Optimistic it may sound, but I guess if any nation can achieve these numbers, it’s China.