Pollution in China has reached levels that make it no longer possible to ignore. The Chinese government must face up to the fact that rapid economic growth, coupled with high levels of industrialization, is making some areas unliveable.

According to a recent report by the Beijing’s Social Science Academic Press and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, out of 40 major international cities, China’s capital was the second worst place to live. Beijing scored low mainly due to poor environmental conditions, only losing out to Moscow because of the Russian capital’s high cost of living, security issues and pollution. 

Beijing air pollution. Pic: Kevin Dooley (Flickr CC)

From the Guardian:

Beijing was hit by severe levels of pollution at least once every week, according to the 2012 Blue Paper for World Cities report. That was on top of a significant level of air pollution covering the capital for 189 days in 2013, according to the city’s Environmental Protection Bureau.

Though not exactly known for its candid self criticism, China’s government seems to be accepting the fact that it must take steps to earn the trust of the Chinese people, particularly when it comes to the hot-button issue of pollution. It’s even causing some key drivers of the Chinese economy to leave the country. A recent report by the Social Sciences Academic Press, entitled the Global Talent Blue Book: Chinese International Migration 2014, found that 70% of the country’s emigrants considered the environment and health concerns major reasons for leaving. The report also highlighted a growing trend that may eventually lead to reverse urbanization — people migrating to smaller cities in search of a healthier environment.

As an answer to appeals from environmental groups, China’s government recently released unprecedented amounts of information regarding the country’s pollution — a move that cannot be overestimated in light of previous policies. Furthermore, last week the government announced a monetary reward scheme, which encourages cities and regions to control air pollution. A total of $1.65bn US will be set aside to reward places that make significant progress in efforts towards clean air.

Fireworks this month in Shanghai. Pic: HeyItsWilliam (Flickr CC)

From the New York Times:

The announcement of the financial incentives revealed how difficult it has been for some leaders in Beijing to get many Chinese companies and government officials to comply with environmental regulations. Though central officials have been saying with growing vigor that pollution of all kinds must be curbed, their efforts to force other parts of the bureaucracy and the state-run economy to obey rules have been stymied by the self-interest of some groups.

At a cabinet meeting last week Premier Li Keqiang claimed that the country’s air pollution had accumulated over a long period of time so there would be no quick fixes.

Yet some forms of air pollution have a sudden onset and can be avoided. Take the example of the pollution from fireworks that accompanied the recent Lantern Festival. Particulate matter spiked dangerously in some cities due to a combination of heavy firework use and unfavorable weather conditions. It then reportedly eased after two days.

Is pollution forcing China towards a breaking point, where it will radically change its policy and behavior regarding environmental issues? The environmental and human health consequences of China’s headlong development have already been so catastrophic that one wonders how much worse things could get.