A visitor stretches her arms as she looks over the Forbidden City through severe haze in Beijing earlier this month. Pic: AP.

The future looks very, very grim, reports Asia Sentinel

Given reports that China is making a major effort to switch to renewable energy that could account for 10 percent of power generation by 2015, how much can the country actually do about its disastrous levels of pollution, and how soon? The answer is probably not much, and it will take years if not decades.

As Asia Sentinel reported this week, record smog is estimated to have caused thousands of premature deaths in four Chinese cities and led to severe illness for 100,000 people. On Jan. 12, hazardous particulates peaked at 993 per square meter in Beijing – nearly 40 times the hazardous limit proposed by the World Health Organization.

The sheer scale of the environmental disaster from air pollution this month has focused renewed attention on just how bad China’s environmental disaster is. In 2007, according to the BBC, a draft report by the World Bank and China’s State Environmental Protection Administration concluded that as many as 760,000 people die prematurely early each year because of air and water pollution. The report was withdrawn at the urging of Chinese officials. Other reports put estimates at lower figures, but that that unless outdoor pollution is curbed dramatically, 550,000 people will die prematurely annually. Major “cancer clusters” have been identified all over the country.

(READ MORE: Freezing temperatures add to China’s pollution woes)

The magnitude of cleaning the air and water is so big that even a country that can throw a high-speed rail line hundreds of miles is going to take a long time to clean up, even if the will is there and the vested interests are willing to stand aside. It is reckoned that half a billion people lack safe and clean drinking water. Only 1 percent of the urban population breathe air considered safe by the European Union.

Until a few months ago, the Chinese approach to pollution control was to not mention it. Famously, in 2010 the US Embassy, which posts daily air quality reports, described the measurement as “crazy bad.” The Chinese objected and the description was changed to “beyond index.” The government has asked foreign consulates to stop publishing “inaccurate and unlawful” data despite the fact that official data the average figure for dangerous particulates was more than 300 – against a World Health Organization hazard level of 25.

It’s questionable whether the RMB 500 billion (US$80 billion) projected in new spending on renewables by 2015 is actually directed toward cleaning the air, or more towards cutting down on expensive energy imports, and whether it can even meet its 10 percent goal by 2015.

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