by Cathy Zhu
In preparation for next month’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, Beijing once again announced new restrictions on car traffic and nearby factory emissions in an effort to reduce the city’s excessive air pollution for visiting foreign dignitaries. Beijing is no stranger to last minute clean-ups before international events -- similar measures were taken in 2008 to relocate factories and ban vehicles from the road to ensure clean air for the Beijing Olympics. Unfortunately, temporary measures fail to create long-term solutions in a city where pollution levels are not only hazardous, but chronic. The Beijing Marathon this past week saw runners wearing gas masks in a city with measured air PM2.5 (particular matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers) between 360 and 400 (a reading of 300 or above is considered a hazardous health risk).
At last month’s UN Climate Change Summit in New York, Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli announced a renewed commitment to fighting climate change. Zhang stated that China would actively seek to curb carbon emissions as soon as possible, with strategies including cutting coal use and encouraging renewable fuel development. In the past, China has fallen on the side of economic development over environmental concerns, arguing that developed countries should take on more of the responsibility for the historical accumulation of pollution since the industrial revolution. As even western developed nations have demonstrated, however, verbal commitment to address climate change is commonplace, but actually following through is considerably less so.
While international focus on climate change has increased, especially in rapidly industrializing countries like China and India, the former’s new environmental push may reflect a new impetus from the Chinese population, who suffer the most from environmental pollution. Bad air is hardly the only source of concern—last year, tens of thousands of dead pigs were found dumped in the Huangpu River which runs through Shanghai and supplies a portion of its drinking water. Chemical pollution from factories seeps into soil and water sources, causing populations of neighbouring villages to die young from cancer.
The Chinese government has invested heavily in renewable technologies, required more detailed reporting on emissions and created stricter legislation for pollution violations. However, investing in long-term research in green energy and making pollution data more available fails to address the routine issues faced by Chinese citizens, such as access to clean water or worries about food contamination. Temporary measures for the upcoming APEC Summit only serve to draw attention to the severe issues and send a message to Beijing residents that their everyday health is less important than looking good for a foreign audience.
On the one hand, China’s growing middle class has contributed to its massive economic growth, raising demand for consumer and luxury goods. On the other hand, the middle class is becoming the voice behind demands for better health and cleaner air and water. In a recent Pew Global Survey, a third of Chinese respondents listed pollution and the environment as the greatest threat to the world. While the Chinese government has been well known to cover up embarrassing stories and hush up complaints, protests over environmental issues are nevertheless rising. With the Communist Party seeing increasingly prominent protests across China from Hong Kong to Tibet, it is hardly in the government’s interest to allow a compounding issue to potentially run rampant. Zhang Gaoli’s speech at the UN Climate Summit may have been another line of rhetoric. But it may also signal that in order to pre-empt demonstrations by disgruntled populations, the Communist Party will push environmental issues to the top of its agenda.