How much illness and death is acceptable in return for making the largest new middle class in modern history?
China began calculating this cost-benefit analysis during the 1970s, when coal-fired power plants mushroomed from the newly paved ground. At the time, the idea that humans could have a serious impact on the earth was relatively new. Demand for electricity overrode any other concern that existed at the time. Fifty years later, neither demand nor supply has changed: coal still accounts for more than 70 percent of the country’s energy consumption. But the cost of all that coal-fueled development is becoming clear.
China's carbon dioxide emissions could end up overwhelming the world, not to mention the country's 1.3 billion citizens. For now, the worst pollution is in Beijing. The city’s air, trapped by the Xishan mountain range, has been tested at 40 times the World Health Organization’s “safe” level of acceptable pollution. Such dangerous air quality is blamed for serious health problems and for almost 1 million early deaths.
China’s growing middle class demands new housing, automobiles and other items of affluence. This demand creates jobs, but it also puts a heavier burden on China’s air, land and water. A pall of smoke around a factory forebodes illness and death, as much as it’s a sign of economic prosperity.
A clean future?
Despite the problem, China's government knows a significant effort must be made to clear the atmosphere. Indeed, the country has an opportunity to be a global leader in cutting carbon emissions and reducing the use of dirty energy. China’s government has already made steps toward clean energy, including investing $250 billion in wind and solar power.
But the push for economic growth is unending. Despite, China’s new clean image, the government refuses to budge from prioritizing the economic bottom line above all else and has failed to continue adopting energy-efficiency improvements.
In 1978, China was one of the poorest countries in the world, with only 1/40th of the real per capita GDP level of the United States. Development isn’t close to being finished; forecasters expect the country’s GDP will rise 6.5 percent this year, and its urban population is expected to top 1 billion by 2050. China will soon pass the U.S. as the largest economy in the world.
From 2005 to 2009, the growth of China’s coal capacity equaled all the coal-fired plants in the United States. It used more cement in the last three years than the United States did in its entire existence. Achieving the industry and urbanization needed for growth, all in less than three decades, came at a massive cost to the earth. Coal, the dirtiest of all fuels, provides more than 70 percent of China’s energy.
The demands of the Chinese middle class have created much of the new pollution. Perhaps this is best symbolized by the country's shift from bicycles. Once an icon of Maoist China, the bicycle was the standard method of transportation, as well as an emblem of the country's middle class, much like how a Ford automobile once symbolized America's middle class. But bikes have slipped from 487 million a decade ago, to 450 million today.
The crowd of people pushing their way into the middle class are demanding more comforts. In 2015, 23 million new cars were registered in China, bringing ownership up to 172 million, according to the Ministry of Public Security.
A complicated message
This year, during his state of China address, Premier Li Keqiang put more emphasis on smog-related health crises than ever before, a change from the government’s usual perfunctory tone on the issue. He promised to “make the sky blue again,” called pollution “nature's red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development,” and underscored a transition to a different kind of development.
China’s citizens are starting to take notice. In the less-restricted city of Chengdu, recent protests broke out under the cover of a gray-out smog. Some residents placed air-pollution masks on the statues of government officials. Though government censorship hides the size of protests, small-scale demonstrations are typically dispersed without mass arrests. But the response in Chengdu indicated something larger. Chengdu police arrested an unknown number of protesters, while security forces wearing riot gear patrolled the downtown shopping area.
Chinese media seems to have taken a role as a sort of ombudsman for government clean up efforts. “Under the Dome,” a 2015 documentary, was one of the first films to directly address problems of air pollution in China. Directed and writen by Chai Jing, a well-known former television reporter, the film was at first lauded by state-owned media for the stringency of her inquiry. However, though the documentary had more than 200 million views, it was inexplicably banned from the Chinese web. The film blames the government for not regulating, and it’s widely suspected that led to pulling the film from view.
“Many people have saved the file, and there are ways to watch it if someone tries to search for it,” says Wen Bo, a longtime environmental activist, in an interview for Bloomberg.com. “In today’s world, information spreads really fast. Preventing the free flow of information can really backfire.” (You can watch “Under the Dome” here.)
Amidst the smog and public unrest, China has quietly become a forerunner in producing clean energy. It leads the world in the production and installation of solar power, all while laying out one of the world’s largest cap-and-trade carbon markets. The country also has a growing network of nuclear power plants. And as Li affirmed, China’s commitment to battling climate change and pollution is producing some solutions from unexpected places.
But will they really be enough?