By David L. Brown
We have written before about the rising problem of air pollution in China, raising concerns that the increasing smog problem in Beijing could threaten the success of next year’s Olympic Games.
The point is well made by this photograph from Reuters today showing a celebration marking the one-year countdown to the opening of the Games next year. The view of celebrants in Tiananmen Square, against a backdrop of thick smog, clearly demonstrates the terrible problem of air pollution that is plaguing China as it continues to bring on line one or two new coal-fired power plants each week.
When I visited China in 1985 air pollution was already a problem in the capital city, even though there were relatively few vehicles. I remember watching buses lurching through the streets packed with so many people that they made a sardine can seem spacious, each one belching huge quantities of thick, greasy diesel smoke. My photographs at the nearby Summer Palace and even the distant Great Wall were marred by gray skies, the result of smoke and smog. And come to think of it, my visit to Tiananmen Square took place under atmospheric conditions similar to what is pictured above.
According to Chinese authorities things have gotten better in recent years, which means that they must have gotten a lot worse since I was there over 20 years ago. It is all relative. The Chinese have seen an improvement, but to our Western eyes the clouds of smog are startling. We have largely forgotten what it is like to experience significant smog conditions. The days of London’s “pea soup fogs,” Pittsburgh’s once smoke-engulfed steel mills, and the Los Angeles skyline looming from a haze of smog are long gone.
The last time I witnessed anything like what is shown in the picture above was about a decade ago during a driving trip to the Yucatan region of Mexico. As we drove near to Mexico City to the East, from 50 miles away we could see a vast cloud of dirty air hovering above the over-populated city.
How is a worldwide audience going to react to the sight of Olympic contenders wheezing and coughing, cameras peering through murky air to record the Games, and clouds of smoke rolling across the city? I suppose those who live in Mexico City and other Third World places will not see anything out of the ordinary, but to those of us who are accustomed to relatively clean air it will provide a revelation about the state of affairs in the Middle Kingdom.
I have read that the Chinese are proposing to shut down power plants in the Beijing area during the Games to reduce the smog. That seems to me to be a vain hope on two counts. First, the city requires vast amounts of electricity just to operate, and that will be particularly true during the Games. If the Chinese attempt to bring in electricity from far-flung locations and shut down the nearby plants, that will mean that many other parts of the country could be left without power. Second, as we know the air pollution problem over South Asia is widespread and far from just a local effect.
Here are a few of our previous posts related to the pollution problem in China: “China Becomes World Leader in Carbon Emissions,” posted June 20, 2007; “The Trouble with China, The Great Squanderer,” posted September 7, 2006; “China’s Pollution Rising Amid Signs of Concern,” posted August 15, 2006; and “China’s Massive Air Pollution Crossing Pacific,” posted August 2, 2006.
Clearly, the Chinese race to attempt to attain First World status through copying the 19th Century path of the Industrial Revolution is fraught with problems. Considering that the troubles of greenhouse gas and air quality pollution have been identified as unsustainable in the West, how is it that the Red Chinese believe they can create an entire new Industrial Revolution in the 21st Century based on the burning of vast quantities of fossil fuels?
As is so often the case, there are no easy solutions to environmental problems and certainly not in this instance. It seems that China is going to lose face on this issue in a huge way when the eyes of the world turn to Beijing twelve months from now. I suspect that hosting the 2008 Olympics will not turn out to be the public relations coup for which the Chinese are hoping.