Sunday, January 20, 2013

Crazy Bad

In the last couple of weeks, Beijing's horrible air pollution has drawn international attention -- not for the first time. In the run-up to the '08 Olympics, there were a lot of concerns about the air quality that awaited the Games, to the extent that the US team arrived wearing filter masks, and received a lot of criticism for it. After a first few smoggy, hot days, there was a torrential rainstorm, the smog was washed away, and the sky remained a glorious blue till the Games concluded. I was there. Beijing was beautiful. Flowers everywhere. Happy volunteers. And not so many cars. Because one of the things that the authorities did to achieve those blue skies was to strictly limit car traffic for the duration of the Games. And to temporarily shut down the coal-powered factories out in Hebei, and other provinces ringing Beijing. And seed the clouds, in the hopes that it would make the rain fall (I don't know whether the storm I experienced was connected with that or not).

But once the Games were over, it was back to business as usual.

In 2008, the US Embassy in Beijing started a Twitter feed of hourly air quality reports, an action that ticked the Chinese government off (or in Chinese diplomatese, "hurt the Chinese people's feelings"), since the Chinese government was unwilling to provide such information, and the news tended to be pretty bad. Anyone who's spent any length of time in Beijing knows that the air pollution is terrible, but it's one thing to look out the window and think, "yeah, air should probably not appear as a semi-solid," and to know that you are routinely breathing air that according to international standards is considered "hazardous."

And then there was the day in 2010 when the pollution was so off-the-charts terrible that a tweet went out from the official US Embassy air quality twitter feed describing it as "crazy bad."

Jonathan Watts, whose excellent environmental reporting from China is a must-read, described this as "a joke embedded in the embassy's monitoring program and triggered by a reading that was off the normal scale."  I can tell you that one afternoon while I was having a drink at the Vineyard Cafe, I overheard a conversation between two Americans in which one of them confessed to have been the culprit. I felt as if I'd been a witness to history...

Many things have been gained and many things have been lost in China's rush to modernize and become a global power. Put the natural environment in the negative tally. Pan Yue, the deputy director of SEPA, China's EPA, warned as early as 2005 that China's environmental crisis would undermine its economic miracle. He also saw China's environmental problems as part of a larger global problem. His explanation was that the capitalist system displaces its economic problems by creating environmental ones: "The environmental crisis has become a new means of transferring the economic crisis." Or, as he also put it, "the rich consume and the poor suffer the pollution." 

Mind you, he was not just implicating wealthy countries in China's ecological horror show. Pan Yue spoke out against Chinese government policies, local authorities and polluting industries, blocking projects that were environmental disasters. He was widely considered the driving force behind promoting sustainable development as the path forward for China. And this might be why, when China's economy was sagging because of the global economic crisis, Pan Yue suffered a bout of "ill health" and was replaced by someone widely considered pro-development.

I think we all can understand the trade-offs of economic growth for environmental quality. The history of the last two hundred years is replete with stories of horrible, killing pollution in exchange for greater wealth. But what Pan Yue understood was that horrible, killing pollution has its own economic toll charge, and it's not an insignificant one.


Aside from not always being able to breathe the air, you really have to worry about what you eat. Problems in China's food supply are legion. Among the more notorious examples: Sewer oil. Fake eggs. Detergent-doctored tofu. Pigs that glow in the dark. I could go on, but you may not have had breakfast. More typically food is contaminated with hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and non-food additives like melamine, whatever it takes to make things grow faster, cheaper.

Officials and the wealthy have ways around the problems in China's food chain. They get their food from a "special supply" — dedicated organic farms that only sell to them, not to the general public.

Air, though...that's a little trickier. You can filter the air in your apartment and office, but at some point, you will be breathing the same muck as everyone else.

And the pollution in Beijing this past week went beyond "Crazy Bad" into levels  greatly exceeding those  experienced in the middle of a forest fire.  In the Air Quality Index developed in the US, 500 (for particulate matter) is the top of the scale and is considered "hazardous." Anything above that is "Beyond Index." During this siege of smog, levels were up above 700 and at one point almost hit 1000.

(for some perspective of how bad this is: the sort of "moderate" air pollution typically experienced in Los Angeles is between 51-100. "Unhealthy for sensitive groups" is 101 - 150. Levels considered a public emergency are 201- 300 and rarely seen in the US)

In a turnaround of its former, "tweak the numbers and call it a 'Blue Sky Day" policy, the Chinese government stopped fighting the US Embassy Twitter feed and began releasing accurate air pollution data last year. During this crisis they released figures hourly. More unusually the Chinese media covered "Airpocalypse" with aggressiveness and openness. There's been a lot of speculation as to why this reporting was allowed or even encouraged, particularly when at the same time, control of the Great Firewall, the system of internet censorship, has been tightened and the Global Times (owned by the CCP) defends censorship in the wake of the Southern Weekly controversy.

Put me in the camp that thinks environmental concerns in China have the potential to unite large numbers of people, and in fact, they already have. From poor farmers protesting polluting factories that destroy their crops to wealthy urban dwellers who would like to be able to breathe safely on the streets of their own cities, these issues cut across class, income and location.

                     Protesting an industrial waste pipeline in Eastern China

Put me as well in the camp that thinks these issues also cut across national boundaries. We in the U.S. may have exported many of our polluting industries to countries like China, but guess what? We're getting the pollution back anyway. Clouds of Chinese pollution now routinely land on the west coast of the U.S.: "If the weather conditions are right, contaminants including mercury, ozone, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, black carbon and desert dust, can reach the west coast of the US within days." Remember this the next time you hear an American politician screaming about a "War on Coal!"  or wonder why the state of California is fighting efforts to increase American coal exports to China and other industrializing nations.

The problem is, all kinds of economic interests are invested in keeping things going the way that they're going. In China, local authorities depend on growth. They need it to build things that will keep people working. They need it to look good to the higher-ups, in the pursuit of their own personal advancement. They need it so that money flows into their pockets, and in a lot of cases, that's probably the biggest driver. Without a significant enforcement budget to back up its progressive laws and regulations, SEPA can only do so much.

What I'd really like to know is, why can't we do more?

Just as one example, the United States, "with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas."

In its pursuit of modernization and growth, China has done some amazing things, some of which both provide jobs and help the environment. Take mass transit: For all the problems and corruption associated with its high-speed rail program, China has created a passenger railroad network that we should envy. Its major cities already have or are building modern subway and light rail systems that make getting around without a car far easier than trying to do the same in most American cities. And yet for the past few decades, U.S. government policies have starved our passenger rail network and neglected our critical infrastructure. The only major high speed rail project with funding and a start date is here in California, with Phase 1 not scheduled for completion until 2029.

We're supposed to be the most powerful country on Earth.

What's our excuse?

Lisa -- Sunday


  1. It's strange - the typical reason you see here for not requiring stricter regulations is that it would hurt businesses (and I wish I could remember where I read an excellent article this week that completely destroyed that myth, but it's escaping me at the moment). Then in China, where the government *does* have the power to unilaterally impose such things, it doesn't want to, and whether that's rooted in national pride or the same sort of economic fears, I have no idea. But it does make me wonder if anything but having large numbers of citizens fed up and willing to demand cleaner air will solve the problem.

    1. Very true, Rebecca. Though in some ways the absolute power of the central government is not as "absolute" as people tend to think, especially issues where there isn't a consensus (and there are many of those). Local governments frequently go their own way and flout regulations with impunity. It isn't until they get caught, (usually because something went wrong) or people do get fed up that the situation is addressed. Ultimately you have to see the lack of enforcement in SEPA as evidence of the central government's consensus when it comes to environmental issues, but as mentioned, there's a tremendous amount of pressure to create growth and a lot of money tied up in the system as it is. Some of the articles I linked to talk about what the media openness in covering this crisis might signal, e.g., the willingness of Xi Jinping to tackle these issues, in a much more informed way than I am able to.

  2. I don't know why I never thought of this before, but for some reason your post brought back to mind a story my late brother told me about his first trip to China. In fact, it was about the first modern day official trip of any US citizen to China.

    He was the CFO of the shipbuilding arm of a US Fortune 100 company and personally negotiated the first shipbuilding contract in China by a US company.

    In honor of the deal he was invited on "a tour" of China by the government. He had no idea what to expect, but as it turned out he was on tour at the same time as the first group of US Senators and Congressmen. The US legislators were being shuffled from place to place in buses, dropped off in parking lots, and given group tours of the sites My brother had a private car, driver and personal guide...and was driven up to the front door of every site.

    One night back at the hotel...all Americans stayed at the same place...the wife of a US Senator walked over to him and said, "You must be very important, who are you?" At 6'5" it was hard to miss him at all those sites.

    He shrugged, "I'm nobody, just Ken Siger from Pittsburgh."

    What he brought away from that experience was the Chinese were far more interested it currying favor with business leaders than government leaders.

    One other experience on that trip stands out in my mind. Every night in every city was another banquet in his honor. At the very first dinner his "interpreter" noticed that he was not eating the shrimp, and asked if anything was wrong. My brother said, "No, it's just a dietary practice of mine."

    Not another word was said on the subject, but from that point on not another scrap of shrimp...or pork or shellfish...was in any dish served ANYONE at the banquets. From that he learned that, when motivated, the Chinese never miss a trick.

    Based upon my brother's experiences, I would say that hopefully China will soon be motivated enough by their own people to do what is necessary for the environment, because the world will never make them do it...only self-interest.

    Thanks for the memories, Lisa.

    1. Great story, Jeffrey! I bet your brother and I were there at about the same time.

  3. Great post, Lisa. China's pollution problems are visible, but we have variations on these issues in the US as well. The "war on coal" is a good example; there is no "clean coal" technology when it comes to reduction of carbon emissions, despite the industry's propaganda. Could the carbon emissions be sequestered? Perhap, but let's see some pilot projects if the coal industry wants to continue be a fuel supply in a world where the consequences of climate change become clearer every year.