I don’t think that I can spend a month in China and not say something about the smog. From the first day we arrived in Yangshou I have felt disoriented, as if my senses have shut down and I am unable to “tell” what the weather will do. The sky is unlike anything I have seen before and the air feels different. While there have been some gloriously clear days, in general, a grey haze hangs in the air and it feels oppressive. Steven and I have both been coughing since we arrived and I am convinced that it is smog irritation. Steven is a well managed asthmatic and I have feared that the smog would set off an attack but thankfully this has not happened. Before we left for China, friends who visit here often for work warned us about the smog and they check the air quality before they travel.
I am writing this in Xining, at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau on the 23 floor of the hotel. I look across at the other skyscrapers and the dirty haze just hangs in the sky. It horrifies me that I am breathing that air. Do children who grow up with this think it’s ordinary weather? How long would you have to be here before you started to accept this as normal, that a really smoggy day was just a bad day?
Today in Xining the Air Quality Index is 134 which means it falls in the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” category. Apparently the general public, like me, wont be affected, but Steve with his asthma may be affected. To give you a comparison, Brisbane, where we live, was 45 on the same day, in the “Good” category.
In Beijing I read an article in a magazine for expatriates living there. A man discussed his dilemma about staying and working in a country he loved now that he had a young child. He had been ok about putting himself in the unhealthy environment but felt completely different when he made that unhealthy choice for his child. Lucky him, he had the choice of whether to leave or not, the Chinese don’t.
The cause of the pollution is complex, but I understand that it comes predominantly from traffic and coal fired power plants, and that China’s rapid growth fuels the pollution. The development here is mind boggling. Everywhere we go there are skyscrapers being built, not just one 30 storey building at a time but groups of 9 or 10 skyscrapers being erected at the same time and there might be five or six groups in a row creating a forest of skyscrapers. There’s a lot of production and transportation that goes into that enormous level of development.
Consider this for a moment, China produces 70% of all solar panels in the world. In Australia we pat ourselves on the back for using solar panels and happily buy them from China, and yet the production of these panels takes a large amount of water, a precious resource in China, and creates a lot of toxic waste.
China is taking action to address the pollution problem but it is difficult to get a balanced report on this. There is a lot of propaganda from China and the West about China’s pollution and its actions to address it, but in 2013 the Economist reported “the remarkable thing is not what China has failed to do but what it has achieved, especially in reining in carbon dioxide. Its carbon emissions are growing at half the rate of GDP, a bit better than the global average. China has also boosted investment in renewable energy far more than any other country. It has the world’s most ambitious plans for building new nuclear power stations.”
I certainly don’t know the answer but I do know that this environment is not ok for people to live in. On those rare occasions when I get the opportunity to talk to Chinese people in English, and tell them we are going to Lhasa, the first thing they say is that the air there is clear and you can see the blue sky. That is profoundly sad.
If you want to read more try these links:
A clear, well-considered piece which I have reposted.