In 2012, 6.7 percent of all deaths globally (3.7 million) were as a result of air pollution, according to estimates published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in March.[i] Reducing pollution could literally save millions of lives. The two worst affected regions that WHO identified were South East Asia and the Western Pacific (incorporating China), the latter having the highest levels of pollution anywhere in the world.[ii] The air in Beijing has been so thick and dirty in recent months that some dubbed it ‘airpocalypse’. [iii] “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe,” said the Director of the WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.[iv]

Half of the world’s total coal output was used by China alone in 2012, with 67 percent of total energy consumption in China coming from this fossil fuesl.[v] In December 2013, Chen Zhu, distinguished doctor and former Chinese Minister of Health, co-authored a piece in the Lancet, describing how an estimated 350,000 to half a million people die there each year as a result of outdoor air pollution.[vi] Yet the Chinese government has recognised this, and in September 2013 launched the National Action Plan on Air Pollution and Prevention Control (2013-2017), seeking to reduce pollution levels by 2017.[vii] And the country is now ‘Declaring War on Pollution’.

The situation in China is not an entirely new phenomenon. Comparisons to Britain in the post-war period are clear. Environmentally, China is where Britain was a century ago – an industrial powerhouse with many pollution issues. Perhaps the most well-known was the so-called ‘great London smog’ disaster of December 1952. When the ‘great smog’ hit the city, the yellow air, which was so thick that anyone who braved the streets of London could not see more than a few feet in front of them, led to an increased death rate and rise in the number of hospital admissions for breathing difficulties.

Part of the problem in London was climatic – a weather system settled over the city early in December, causing thick fog to accumulate, which meant no air could escape and the temperature dropped. As residents huddled in their homes in the cold, they burnt coal to keep warm, sending up dangerous chemicals into the fog, which clung to the city streets. Power stations and industry burnt more coal so the problem only increased. In 1956, the world’s first Clean Air Act was passed, and, although air pollution did not immediately evaporate, over time it did improve. The Act was strengthened with the Clean Air Act of 1968.[x] And so, China’s recent experience with smog is not dissimilar to Britain 50 years ago.

China is at an environmental crossroads. One the one hand, there persists the attitude ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’, with economic factors overplaying environmental ones. However, whilst it is heavily reliant on coal and dangerous levels of pollution are endemic across the country, China is also the world leader in the global clean energy race by a large margin. In 2011, 63 percent of all the solar panels produced in the world were made there, and investment in solar power almost quadrupled in 2013, according to a report produced by Pew Charitable Trust. Wind energy also rose for the fifth consecutive year, with 35 GW of electricity-generating capacity produced from wind turbines in 2013. As the Pew report considers, ‘China is poised to be a leader in the world’s clean energy marketplace for many years to come.’[xi]

Protection of the environment in China is set to change on 1 January 2015 when a new law, the Environment Protection Law, comes into effect. Described by the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Pan Yue, as ‘the toughest environmental protection law’ and passed on 24 April 2014, this new legislation modernises environmental governance, stressing multi-stakeholder control and social involvement.

Government at all levels will be responsible for environmental protection, companies will play an important role in shouldering environmental responsibility, and citizens will act as whistle blowers of environmental destruction. The law describes how the Chinese central government will establish ‘an interregional coordination mechanism for pollution control’, highlight a ‘red line’ for conservation and establish an environmental compensation scheme as well as giving priority to environmentally-sound procurement. An environmental health system will also be created with the law stipulating that the Chinese public have a right to environmental information, to participate in environmental protection and oversee protection efforts. Citizens are encouraged, in the law, to inform authorities of any environmental wrongdoing. They shall be protected for it.[xii]

Whilst the proof of the pudding is in the eating, China has made some positive steps towards a greener, cleaner future. Although there is some way to go and only time will tell whether it can lose its dependency on coal, these steps are worth acknowledging.

References:

[i] World Health Organisation, ‘Factsheet No. 13 – Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health’: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs313/en/; World Health Organisation ‘Mortality from ambient air pollution’.

[ii] World Health Organisation, ‘Public health and environment: Ambient air pollution attributable deaths, by region, 2012’: http://apps.who.int/gho/data/node.wrapper.ENVHEALTH3?lang=en&menu=hide.

[iii] The term ‘airpocalypse’ has been used by several commentators on China, including a piece in The Global Listhttp://www.theglobalist.com/london-beijing-polluted-tale-two-cities/

[iv] World Health Organisation, ‘7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution’, 25 March 2014: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014/air-pollution/en/.

[v] Chen Zhu, Jin-Nan Wang, Guo-Xia Ma, Yan-Shen Zhang, ‘China tackles the health effects of air pollution’, The Lancet, 382.9909 (14 December, 2013), 1959-1960.

[vi] Ibid; See also http://www.chinavitae.com/biography/Chen_Zhu/full.

[vii] Chen, Wang, Ma, Zhang, ‘China tackles the health effects of air pollution’.

[viii] ‘Declaring War on Pollution MEP announces China theme for 2014 World Environment Day’, 22 April 2014 –http://english.mep.gov.cn/News_service/news_release/201404/t20140422_270859.htm.

[x] See William Wise, The Killer Smog: The World’s Worst Air Pollution Disaster (Illinois: Rand McNally and Company, 1968).

[xi] Pew Charitable Trusts, ‘Who’s Winning the Clean Energy Race? 2013’ – http://www.pewenvironment.org/uploadedFiles/PEG/Publications/Report/clen-whos-winning-the-clean-energy-race-2013.pdf – pp. 4, 14.

[xii] ‘MEP: updated environment protection law maximised the consensuses of all stakeholders’ – Ministry of Environmental Protection, The People’s Republic of China, 4 May 2014 – http://english.mep.gov.cn/News_service/news_release/201405/t20140504_271231.htm.