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China’s Off-the-Chart Air Pollution: Why It Matters (and Not Only to the Chinese) - Part Two

An Interview with Daniel K. Gardner

By Claire Topal and Yeasol Chung
January 27, 2014


The seriousness of China’s air pollution is visibly evident to anyone who has seen photographs of Beijing and other major cities enveloped in dense smog or hazy street scenes of Chinese breathing through surgical masks. In an earlier interview with NBR, Daniel K. Gardner, the Dwight W. Morrow Professor of History and East Asian Studies at Smith College, discussed the dramatic effects of China’s polluted air on the health of its people and explained the implications of these health issues for the country’s economy. In part two of the interview, Professor Gardner explains how the Chinese government has responded to the country’s air pollution crisis and what challenges it will face in implementing policies and measures developed to address the problem. He also discusses the impact of China’s air pollution not only on its Asian neighbors but also on the United States.


How does China’s air quality compare with that of its Asian neighbors and the United States?

China isn’t the only country in Asia with air quality problems. According to the WHO, annual mean PM10 pollution levels are higher in Pakistan (198), Bangladesh (120), and India (109) than in China (98). What makes China more globally concerning than these other countries, despite its presently lower annual pollution figure, is its blistering rate of development and the attendant increase in consumption of fuel sources, especially fossil fuel. Japan and Korea, China’s immediate neighbors, have much less severe pollution on annual average (22 and 61, respectively). [1]

Finally, if we take annual average PM10 levels as a coarse indicator of comparative air quality, then the United States is doing much better, having a score of 18. For the first half of 2013, Beijing averaged an AQI reading of 101.3; by comparison, Manhattan averaged 8.3. Here we should be reminded that as recently as the 1960s, U.S. cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Pittsburgh had pollution levels approaching those in some of China’s cities today. The vast improvement resulted from the aggressive measures that the United States took to address air pollution in the late twentieth century.

At the same time, we must not ignore the fact that although the United States has made great strides in cleaning its air, the country nonetheless remains, after China, the world’s second-largest emitter of the greenhouse gas CO2. And, as China is quick to note, the United States emits nearly three times as much CO2 per capita as China.


How is China’s air pollution affecting South Korea and Japan? What are the implications for China’s relationships with these neighboring countries?

As sulfur, mercury, ozone, and particulate matter emitted by China’s coal plants move downwind across the East China Sea in increasing quantity, Japan and Korea voice more frequent and urgent concern about the effects on their air, water, and soil. In November 2013, South Korean media began to refer to the smog making its way from China as “air raids.” Earlier, in October, a Japanese study claimed that air pollution from China was responsible for the high level of mercury deposition on iconic Mount Fuji. [2] Recent research now indicates that China is responsible for 40% of Tokyo’s annual average PM2.5 levels and 60% of Kyushu’s. [3] News outlets in both countries report on the higher levels of PM2.5 when winds blow in from China, the damage done by air from China to their countries’ forests, and the run on face masks when smog blights hit. Relations in the region, and not least among China, Japan, and Korea, are already sufficiently strained over issues like the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and air space in the East China Sea. Toxic air migrating across China’s borders poses the risk of harming relations still further.

Hopeful observers could choose to see this issue as an opportunity to bring the three countries together, and perhaps even to relax tensions in the region. Some cooperation in addressing polluted air is already taking place. For instance, Japan has given the Shanxi provincial government a loan of $125 million to subsidize the desulfurization of large coal-fired plants in the capital city of Taiyuan. Toyota and Tsinghua University in Beijing are collaborating on a comprehensive study of PM2.5, which is expected to be completed by mid-2015. And just recently, in December, representatives of the three governments held a two-day summit just outside Beijing and vowed to work cooperatively to combat the region’s polluted air. We can only hope that such cooperation continues and deepens.


To what extent does the Chinese government acknowledge the country’s pollution problems, and what forms does the government response take?

The Beijing government is not in denial about the profound pollution problems facing the country. There appears to be a general agreement in the upper echelons of the party that the unbridled economic growth of the past few decades has come at a heavy environmental cost that is no longer tenable. The challenge, as they see it, is to curb environmental degradation without halting the country’s economic development. And that’s a challenge indeed, since fossil fuels, especially coal, have been the engine driving economic momentum. Over the last decade, China has built on average two new coal-fired power plants every week; and today China consumes slightly more coal than all other countries in the world combined. [4]

The government now is walking something of a tightrope: on the one hand, economic prosperity—and bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty—has been a powerful source of legitimacy for the Communist Party; on the other hand, the damage resulting from that prosperity, to the air and the water—and to people’s well-being—is clearly fueling irritation and discontent among the people.

The party plainly is struggling to find the right balance between continued economic growth and protection of the environment. The Beijing leadership is promoting serious measures to reduce carbon emissions, from putting caps on coal consumption in highly polluted regions, to shutting down small and inefficient coal plants, to banning the building of new coal-fired power plants in the three key economic regions (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, the Yangzi River Delta, and the Pearl River Delta), to introducing trial carbon-trading programs in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and, Guangzhou. To offset reduced dependence on coal, the government is looking to expand the country’s energy reserves coming from other fuel sources: namely, natural gas, wind, solar, hydroelectric, and nuclear (each of which, of course, presents its own set of challenges). Importantly, the government is also looking to improve overall energy efficiency and thereby lessen energy consumption.

To be sure, formulating policies and enacting measures are not a guarantee of success. But the point here is, yes, the government is aware of the harm being done to the air, the health of the people, and perhaps even its own legitimacy, and it is actively responding. Indeed, constructing an “ecological civilization” has been a mantra of the Chinese Communist Party since a 2007 speech by then president Hu Jintao. [5]

In addition to these measures, the State Council (China’s cabinet) issued an “Air Pollution Prevention Action Plan 2013–2017” in September 2013. Whatever its ultimate effectiveness, the plan leaves little doubt that the Communist Party feels some urgency to tackle the country’s pollution problems now. Between 2013 and the end of 2017, the government proposes to spend $277 billion to begin to clean up the air. The plan includes among its 33 measures reducing PM2.5 levels in key industrial hubs, cutting coal consumption, increasing non-fossil fuel use, removing from the roads in China all cars registered prior to 2005, and requiring that the country’s oil refineries produce the much cleaner China V gasoline.

With its concern for vehicle emissions, the government in the past few years has offered a variety of rebate programs to offset the costs of hybrid and electric vehicles. It has also sponsored trade-in programs designed to rid the roads of big, inefficient vehicles and replace them with smaller, fuel-efficient ones. And as anybody who has recently traveled to China is aware, the government’s investment in expanding the public transportation system—especially in the tier 1 cities—continues unabated.


What are the greatest challenges the Chinese government will face in implementing these new policies and measures?

For whatever good environmental intentions the government might have, the real challenge, if recent history is any indication, will be effective countrywide implementation and enforcement. The problem is largely structural: officials in Beijing have issued new environmental policies and measures, but it is the responsibility of local officials to implement them. And the reality is that local officials have been more interested in economic growth than in protection of the environment.

In part, this is because they are rewarded for economic growth. In assessing the performance of local officials and deciding promotions and demotions, the national government gives hefty weight to the development of the local economy, while paying but scant attention to the protection and cleanup of the environment. What is obvious to most observers, then, is that if Beijing is genuinely determined to clean up the country’s polluted air, water, and soil, the government has to refine its calculus for grading and rewarding the performance of local officials. To be sure, the leadership routinely announces its intention to give heavier weight to stewardship of the environment, but, in practice, protection of the environment continues to mean relatively little.

A related problem is enforcing environmental policy and law. In 2008, when China’s State Environmental Protection Administration was promoted to one of the 25 cabinet-level ministries as the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), hopes were high that this move signaled the growing importance of environmental protection and enforcement. But, to date, Chinese environmentalists remain somewhat disappointed in the MEP’s effectiveness. They point to weak leadership and lack of courage in enforcing compliance with important environmental regulations. They also criticize the limited resources given to the ministry by the national government. For instance, there are but 300 employees working in the whole of China’s MEP. Compare that with the more than 17,000 employees who work in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States, a country with less than one-quarter of China’s population. Finally, these critics say that the MEP, a fledgling ministry, doesn’t carry much weight against other more powerful and established ministries, whose priorities as a consequence always trump the environmental priorities of the MEP. Zhou Shengxian, China’s environment minister, did little to disabuse critics of his ministry’s shortcomings when this past July he bluntly remarked, “I’ve heard that there are four major embarrassing departments in the world and that China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection is one of them.” [6]


How does China’s air pollution affect the United States?

We’ve been thinking too compartmentally: that China’s air is China’s and that the United States’ air is the United States’. Air is really all part of the same interconnected atmospheric system. Compelling research this century has indicated that pollutants in China’s air—such as sulfates, ozone, particulate matter, mercury, and nitrogen oxides—can make their way to the West Coast of the United States in as little as four days. One study claims that of the particulate matter hanging over California, about one-third comes from Asia (mostly China). Another concludes that about one-fifth of the mercury in Oregon’s Willamette River originates abroad, again mostly in China. And still another study estimates that 10%–30% of all mercury deposition in the United States comes from Asia (again largely China). [7]

U.S. levels of these toxic pollutants from China still remain relatively low and probably don’t yet play a significant role in the health of Americans. But if scientists are right that China’s air is finding its way to California, Oregon, and Washington, and if consumption of fossil fuels in China continues to swell, as most energy experts expect, we can assume that the impact of such pollution on health in the United States will escalate. Indeed, it is already estimated that nearly 40% of all mercury exposure in the United States comes from Pacific tuna, which ingest the mercury deposited in the ocean water by China’s coal-fired plants. [8] Finally, let’s not forget what China, along with the United States, is contributing to global warming through greenhouse gas emissions: together the two countries account for 44% of the world’s total CO2 emissions (China 29%, the United States 15%). As climate scientists are quick to point out, global warming carries with it widespread implications for global health.

As for the economic impact of China’s air pollution on the United States, if China is serious about reducing its dependence on coal, U.S. coal companies (e.g., Arch Coal and Peabody Energy) will see a reduction in demand for exports—as is already happening. What will that mean for large U.S. coal companies that are already feeling the pain of declining domestic demand, as the country is enjoying a boon in cheaper natural gas and in other sources of energy? And what will that mean for institutions that have investments in these coal companies?

Air pollution in China has had one other unwelcome effect: it has made the United States environmentally and economically lazy. The nightmarish air there, images of which often make it into our media, has enabled the United States and the majority of its elected officials to ignore the contribution that we make to environmental pollution and global warming on the rather feeble grounds that there is little the United States, or anybody else, can do environmentally to offset the damage to the air caused by China. This is not just bad political and environmental policy; it is also bad—and irresponsible—economic policy. The United States has not put sufficient money or research into the development of clean energy and technology to keep pace with the progress that China is making.

President Obama’s former energy secretary, Steven Chu, made the strong case to Congress and the American people that while developing a greener and cleaner technology is of course good energy and environmental policy, it is also good economic policy—essential to the future well-being of the country. The United States, he warned, must not stand still and cede the development of green technology and its related industries to the Chinese. Secretary Chu couldn’t have known that, within a few months of his resignation, China would designate green industries a “pillar of the economy,” and that they would receive funding and tax breaks from the government—with a projection that the sector would enjoy an annual growth rate of 15% and generate $735 billion by 2015.


How is the United States responding, or how might it respond, to the consequences of China’s air pollution?

It was an auspicious sign that President Obama and President Xi Jinping got together this past June and worked out an agreement to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas used for refrigeration and air-conditioning. The more bilateral cooperation between the two countries, the more likely it is that global gains against air pollution and global warming will be made. Thus, it is another hopeful sign that new EPA administrator Gina McCarthy paid a week-long visit to China in early December, shortly after her appointment. The visit sends a clear signal, I think, that she and the current U.S. administration appreciate that the environment is an area where the two countries have strong mutual interests.

Before leaving for China, McCarthy spoke of the need for stronger cooperation between the two countries. She insisted that as the world’s two largest economies, two largest consumers of energy, and two largest contributors to carbon emissions, the United States and China have a duty, and even moral obligation, to work together to combat the global threats of air pollution and climate change. This sort of straightforward talk by an EPA administrator is most welcome. We can only hope that it leads to a real partnership between the two countries.

Your question here about the U.S. response raises a related but challenging issue: if the Obama administration is committed to bringing an end to the use of coal as a fuel source in the United States because of its well-known effects on global warming, shouldn’t the administration be placing restrictions on, or maybe even prohibiting, the sale of U.S. coal abroad, including to China? After all, when China burns this coal, it will do to the global atmospheric system precisely what it would have done if burned domestically—warming the planet with greenhouse gas emissions. In short, we are exporting our coal to China, and, in turn, China is exporting greenhouse gases back to us—and the rest of the world. To me, this makes little logical, or moral, sense.


This is part two of a two-part interview with Professor Gardner. In part one, Gardner discussed the seriousness of China’s air pollution, the health implications for the Chinese people, the impact on the country’s economy, and the influence of domestic environmental NGOs. Read part one.

This interview was conducted by Claire Topal, Senior Advisor for International Health at NBR, and Yeasol Chung, a former intern for NBR's Center for Health and Aging.


Endnotes

[1] The source for these figures, based on the older standard of particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometers, is the World Health Organization. See Statistic Brain, “Countries Ranked by Air Pollution,” October 15, 2012, http://www.statisticbrain.com/countries-ranked-by-air-pollution.

[2] Hepeng Jia, “China Blamed for Mercury on Iconic Mount Fuji,” Chemistry World, October 18, 2013, http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2013/10/china-blamed-mercury-pollution-mount-fuji-japan.

[3] Kate Galbraith, “Worries in the Path of China’s Air,” New York Times, December 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/business/energy-environment/worries-in-the-path-of-chinas-air.html.

[4] Fayen Wong, “China’s Smog Threatens Health of Global Coal Projects,” Reuters, November 14, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/14/us-china-coal-idUSBRE9AD19L20131114; and Robert Rapier, “King Coal Gets Fatter, While the U.S. Goes On A Diet,” Energy Trades Insider, August 20, 2013, http://www.energytrendsinsider.com/2013/08/20/king-coal-gets-fatter-while-the-us-goes-on-a-diet.

[5] “Ecological Civilization,” China Daily, October 24, 2007, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2007-10/24/content_6201964.htm.

[6] “Zhou Shengxian Defends ‘Embarrassing’ Environmental Protection Ministry,” South China Morning Post, July 9, 2013, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1278961/zhou-shengxian-defends-embarrassing-environmental-protection-ministry.

[7] Jennifer L. Turner and Juli S. Kim, “China’s Filthiest Export,” Foreign Policy in Focus, January 16, 2007, http://fpif.org/chinas_filthiest_export; and Allen Best, “Made in China,” Forest Magazine, Spring 2009, http://www.fseee.org/index.php/forest-magazine/200296.

[8] Dan Shapley, “Your Tuna Is Getting More Toxic,” Daily Green, May 1, 2009, http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/tuna-mercury-47050102.


In part one of this two-part interview, Daniel K. Gardner, (Smith College) discussed the seriousness of China’s air pollution, the health implications for the Chinese people, the impact on the country’s economy, and the influence of domestic environmental NGOs. Read part one.



Daniel K. Gardner is the Dwight W. Morrow Professor of History and East Asian Studies at Smith College. He specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of premodern China and has written extensively on China’s pollution challenges. Professor Gardner has also authored numerous books and articles on the Confucian and Neo-Confucian tradition in China. He holds a PhD in Chinese History from Harvard University.