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LAST WORD: Different Shades of Grey-China’s Environmental Oxymoron: ‘Air Quality
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From Tokyo to Berlin to Chicago – the news grabbing all of the international headlines in January was the abysmal condition of the air in China. Anyone in the Beijing metropolitan area that looked out their window this past month could see the air quality was especially bad.  
 
The main culprit: low quality coal, which is abundant in China. An independent study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology titled Greener Plants, Greyer Skies? stated: “Lower-grade coal, which produces high levels of sulphur emissions, can be obtained locally, whereas the highest-grade anthracite comes mostly from China's northwest and must travel long distances to the plants, adding greatly to its cost.”  
 
Unfortunately, the short-term cost of doing business always seems to trump the long-term cost of potentially irreversible damage to the environment. A closer look reveals just how bad the conditions really are.  
 
The internationally accepted unit by which air quality is measured is TPM 2.5 per cubic square metre (ug/m3) – an ambiguous sounding measurement which refers to the number of micro-particles in the air. The number 2.5 refers to micrometres; meaning that the devices only detect particulates of that size or smaller – those that are particularly harmful to the human repository system. In Beijing, the measurement on Sunday, 13 January was 886 ug/m3.  
 
TPM 2.5 is just one unit taken into account when calculating the overall air quality index, but most experts agree that it’s the most important. The rationale, as posted on their website, is: “The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems. Small particles... pose the greatest problems, because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.”
 
To put this in perspective, the US Environmental Protection Agency issues a public safety warning for any measurement over 250 ug/m3 because it can be potentially hazardous to the population, particularly to infants and the elderly. On 25 January, I decided to check which US city had the highest TPM 2.5 reading. Surprisingly, the areas surrounding Salt Lake City, Utah had the highest measurements at 98 ug/m3.  This represents a fraction of the recent measurements in Beijing and is still considerably less than China’s industrial cities even on normal days.  
 
In light of this information, it might appear that the United States has done a comparatively good job at limiting harmful pollutants and also with keeping the population informed of the dangers. Wrong. The US was the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gasses up until 2009 when China surpassed them – the two countries combined produce 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  
 
Together the talking heads in the US and Europe have made the recent conditions in Beijing the complaint du jour; but when viewed with a bit of historical context it would appear they don’t have much moral high-ground to stand on.   
 
The rapid industrialisation of Europe and the US in the 1800’s was responsible for pollution levels which make China’s problems seem tame by comparison. Hyper development often produces results which are unexpected and difficult to cope with – the Great Stink of London is a prime example. America’s “Rust Belt” cities of Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland were perpetually blanketed in smog during America’s Industrial Revolution.  
 
Without any knowledge beyond the physical manifestations which could immediately be seen (or smelled), nations forged ahead with impunity and a complete lack of consideration of long-term consequences.  Plus, without the internet or 24-hour news cycles, the level of scrutiny on these developing countries was likely not as intense. 
 
Ultimately the perpetrators in Europe and America started to become aware of the long-term dangers of pollution and began making reforms late in the 19th century; awareness was heightened after the Second World War and laid the foundation for what is the “modern environmental movement”.
 
The difference between now and then was of course the limited data regarding the long term effects of pollution – the words “Global Warming” and “Greenhouse Gasses” hadn’t entered the national discourse yet.  
 
Nonetheless, plenty of damage had been done by that time and in spite of improvements, environmental dangers persist in the developed world. Developing countries like China and India can claim they’re only doing what is necessary to keep up with the pace of the developed world – the West threw the first punch; the East is only doing what is necessary to stay in the proverbial economic fight.   
 
This is the kind of logic that helped to sink the Environmental Summit in Copenhagen in 2009 – predictably, the US used China’s resistance to committing to specific emissions targets as a convenient excuse to put forth their own substandard emission reduction plan.  Thus, a negative feedback cycle has been created because no countries are willing to sacrifice their own national interests in the face of unfair completion from non-compliant states.  
 
That’s not to say that the Chinese government isn’t responding to the challenges.  Huge investments have already been made in nuclear power, “clean coal”, wind and solar - green energy is big business in China.  The biggest problem faced, however, is that much of this technology is either economically inefficient, insufficient or unpopular (namely nuclear power in light of the Fukushima disaster).  China’s burgeoning population and insatiable appetite for energy sources needed to support its rapid growth means that for now, coal is a still a cost effective and plentiful option.   
 
In the short term, Beijing has responded promptly with new measures hoping to reduce small particulates 2% in 2013.  Cao Yin and Zheng Xin of China Daily recently shed light on some of these plans, “...the heating systems of 44,000 aging single-story houses and coal-burning boilers downtown are being replaced by clean-energy sources... (and) the government will also take 180,000 old automobiles off the road.” The reduction is conservative at best and certainly seems like a knee-jerk reaction to the recent onslaught of bad press; nonetheless it’s a step in the right direction if successfully implemented.  
 
New President, Xi Jinping, has his work cut out for him when he takes over control of the CPC in March. Trying to revitalise and reshape China’s economy, fighting graft and handling a hotly debated monetary policy are among the priorities for the President in waiting. Hopefully he, along with the leaders from other developing countries and the West, will keep an eye on the ball in regards to environmental reforms. After all, you can’t negotiate with Mother Nature – let’s hope action is taken before we reach a point where the damage is irreversible!
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By Christopher Ribeiro

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