There are at least two major incentives for resolving Beijing’s air pollution problems. First, humanitarian reasons dictate the urgency of reducing the mortality rates as a result of poor air quality. Second, the implementation of a cost-efficient and effective air pollution strategy inevitably leads to a treasure trove of ideas and insights that apply to other urban centers all over the planet. Beijing also serves as a case study when it comes to the challenges and pitfalls associated with the establishment of an industrial zone within a highly-populated area.
It is in the best interest of national leaders all over the planet to support Beijing’s pursuit of a cleaner environment because the city’s success reverberates to all corners of the globe.
Historical Background: Discussing Evidence From the Past
For the average Westerner, Beijing is the seat of communist power in the East. Popular images of the city that captured the public’s imagination are usually linked to textbook materials, such as, the Cold War, the Korean War, and the suppression of human rights highlighted by bloody reprisals against demonstrators staging anti-establishment protests in the said city. However, as the Western world focused on internal problems in the decade of the 80s and 90s, Beijing quietly adopted the principles and ideas that emanated from a once repugnant ideology called capitalism (Karnia 84).
Partly alarmed by the demise of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and partly goaded by intellectuals loyal to China’s Communist Party, national leaders and Chinese businessmen started embracing and implementing business models that were similar to corporate structures found in the West (Karnia 85). Thus, in the decade of the 1990s, China engineered one of the most ambitious industrialization efforts in the 20th century.
The result of the whirlwind efforts calculated to bring China to the forefront of the international economy is now evident in its strong economy and renewed political clout. However, the country paid a steep price to become one of the richest and most powerful economies in the world (Karnia 86). In the years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China was embarrassed by the international scrutiny concerning the city’s air pollution levels and the impression that both local and national governments were powerless to reverse the trend (Chen et al. 424).
The Present: Discussing Immediate and Recurring Problems
Beijing tried to solve these issues. However, there is a blind spot, and this is the contribution of neighboring provinces exacerbating the city’s dismal air quality. Before going any further, it is important to point out that it is a never-ending battle due to Beijing’s population growth and economic activity (Y. Chen et al. 424). For example, Beijing is also loaded with factories (W. Chen et al. 1243).
Beijing-based factories and energy plants prefer the use of coal as their primary source of fossil-fuel. The city’s utter dependency on the said energy source leads to historic and extremely large consumptions that at one point breached the 28 million ton mark in just one year of use (UNEP 11). The air pollution mix is made acrider by the presence of at least 1 million vehicles (UNEP 11). Automotive exhaust fumes mixed with the particulate matters from coal-burning processes produce a deadly concoction comprised of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, not to mention other chemicals released to the atmosphere as invisible byproducts of manufacturing activities (UNEP 12).
The results are disheartening if there is no turnaround strategy in place. In 2010 alone, more than 1 million Chinese citizens died as a direct result of air pollution. Four years later more than 1.5 million premature deaths were blamed on the health hazards caused by the poor air quality in China. In 2014, city officials acknowledged the fact that air pollution became one of the top four leading causes of death, after malnutrition or dietary risks, high blood pressure, and smoking-related health conditions (Chuanglin 15571). It is difficult to figure out the exact number of people that died as a direct outcome of inhaling Beijing’s polluted air.
However, studies indicated that the higher than average concentration of particulate matter had adverse health effects on children and adults. In the months before the hosting of the 2008 Summer Games, athletes expressed the desire to wear masks while attending the said event. Others contemplated not joining the Olympics due to the realization that Beijing’s air problems were already deemed as serious health hazards (Chuanglin 15571).
One way to reframe this problem is to look at the issue from another perspective. From a humanitarian point of view, consider for instance that Australia and other European nations are struggling to populate cities a certain number of inhabitants. In contrast, Chinese citizens are dying by the hundreds of thousands every year. The mortality rate is unacceptable, and regardless of ideology and political leanings, it is high time to collaborate with the Chinese government to turn things around for the better.
Aside from the city’s high mortality rate, Beijing also suffers economically. After a decade of monitoring the impact of air pollution beginning in the year 2000, experts agree that Beijing loses a significant share of the city’s earnings to deal with issues related to health care and lost productivity.
Beijing Fights Back
Without a doubt, there is an urgent need to improve Beijing’s air quality to save lives and to sustain economic growth. It does not make sense to pour investments and encourage economic activity if the people are dying every year and if earnings are diverted to pay for medical expenses.
The added impetus for solving Beijing’s health crisis is the creation of indirect benefits to urban centers all over the planet that are faced with similar challenges. In this regard, it is imperative to point out the importance of constantly monitoring and evaluating air pollution levels. For example, Beijing’s government officials diligently published reports concerning air quality since the year 2000 (W. Chen et al. 1243).
It has to be made clear that as early as 1998, Beijing’s local government already demonstrated its serious commitment to alter the city’s consumption of fossil fuels to reduce the number of toxic substances released into the atmosphere. For example, local officials ordered the refurbishment of residential heating systems that paved the way for the discontinued use of coal-powered heating mechanisms. As a result, this equipment was replaced with electric-powered heating devices. Thus, the city was able to prevent the release of thousands of tons of particulate matter on an annual basis (UNEP 13). The Beijing government also implemented a scheme aimed to control vehicle emissions.
Efforts to improve air quality was ramped up in the years leading to the Olympics, and this included not only the significant reduction in the use of coal, but also the creation of facilities designed to remove sulfur, dust, and nitrogen oxides from the atmosphere. Furthermore, the local government authorized the relocation of manufacturing plants in 2005 (Y. Chen 425). Finally, Beijing capped all its efforts with the permanent shutdown of Capital Steel Company in 2010 (Y. Chen 425). All these efforts were rewarded by substantial improvements in air quality during and after the Olympic Games.
Present Worries and Future Hope
It has to be pointed out that at present, Beijing is contending with two major challenges in the fight against air pollution. First, the demand for products and the continued rise in the migration of workers from rural areas to the nation’s capital are critical factors that will continually strain the city’s pollution control measures. Second, a particular matter from burning coal and vehicle emissions are not only limited to Beijing-based factories and automobiles, because nearby provinces are also contributors to the city’s pollution woes.
In January of 2013, Beijing was blanketed with a thick brown fog that compelled local officials to suspend classes. The event ignited a social media storm calling for long-term and permanent solutions to the worsening air pollution in China and its capital city. As a result, the State Council promulgated an action plan that mandated the creation of regional cooperation mechanisms to coordinate law enforcement procedures across provincial boundaries (Howitt 45).
Beijing’s struggle with poor air quality is far from over. Nevertheless, it is good to know that the local government demonstrated its commitment to reduce the concentration of particulate matter in the atmosphere. It is also good to know that aside from reducing the use of fossil fuels, the government also acknowledged the impact of neighboring provinces to the city’s pollution woes. It is in the best interest of other nations to collaborate and learn from Beijing’s anti-pollution measures.
Chen, Wei, et al. “Air Quality of Beijing and Impacts of New Ambient Air Quality Standard.” Atmosphere, vol. 6, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1243-1258.
Chen, Yuyu, et al. “The Promise of Beijing: Evaluating the Impact of the 2008 Olympic Games on Air Quality.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, vol. 66, no. 1, 2013, pp. 424-443.
Chuanglin, Fang, et al. “Estimating the Impact of Urbanization on Air Quality in China Using Spatial Regression Models.” Sustainability, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015, pp. 15570- 15592.
Howitt, Arnold. “Clearing the Air.” Crisis Response Journal, vol. 9, no. 4, 2013, pp. 45- 47.
Karnia, Krystian. “China’s Capitalism.” Warsaw Forum of Economic Sociology, vol. 3, no. 5, 2012, pp. 83-113.
UNEP. A Review of Air Pollution Control in Beijing: 1998-2013. United Nations Environment Program, 2016.