Popular Topic: Beijing Pollution

March 8, 2013

On my infrequent trips to the U.S., I enjoy listening to folks talk about China. The fun is twofold: hearing the misconceptions and finding out what China issue has risen to a level where your average American is aware of it.

To determine what China issue is making the rounds usually requires several days, at least with the people I usually talk to. FYI, in the past it was usually lawyers, many of which came to Asia on an infrequent basis, if at all.

On this trip, it’s been mostly software guys and administrative/exec types. What makes this crowd different is that a very high percentage of them have to been to China recently, many within the past year. Moreover, since the company has a significant presence in China, the country never really drops off anyone’s radar screen.

So given all that, it took basically 1/2 of my first day to determine that the China story on everyone’s mind is . . . the air pollution in Beijing.

As a long-time Beijing resident, this actually made me a bit sad. The one thing that foreigners, and least the ones over here, are associating with the country, and the capital city I’ve lived in for so long, is the air quality. That’s a bummer.

I’ve been saying for a while now that I have confidence that the government will eventually solve this problem. In addition to the health problems, the image/PR problem is significant. Based on my experience over the past week, I think I underestimated the PR disaster that is Beijing’s air.

If officials begin to realize that folks in other countries are not talking about Beijing opera or duck or the Forbidden City, but rather coughing and air filters and such, perhaps that will spur some new government policy in this area.

I’m trying to find a silver lining here . . .

8 thoughts on “Popular Topic: Beijing Pollution

  1. Jack Fensterstock

    The only way for the government to solve the problem of air pollution in Beijing is to impose restrictions on the further growth of the city and environs. Then they need to slowly redevelop the city based on environmental considerations. This essentially means limiting the load of emissions. Bottom-line here is that the emissions load has exceeded the absorptive and cleansing ability of Beijing’s natural environment and meteorology.

  2. Rens Metaal

    No easy solutions because it is not just Beijing. It’s the whole of China. You can clean up Beijing but the smog from Hebei and Dongbei will still heavily pollute the Beijing skies. Just start with taking on the biggest issues in the whole of China requires:

    - Actually using filters on coal power plants and steel plants exhausts and cleaning/changing the filter elements as needed and not once every 10 years if ever.
    - Have better heating systems installed instead of thoudands and thousandes of small boiler units for district heating
    - Forcing oil companies to produce gasoline and diesel that does not contain a gazillion times the amount of sulphur one might expect in modern fuels
    - fight dust pollution from open pit mines, building sites and open coals trucks or logistic centers for coal.
    -Look critically at city infrastructure to allow for even more public transport options especially in the inner city areas.
    - Start being serious about energy conservation.

    That’s enough work already laid out for the first decade to come. The scale of the problem is mind boggling.

  3. Tom Woodsworth

    “If officials begin to realize that folks in other countries are not talking about Beijing opera or duck or the Forbidden City, but rather coughing and air filters and such, perhaps that will spur some new government policy in this area”

    They definitely have – it’s what Rumsfeld would ascribe as a “known, known” to everyone, whether they give a damn is something different, like everywhere else in the world. Their recent announcements, particularly wrt implementing some sort of carbon tax as part of a comprehensive environmental levy overhaul at the local (and highly corruptible) environmental bureaus is extremely interesting – whether or not it pans out is up to China and the rest of the world. A good chunk of that air pollution in Beijing is a biproduct of the West exporting dirty industries abroad. For polluter-pay to work, you need a rock solid carbon inventory/monitoring system that would be incredibly enticing to cheat on. Considering how well Chinese Provinces & local hydro-developers fleeced the Kyoto era Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) program through an utter lack of “additionally testing”, allowing a hydro-developer already planning on building 5-6 small-dams to get UN CDM’s subsidizing 2 out of those 6 dams.

    Anyways, long-story short: it’s definitely in China’s interest to frame how international carbon-pricing works going forward. Considering how few jurisdictions actually employ it (British Columbia, Ireland, Australia soon, Qu├ębec has a soft-one built into their Hydro bills…) it’s still a relatively new realm, politicians preferring ineffectual cap & trade schemes that are easily gamed. You certainly could cheat any carbon tax of course, but the entire mechanism is more upfront and transparent in comparison to the dynamics of C&P market.

    I’m more optimistic than most it seems, but I find China’s policy experiments utterly fascinating, even when they crash and burn.
    Here’s one hesitant, one optimistic take on the news:
    http://www.carbonbrief.org/blog/2013/02/are-we-overinterpreting-chinas-carbon-tax-discussions
    http://www.lfpress.com/2013/03/08/dyer-china-strong-voice-in-favour-of-carbon-tax

  4. Tom Woodsworth

    I should also add that transparent, simple carbon taxes are a global rarity, 2013 will see China join Ireland, Canadian Provinces of British Columbia & Quebec to a lesser extent, and Australia last year. This is an issue that gives China’s elite considerable grief (look at how many of their kids they send away for school) but they need to make this an issue of global equity.

  5. slim

    I’m surprised when I ask around (I live in the states) how many people remark about Chinese nationalists on the Internet. This may be a subset of interest in hacking and cybertheft or censorship, but any US media coverage of China issues inevitably draws the hoards of angry youth or 50-centers — and it is a universal turnoff. I have a kind of fascinated disgust with fenqing logic and the patriotically (mis)educated, but it is sad that China’s uphill battle to create some soft power in this world is undermined by insignificant zombie spammers like pug_ster and the millions like him.