The Battle for China's Skies
Industrialization on a massive scale brought wealth and prosperity to China, even in towns that were previously considered remote. But the industrial boon has been a double-edged sword, particularly for a culture where health and prosperity are valued equally. Heavy industry has made China the world's largest contributor of greenhouse gasses, which emit from its many coal-fired plants and huge steel mills.
However, the winds of change are already blowing in China.
According to reports, approximately 1.1 million people in China die every year as a result of the country's polluted air — a figured matched only by India. Other reports estimate that 3.5 million people die worldwide yearly due to air pollution, mostly from pollution created by huge manufacturing countries like China.
Clamor from the people has caused the Chinese government to pay careful attention to the country's air pollution problem. “Having this urban middle-class outcry about air quality actually gives the leadership a lot of legitimacy to push through some of the difficult reforms they have been wanting to achieve," Ma Tianjie, Beijing managing editor of a London-based environmental website, told National Geographic.
The Chinese government's efforts to fight air pollution and improve the health of its citizens are noteworthy. They've invested heavily in alternative, renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, which prompted the closure of more than 100 coal-fired power plants in March. The government is also hoping to implement better car emissions standards by 2020, promoting higher-quality diesel and gasoline, and putting forth efforts in some cities to increase the usage of electric vehicles.
A Serious, Global Affair
The efforts to reduce air pollution in China range from the seemingly minor — asking residents to refrain from using coal stoves and furnaces in their homes — to the massive — scaling back steel production capacity by an additional 50 million tons. Best of all, the Chinese government is doing all of this with the utmost transparency. For example, it's making data from its nationwide tracking network for PM2.5 — small, hazardous combustion particles that can penetrate the body — available to the public.
Fortunately, laudable efforts to combat air pollution and the bigger problem of climate change aren't limited to China. Denmark, Scotland, Costa Rica, and others have also shown that they are serious about closing down coal-fired power plants and relying on renewable energy sources. In the U.S., several states are firm in their commitment to fight global warming by reducing their carbon footprint, while Europe as a whole is committed to closing a number of its coal plants.
The problem of air pollution and climate change affects everybody, not just those within the boundaries of a particular country. Efforts by any one country benefit those far beyond its borders, so we can all be thankful that the Chinese government is willing to listen to its people — people who have suffered and have seen the effects of air pollution and climate change firsthand.