The recent announcement that heavy smog has triggered an orange level alert in Beijing, the densely populated capital of China, once again drew the attention of the international community to the environmental problems China faces. In fact, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is paying a staggering price for its rapid industrial and economic growth, since the levels of air and water pollution in urban areas are at unprecedented levels across China. Moreover, the sorry state of Chinese ecology has ceased being its internal issue, since the extensive amount of damage that China inflicted on the environment has started affecting neighboring countries and the planet as a whole, provoking new tensions in the state of international relations.
There’s little doubt that air pollution is among the primarily concerns of the international community. In most Chinese cities the maximum acceptable levels of air pollution have been exceeded two or even three times. The toxic haze produced by coal plants and heavy industry factories is a long-standing and persistent problem that the PRC has been facing. It gets particularly dense in the Chinese capital and surrounding areas. In 2015 air pollution levels in Beijing have hit record levels. The situation got particularly tense last November due to the increased use of heating, since the absolute majority of Chinese boiler stations are using coal to produce heat, even despite the fact that coal combustion is one of the main factors believed to drive the greenhouse effect.
The second most serious cause of air pollution in China is exhaust emissions which pushed the level of concentration of hazardous substances in the air in Beijing last November to exceed the maximum acceptable level of the World Health Organization by more than 17 times. This fact forced city’s authorities to declare a so-called “orange alert”. This is not the highest possible level but when it’s declared factories are ordered to cut production, the transportation of building materials and industrial wastes is prohibited and heavy trucks are not allowed to enter the city area.
Later on, Chinese officials were forced to announce the highest level of air pollution alert – red – which was in effect until December 22, 2015 . Yet on December 25, they declared orange alert once again. According to the standards of the World Health Organization, the maximum acceptable concentration of harmful microscopic particles in the air is 25 micrograms per cubic meter per day. According to sources at the US embassy on December 25 this level has been exceeded by 25, with the particles concentration reaching 620 micrograms. Due to low visibility, Beijing International Airport canceled hundreds of flights.
Beijing is not the only one to suffer, about 50 cities in the northern and eastern parts of China are experiencing similar problems. Recently in 10 large cities, authorities advised people to stay home because of excessive levels of toxic substances in the air.
But the sad news is that Beijing’s problems is just the tip of the iceberg, which should draw public attention to the huge amount of environmental problems in China that have accumulated over the years due to uncontrolled industrialization. Chinese authorities have started taking them seriously recently since environmental problems have become a threat to national security. Air pollution, contaminated water and soil leads to a huge amount of various diseases among the population. According to the World Bank, up to 750,000 people are dying annually due to the air pollution in China. Hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from the poor quality of drinking water and from acid rain. The situation has even endangered the ruling political order in China since people have been protesting further development of hazardous industries for years now. Mass rallies are often turning into riots, that result in clashes with the police and attacks on government buildings.
The situation at hand has been demanding urgent measures to be taken for a while. Back in 2013, China began a campaign for environmental protection, allocating a hefty sum of some 600 billion dollars to make it a reality. After numerous inspections, the Chinese government decided to close up to 17,000 facilities that were polluting the environment back in 2015, another 28,000 had to cease their operations. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection of China, nearly 1.5 million enterprises were subjected to a thorough inspection, a huge portion of which were initiated by citizens and their complaints about the state of environment.
Despite all these measures, the Chinese environmental crisis is not going anywhere. China’s growing economy requires more resources. As the demand for electricity has been growing steadily, China carries on with the construction of thermal power stations across the country. In the coming years the country can open more than 500 new stations that will be hazardous to the environment. Despite the fact that China has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, it faces no restrictions on the level of emissions it produces since it is still a developing country.
Additionally, China can overtake the United States in the number of personal vehicles being sold every year. Currently, the Chinese government is taking all possible measures to maximize the popularity of electric cars, since they are friendly to the environment. However, hydrocarbon powered vehicles are not going anywhere, which makes China one of the main culprits of global warming, which even today presents a threat to the ecological security of the whole world.
Moreover, there are other environmental problems: the uncontrolled discharge of sewage and toxic waste into rivers and coastal waters which contaminates huge areas; ill-conceived agricultural policies, leading to soil erosion and gradual transformation of once fertile soils into deserts – all this affects China’s neighbors in one way or another.
In particular, more than two dozen rivers in Central Asia start in China, and its authorities are taking full advantage of this fact, often without taking into account the interests of the countries that lay downstream.
Russia is also facing risks here, since Chinese plants have repeatedly discharged toxic substances in the Songhua River, a tributary of the Russian Amur. Enterprises that are not equipped with purification facilities, often dump all wastes directly into the river – in water that flows to Russia, presenting a possible catastrophe to the whole Amur region. At the same time, China simply ignores these facts and doesn’t respond to any demands from Russian authorities.
As a result of these developments, Russia decided to establish an analytical monitoring center of water quality in Khabarovsk that should keep a watchful eye on the state of the Amur and Ussuri rivers, along with increasing the number of hydrological stations along the banks of these rivers.
The recent international conference in Dushanbe on the state of today’s drinking water reserves gathered up 1,500 participants from across the globe. The President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rakhmon, proposed to hold a decade under the motto “water for sustainable development”, however the results of the conference are not binding in their nature.
It becomes obvious that the Chinese environmental disaster is not merely an internal problem of China, therefore, there’s no solving it without the joint effort of the international community. The only problem is to persuade Chinese authorities to cooperate with other countries in order to address the grave environmental problems it faces along with its neighbors.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.