Over the last couple of weeks, and indeed months, the northern region of China (Beijing in particular) have been experiencing dangerously high levels of smog. The air quality has become so bad that living in the area has been made comparable to living near a forest fire and visibility is so poor that you cannot even see Beijing’s tallest sky scraper in the distance. It was recorded that Beijing’s concentration of PM 2.5 particles had reached a level of 505 micrograms/m3, 20 times the guideline value of 25 micrograms set out by the World Health Organisation. These particles are of particular interest because they are the ones able to enter the blood stream and affect the health of China’s population.
The causes to such a highly documented problem lie mainly within the realms of China’s increasing economic growth and its historical reliance on coal. With a growing economy comes a growing demand for energy and therefore a greater release of harmful substances into the atmosphere. Increased wealth of the population has also meant that the level of car ownership has increased, thus increasing the production of dangerous gases.
This problem brings with it some undeniably detrimental consequences. With regard to the environmental impact of the increased levels of smog, a link has been highlighted between the level of smog and available light. The amount of natural light is said to have been cut by half, impeding the process of plant photosynthesis.
It has also caused many economic problems. The smog has grounded flights, forced the closing of main roads and tourists as well as locals have been advised to stay in their homes, meaning that they are unable to spend money and boost the local economy. On Monday 24th February 2014, only 11,200 people visited Beijing’s Forbidden City, a number which is a quarter of its normal level. The effect on crops not only brings environmental problems, but economic ones too. If the smog persists, Chinese agricultural will be subjected to conditions said to be “somewhat similar to nuclear winter”.
With regard to social impacts, it has been reported that the life expectancy in the north, compared to the south of China is 5 years less. A study carried out in The Lancet estimates that the poor air quality can be attributed to the premature deaths of around 1.2 million people a year. This is a society that is becoming increasingly concerned with health over wealth, so what does this mean for the Chinese government?
In October of last year, Beijing introduced a system of emergency measures and smog alerts should the level of smog remain at a hazardous level for more than 3 days. If this is the case, measures will be put in place to protect the Chinese population, for example schools will be shut as well as factories. The Chinese government in 2013 promised to spend £165 billion to help tackle the problem within the next 5 years but without the sacrifice of some economic growth in favour of improved quality of life, it seems China’s pollution problem will for ever remain. For a solution to be put into practice, a complete overhaul of the economic model of growth will need to occur.