China’s rapid economic rise has transformed the country, turning it into an economic powerhouse and pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But that progress has come at a price that China’s leaders are still failing to deal with.
As the Chinese have flocked to cities – nearly 700 million of its citizens now live in urban areas – the skies over their heads have darkened. As GDP grows so does the number of days every year on which air quality is dangerous to human health. Currently the concentration of dangerous particles in the air is five times higher than what is considered safe by the World Health Organisation.
China burns four billion tonnes of coal every year. It’s the world’s largest emitter of mercury, carbon dioxide and arsenic. As the Chinese ditch their bicycles for cars, airside pollution is getting worse by the day. China’s lakes and rivers are quickly being contaminated – even the Beijing government admits that 20 per cent of the country’s water is undrinkable. According to the most recent estimate, pollution cost the Chinese healthcare system $112bn (€86.3bn) in 2005 and 650,000 people die prematurely from ailments caused by pollution every year.
Visit the cities of Chengdu in the southwest province of Sichuan or Harbin in the far northeast or Sanya in the south and you’ll get a comprehensive view of the impact of China’s development. Sometimes you wake up to skies so grey you can’t see the buildings across the street. When the sky does clear, you see such beautiful dusks you know they can’t be real – they’re burning in bright pinks and oranges as a result of pollution in the atmosphere.
In all of these places you come across building sites for the new highways and the new cities being tacked onto the existing ones where China’s new middle class will live and drive to work in their shiny new cars.
But as the impact of pollution begins to reverse China’s economic gains, the government is keeping characteristically quiet on how it plans to stop the fast-expanding environmental degradation of this country. We’re seeing an increase in people taking to the streets across China to protest the opening of new plants and factories but in the end the destruction goes on more or less unabated.
The new China envisioned by its leaders surely didn’t include a blueprint for how to create a ticking pollution time bomb but there’s ample proof on China’s streets this is precisely what it’s facing. For how long can the great nation of China go on polluting without seeing its great economic project fail?