Pollution becoming a dirty word in China
Pollution is out of control in China right now. Daily readings show it going off the charts, the Chinese newspapers are full of it and people are concerned about what environmental degradation means for their health and that of their children.
The government has not gone into the possible economic impact of pollution, but the very fact that authorities are revealing data at all is a positive sign in itself as for years the default setting has been to block any efforts to cover the real extent of the problem.
There have been several signs of a new kind of openness in China about sensitive issues in the past few months since the end of the 18th Communist Party Congress in November, which appointed Xi Jinping as leader. The government appeared to bow to demands by journalists at Southern Weekend newspaper over censorship.
Incoming President Xi, who has already been confirmed head of the Communist Party and the army, and Premier Li Keqiang – they are set to be confirmed in March – have indicated a willingness to reform to help cope with a rack of financial, industrial and income imbalances that threaten China’s future.
During last week’s press conference by the National Bureau of Statistics, top official Ma Jiantang announced new official estimates for the Gini coefficient of nationwide household income.
For years critics have complained that China never released a Gini coefficient. It stood at 0.474 in 2012, down from 0.477 in 2011 and from a peak of 0.491 in 2008, Ma told reporters.
While conceding that the Gini was “relatively large”, the very fact that it is being reported at all is significant.
The economic ramifications of pollution are significant. As a number of cities try to clear the air, there have been warnings that pollution and emergency responses to cut it could damage the economy and tourism.
Economic stability is seen as vital for China as new leaders are set to take over and try to lift living standards.
There was a rebound in the economy in the last three months of 2012 when growth picked up to 7.9 per cent from 7.4 per cent in the previous three months. This will help the government in its efforts to reduce the income gap between the rural and urban communities and raise living standards.
But one of the key living standards Chinese people want to see raised is health, and stopping pollution is a vital part of that picture.
Last week authorities in the capital ordered 58 factories with high emissions to suspend operations.
Work at building sites that could cause dust, such as levelling land, were also halted, the China.orgwebsite reported.
One of the worst-affected cities was Shijiazhuang, in Hebei province, where authorities stopped work at over 700 building sites. The city has advised young children and the elderly to stay indoors.
“Pollution from the 58 factories has been cut, and we believe we can reduce their emissions by 30 per cent,” Li Hong, deputy director of Beijing’s Economy and Information Technology Commission, said at a news conference held jointly by several departments last week.
He said the factories ordered to halt operations included two cement plants, and others involved in chemicals, metallurgy and building materials. The European Commission estimates that China produced 9.7 million kilotons of carbon-dioxide in 2011, nearly double the 5.42 million kilotons produced by the United States.
The Chinese cement industry alone produced 820,000 kilotons that year.
Up to 30 per cent of government vehicles have also been banned from the capital’s roads on heavily polluted days, according to a spokesman for the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau.
That said, there are still no signs that China’s love affair with the combustion engine is waning. On the contrary, more and more people are buying cars.
Last year Volkswagen and its China joint ventures sold 2.81 million vehicles in China, up 24.5 per cent from 2011. This was due to strong sales of Volkswagen – and sister brand Audi – vehicles.