Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley of the New York Times, on August 26th, produced an excellent story on China’s industrial success/toxic pollution nexus. The situation is dire, and China’s difficulties overcoming the Victorian England-like pollution troubles in order to host an Olympics palpable to the rest of the world are well known, and have been covered recently in similar excellent coverage in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s a brief section of the NYT report:
…it is not clear that China can rein in its own economic juggernaut.
Public health is reeling. Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.
Chinese cities often seem wrapped in a toxic gray shroud. Only 1 percent of the country’s 560 million city dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Beijing is frantically searching for a magic formula, a meteorological deus ex machina, to clear its skies for the 2008 Olympics.
Environmental woes that might be considered catastrophic in some countries can seem commonplace in China: industrial cities where people rarely see the sun; children killed or sickened by lead poisoning or other types of local pollution; a coastline so swamped by algal red tides that large sections of the ocean no longer sustain marine life.
China is choking on its own success
And this is not merely a problem for the Chinese. Acid rain containing sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from Chinese coal-fired power plants falls on Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo. The Journal of Geophysical Research reports that much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China.
The World Health Organization and World Bank independently found that total deaths in China due to pollution have reached 750,000 a year. Chinese experts interviewed claimed that the Western estimates “probably understate the problems.” The World Bank told the NYT that China’s environmental agency asked them to remove this number from the Spring 2007 final report, claiming the numbers could detrimentally impact “social stability.”
The question, of course, is who has the credibility and sway to either guide China toward responsible environmental policies, or model a path forward by example.