Yesterday I wrote about the health effects of pollution on the general Chinese population.
(from a Photo essay on pollution in China)
Today I am going to look at the question: Where does all this pollution come from?
Which has an easy answer – Coal burning power plants, coal heated homes, and coal roasted sweet potatoes.
The coal roasted sweet potatoes aren’t a joke sadly, they are a common sight throughout China. In Guangxi many restaurants used cement buckets with coal bricks for cooking. In a matter of minutes my entire respiratory system would stage a protest, and I would have to run out with my nose running, coughing like I had just been tear gassed. This embarrassing reaction only happens to foreigners since all the locals’ lungs were used to it.
There is also the answer that is harder to complain about; China’s massive population is becoming wealthier. More people have access for the first time to cars, washing machines, computers, cell phones, and many other things we take for granted. The fact we hate to admit is that quality of life and power consumption are fairly closely linked.
Another thing to consider is that many problems do not happen in a linear progression which makes them much harder to anticipate. For example: a 10% increase in the number of cars on the road increases your commute time by more than 10% increasing the amount of pollution your trip produces.
As traffic increases public transportation becomes even less appealing too, since it is uncomfortable to stand on a crowded bus for 45 minutes like I did last night to travel just under 2 miles. It was actually so crowded that there were people who no longer had to hold on to the handles since they were wedged so tightly in between everyone else. So it is an easy choice, it’s better to sit for an hour in the private bubble that is your car, than it is to spend any amount of time smushed against strangers that have never considered purchasing deodorant.
Last weekend I traveled about an hour outside of Nanjing to a small city called Lishui to visit some friends, and was amazed that the horizon never became even slightly blue, just a dirty haze (soon to be trademarked by crayola as “China Gray”). So even though the official explanation is that the quality of life is improving which leads to pollution, it doesn’t seem to really explain the extent of it. Lishui has less than half the population of Indianapolis, but it has the same levels of pollution as Nanjing.
I think that perhaps the final factor is that China’s economy simply isn’t energy efficient, for each $ of GDP China generates 2.5kg of CO2. The emphasis on GDP has lured all kinds of factories to move to China with the allure of limited (read: no) environmental regulations. So while China’s economy has been growing impressively, so has the cloud of pollution that drapes over every city.