Remember the Beijing Olympics of 2008? A world-renowned stadium. An opening ceremony of unparalleled power and vibrancy. Beautiful blue skies. It was a picture-postcard moment.
At the time visiting reporters regaled the wonderfully clean air, some even claiming the government could make the skies rain on command to wash away the pollution. But to Beijing residents accustomed to temporary prevailing winds, and more importantly subjective policy enforcement, clear skies were a welcome illusion. No one really expected them to last after the games concluded.
And soon after brown became the new blue. Skies darkened. The sun faded behind a familiar beige-orange haze. Factories, forced to shut soon made up for lost time clogging the skies with pollution. The “fog” had returned, though in truth it was an unnatural cousin to moisture trapped by cold fronts against a ring of nearby mountains. (See this China Air Daily/Asia Society slider of June 2009 bad air vs. blue sky days).
Over the last week or so Beijing has suffered under an extraordinarily bad pollution epidemic with air quality measurements soaring to over 800 according to a U.S. Embassy monitoring station (“safe” levels hover closer around 35-75 depending on U.S or Chinese standards respectively). Even using lower Chinese government readings the numbers were staggering (note: just before the Beijing Olympics official monitoring equipment was moved further outside the city center and to no surprise air quality numbers improved dramatically so doubts remain about “official” statistics.)
Since 2008 two significant changes have occurred. The Chinese government finally decided to report measurements at the far more dangerous PM 2.5 level where particulates small enough to invade lung tissue can cause respiratory disease. The media has also been given extraordinary leeway (at least for the moment) to report on the pollution problem.
What doesn’t seem to have changed is the enforcement of Chinese environmental laws passed years ago meant to protect the public against this very kind of devastating human-made air disaster. Are state-owned enterprises, some of the worst polluters with coal-fired power plants and cement factories, using the scrubbers they supposedly installed? Apparently not, or maybe only when inspectors come to visit.
Have state or national level environmental protection bureaus dramatically increased staffing, equipment and enforcement actions against polluters, despite the billions of dollars spent in pre-Olympic pollution control? Doesn’t seem like it.
Political will remains the major determinant of blue skies over Beijing and elsewhere. In today’s changing China where tens of thousands of people increasingly protest over polluted water and unsafe plant emissions the status quo can’t remain unchanged indefinitely. Absent the power of the vote, physical demonstrations are the only outlet for an increasingly victimized populace. Postcards of 2008 are fading fast. The only key decision left is whether to raise public health above breakneck growth and entrenched economic interests. Slightly less than phenomenal profits in the service of breathable air doesn’t seem like too great a compromise.
Image: NASA satellite imagery 12/11/12 (taken before the latest record pollution levels)