Just recently, American papers have been keen to publish that China’s disastrously high pollution levels are wafting across the Pacific and onto the American west coast. Cities such as Los Angeles have received a rise in nitrogen oxide, sulphate and carbon monoxide from Chinese factories, resulting in acid rain and an extra day of smog per year. It all appears to be a case of ‘outsourcing’ coming back to bite the US in the backside. One Chinese twitterati even playfully called it a case of the Chinese unleashing ‘chemical weaponry.’


A 29-page draft UN report published in December 2013reveals that the West is increasingly outsourcing its carbon pollution to China and other rising economies such as India and Brazil in the form of electronic goods, cheap clothing and other manufactured products. So it’s little wonder that people are asking who is responsible for this rise in what can be considered ‘trans-boundary pollution.’


China’s coal-burning is the most powerful contributor to the rise of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide according to the UN; rising economies like China surpass both Europe and America combined in carbon dioxide emissions. In July 2012 alone, China proposed the construction of 363 new coal-fired plants; air pollution continues to be rampant particularly in the urban centers and North of China.


Recently, air pollution has been the big headline grabber both inside and outside of China. In highly urban eastern cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Tianjin outdoor air pollution is so noxious that leading newspapers dub it the ‘airpocalypse.’ “Ambient particulate matter pollution,” as it is otherwise known, uses a PM 2.5 reading to measure the level of dangerous particulate matter in the air as a metric for air quality. These fine particles that come from the fuel burnt to run cars and large steel factories measure less than 2.5 micrometers (1/30th the size of a human hair) and travel further and stay longer in the air than coarser particles. The extent of China’s ‘off-the-scale’ pollution is patent when you compare Beijing’s air pollution levels, which can reach up to 700 micrograms per cubic meter, to the ‘safe level’ prescribed by the World Health Organization at around 25 micrograms/cubic meter.


This all ends up posing a fiscal and moral burden on the government. In 2010, in monetary terms, air pollution cost the Chinese government $230 billion (or 3.5 % of GDP), three times the amount in 2004, as estimated by a research institute under the Ministry of Environmental Protection in China, in the form health care and environmental cleanups.


These fine particles also have graver implications on human health because they travel deeper into the lungs and are chemically more toxic than coarse PM10 particles. China’s problem with air pollution is an intense example of the tradeoff between fast-track economic growth and environmental quality (huangjing as they call it); but it is also a tradeoff between economic growth and public health. The human cost of this growth amounts to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010 according to the Global Burden of Disease Study’s data published in the same year. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer just recently announced that this kind of air pollution is “carcinogenic.”


One story that has particularly shaken the Chinese media and microblogging, twittersphere is the story of an 8 year old dying from lung cancer caused by the pollution. On a stopover in Shanghai to visit my grandparents, I was well aware that the Shanghai residents felt disgruntled with the environmental quality, not to mention food and water quality. On the busy crowded streets of Shanghai, people take to wearing masks and I’ve heard just recently that the government is even considering free distribution of protective face-masks in Shanghai. Growing up, Shanghai residents always complained that Beijing was the more polluted of the two cities but it seems in the last few years alone China’s financial hub is submitting to the same fate with school closures and flight cancellations. The Chinese public continues to vocalize their anger through microblogging and Twitter platforms such as the Chinese Sina Weibo. They are evidence that environmental and health quality, unlike democracy, is no ‘elephant in the room.’ The government was forced back in 2011 by vocal bloggers to disclose PM 2.5 data on air pollution levels. Even after disclosure, in many instances, there were disparities in readings between the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection and the US Embassy with the Bureau citing ‘slight’ levels of pollution and the US Embassy warning that they were ‘hazardous.’ Now the government publishes hourly updates in 70 major cities on air quality data and promises to be more transparent. After all, the government realizes that they stand to lose a lot from the political cost of pollution. Such visible levels of poisonous pollution discredit the government and pose a threat to social stability.


So the question is: can the Chinese Government ‘de-obfuscate’ the urban skies not to mention the air quality readings? Xi Jinping has shown strong commitment to find solutions compared to his predecessors who in 2010 were ignoring or overlooking some of the horrific statistics. The State Council is committed to to ‘clean air’ plan by 2017 which will cost $817 million and already in Beijing there are color-coded emergency measures for bad pollution days: red signifying the most serious air pollution threat, orange the second, yellow the third and blue the fourth and lowest level of threat. Xi Jinping is also committed to reducing carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020 from 2005 levels and aims to increase renewable energy to 20% of energy consumption by 2030. Certainly, China has the financial and political capital to make ‘greener’ strides in a shorter space of time than say the US which approaches carbon through tax breaks that need to be regularly renewed. And China’s success in attracting more green energy investments is a source of hope. If the government continues to fund technological innovation addressing air, water and soil pollution through things like energy saving products, waste disposal, electric vehicles and pollution monitoring than there is a chance for the Forbidden Palace to be not so ‘forbidden’ from view and for Shanghai to uncover its beautiful vibrant architecture and culture.


Shanghai itself aims to follow Beijing’s suit and eliminate 500 “heavily polluting installations and facilities” according to the Mayor by 2014. With my Shanghainese background, I continue to live in hope that Shanghai will once again be the colorful place from my childhood. I believe that the two things that will clean up China’s skies are the local social media outlets that motivate governments to ‘clean up their act’ as well as the incentive of the US to help clean up. Back in the 1950s and 60s, the US underwent similar issues with environmental quality and could do a great deal to support China’s recovery from pollution. The US also has an environmental incentive to lend a helping hand given the trans-boundary pollution that’s been transported to its shores. After all, ‘no one loves the smell of pollution in the morning.


(You can refer to the twitter site @Beijingair for hourly updates on Beijing’s air quality)