Shanghai Smog Syndrome and PRC Pollution

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 11/26/2010 12:23:00 AM
[NOTE: The photo is courtesy of my old classmate Richard who lives in Beijing but found himself in Shanghai during recent days.] Here's another all-too visible demonstration of the problem with Joshua Cooper Ramo's iteration of a "Beijing Consensus." According to Ramo back in 2004, environmental sustainability is one of the hallmarks of Chinese development. Aside from becoming the world's largest carbon emitter over the intervening years, China's problem with keeping its major cities liveable has taken many lumps. Beijing's famously bad air was dealt with by implementing fairly draconian measures like closing down adjacent factories and limiting automobile traffic during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Shanghai put similar measures in place during the just-concluded Shanghai Expo 2010, some clamping down on construction activity. With that event coming to an end, however, it seems Shanghai is back to its old smoggy ways--and worse. From our favourite official publication, the China Daily:
China's largest metropolis has suffered from high levels of pollution since early November, with pollution index figures far higher than those recorded during the six months of the World Expo. As of Wednesday, the city has witnessed its air pollution index passing 100 for eight days this month, the worst readings in the past five years. China's environmental standards rate a reading below 50 as "excellent", from 50 to 100 as "good" and above 100 as "polluted". The latest pollution occurred on Monday when the index reached 107. On Nov 13 it skyrocketed to 370, the highest level in the past decade.

When the index exceeds 300, even healthy people are likely to experience reduced endurance during physical activities, and are likely to suffer strong irritations and other symptoms. Local residents started to complain about poor air a day after the World Expo finished, when the index hit 156 on Nov 1, the highest level since March. Readings for the next day dropped to 138 and rose again to 151 on Nov 8.

The recent pollution data stood in sharp contrast to figures recorded during the multibillion-yuan fair, when more than 98 percent of the days were recorded as "good". "It seems things have returned to what they were before the Expo. I guess it is because many of the compulsory measures to fight air pollution have come to an end," said local resident Zhao Yi'an...

Still, many people believe the resumption of construction work after the Expo and the easing of pollution controls in suburban and rural areas have contributed to the recent increase in pollution. Many construction sites in the city were told to stop work during the Expo to ensure smooth traffic flow and good air quality. The government also prohibited farmers from burning straw, which is a major source of air pollutants, and launched clampdowns on heavily polluting trucks.

Shu Jiong, a climate professor from the Shanghai-based East China Normal University, said although there were "outside influences" on the recent surge in air pollutants, the government still needs to build up long-term environmental protection mechanisms to ensure hard-earned benefits from the Expo would not be wasted. "It's about building an integrated system, which includes better management of construction sites so that they control dust emissions, as well as reduced ownership of private cars and encouragement for people to use public transport," he said.

Shu added that many construction sites were again raising large clouds of dust. "The government should abandon the short-sighted attitude that priority is given to a specific event without sustained efforts to keep the measures in place for lasting improvement," he said.
The WSJ's China Real Time blog notes that things are actually worse in Beijing, if that's imaginable. So many years after Premier Wen Jiabao suggested that China growth pattern had become "unstable unbalanced, uncoordinated, and unsustainable," there are precious few signs of change--especially in the environmental department and in the capital.

Additionally, you have to question if the internal combustion engine-powered automobile is really appropriate for China. What are the health implications if automobile ownership is to rise? While denying car ownership from the Chinese is not really defensible, can you say this is progress from the bicycle-powered days of yore? Perhaps alternative ways of propulsion are needed. I sense a business opportunity somewhere in here.