As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
For the people of Beijing in 2008, "it" was air pollution. "Up until then, every day the sky was a shade of gray or cream," says Huang Wei, Director of Greenpeace's Climate and Energy Program in Beijing, "But in the countdown time to the Olympics, the sky suddenly turned blue. Many of us, people of all ages, would stop on the street and marvel at how wonderful it was."
Beijing had shut down factories, restricted traffic, and improved public transportation, all in time for the opening ceremony of the Summer Games to escape international ridicule and embarassment for its perpetual toxic smog that made any athletic endeavor harmful to your health. But after the closing ceremony, Beijing was right back where it started. As the blue sky disappeared behind the familiar veil of smog, the people of Beijing had learned a valuable lesson: "The Olympic Games revealed to everyone - the government and the people - that in terms of solving our air pollution problem, it can be done," says Zhang Jianyu, China Director of the Environmental Defense Fund.
But China still had a ways to go. In response to the global economic crisis that same year, Chinese leaders announced a $586 billion stimulus plan focused on building infrastructure, allowing the pollution to get worse. At the same time, the U.S. embassy in Beijing installed an air monitor on its building and began broadcasting hourly levels of a range of pollutants, including PM2.5 - particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns - tiny enough to penetrate your lungs and enter your bloodstream. “Up to that point, China’s government reported the air quality, but it wasn’t very specific," says Greenpeace's Huang Wei. "If the pollution level reached a certain point, they might publish it as simply 'bad.'”
The U.S. Embassy air monitor, however, spat out numbers. People in Beijing downloaded smartphone apps that recorded the U.S. Embassy’s hourly Air Quality Index and many began to memorize what the numbers meant. 0 to 50 meant the air was good – rarely the case. An average air quality reading in Chinese cities hovered around 150 – labeled ‘unhealthy,’ but sometimes, it climbed into the 300 to 500 range, prompting officials to urge people to stay inside. “When it’s 400, I don’t ride my bike anymore,” says Zhou Xizhou, director at IHS Energy in Beijing. “There is the physical side, you can feel it," says Zhou of Beijing's worst air days, "I do feel it in my eyes, but for a lot of people it’s also psychological. Just being in a gray polluted environment, you feel somewhat suppressed.”
In the winter of 2012-13, pollution levels went beyond the U.S. Embassy’s own index, forcing airports to shut down because pilots couldn’t see the runway. The international press dubbed it ‘the airpocalypse’. That winter in Beijing saw air quality index readings climbing towards 1,000. As a comparison, when the air quality in Paris hit 150 this year, the city instituted a driving ban and offered free public transportation.
But Zhou says there is good news on the horizon. “What’s encouraging being in the energy sector is that we are seeing unprecedented actions and determination to address this issue. A part of me wishes that this will be China’s 'Silent Spring' Rachel Carson moment."
Zhou says China’s way of addressing air pollution is different from the American approach of the 1960s and '70s, the era of clean air legislation and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
China’s government prefers the mandate approach. “For example, issuing a mandate that says every coal fired power station in Beijing will be gone by the year 2016," says Zhou, "You can’t do that in America.”
China’s top-down authoritarian regime may inspire hope that China could clean up its air with a few snaps of its leaders’ fingers. But in China, central power has limits - local governments in China often disregard new mandates and laws handed down from the Beijing because there’s often no funding to implement them. “China’s local governments have no motivation at all to deal with environmental problems unless they make money," says Peking University Professor Xu Jintao. "That’s why I think a pollution tax would work. If some of that revenue goes to fund the local government, they’ll quickly help solve this problem.”
Using London as a model, Beijing has plans next year for a traffic congestion charge on drivers who enter the city. Xu says implementing these kinds of measures now, while China’s consumer culture is still young, is important because it frames a new social mindset. “China’s growth model is based on the idea that natural resources are free," says Xu, "We’ve never considered clean water, clean land, or clean air as scarce resources. But now, in China, they are scarce. Nothing is free. When you go the market, you won’t find free cabbage. You need to pay for it. And now Chinese consumers will need to pay for clean air, land, and water.”
But the Environmental Defense Fund’s Zhang Jianyu isn’t sure Chinese consumers will sacrifice the perks of being a consumer just to save the environment. “Everyone in China now wants a car, and it’s hard to deny them that," points out Zhang. "If China’s 1.3 billion people live like Americans, planet earth is finished. That’s my biggest concern. How can you deprive the Chinese of their right to become consumers and live a modern lifestyle? None of the developed countries have been good models, and we're heading down the same path of consumerism.”
It’s a path the U.S. has already traveled, polluting much of the world in the process, and now it’s China’s turn, says Zhang. If the U.S. and other developed countries don’t help China clean up, he says, the smog that plagued LA in the 1950s will return.
Except this time, it’ll be blowing from across the Pacific.