Air pollution in China is a man made environmental and human catastrophe. It poisons the air people breathe, the water they drink and the food they eat.  It fouls rivers and contaminates soil and hides blue skies behind deep layers of grey, sinister smog.

Air pollution in China can reduce life expectancy by as much as 5.5 years  CC: Leo Fung, 2010

Air pollution in China can reduce life expectancy by as much as 5.5 years

Air quality is measured, monitored and reported at hundreds of locations across China today. A pollution index has been established to provide guidance and runs on a scale from zero to 500. Anything lower than 50 is considered ‘safe’ while anything above 300 is deemed ‘hazardous’.  (Thankfully, I live in Shenzhen in south China where the index seldom rises above 50).

When the index rises above 300, as it often does in mega cities like Shanghai (population: c. 24m), Beijing (population: c. 21m) and Tianjin (population: c. 15 million), people are advised to avoid physical activity, while those with health conditions are encouraged to stay indoors. In some parts of China, the index has recorded levels in excess of 500. People in the worst affected areas regularly wear breathing masks that keep pollutants from entering their lungs. This extreme pollution, which research suggests reduces life expectancy by an average of 5.5 years, is the ugly consequence of China’s rapidly growing, production-based economy.

Western government’s regularly (and rightly) call on the Chinese government to address this pollution problem, to sign up to challenging carbon reduction targets and to reduce the global environmental damage caused by the factories, the oil refineries and the coal-fired power generating plants upon which China’s economic growth is built and depends.

There is evidence that the Chinese government is trying to address the issue. It has committed $283 billion to tackle pollution over the next five years. However, the level of industrial growth that China needs to generate to ensure it continues to develop means that the solution is continually trying to keep up with the problem and it’s a double-edged sword: China’s economic growth over the last 30 years has lifted 600 million Chinese people out of poverty. Sometimes, balance is the most difficult goal to achieve.

But here’s the rub. The balance of trade deficit between China and Europe and China and the United States combined was just over $500 billion in 2012. In other words, China exported $500 billion of goods and services more to Europe and the US than it imported from the same regions.

This means that the goods produced in China’s production plants are being produced, in large part, for overseas (mostly western) markets. Western consumers have become addicted to the over-consumption of often unnecessary products at prices that only a low-cost manufacturing base, such as exists in China, can provide.

Everything from smart phones, games consoles (which, ironically are effectively banned in China), consumer goods, clothes, spectacles and industrial production equipment are manufactured in China for global markets.  Once made, they have to be shipped to the four corners of the world, creating further environmental carnage. In other words, ‘developed’ western countries have effectively outsourced and off-shored a large element of their environmental liability to ‘emerging’ markets.

That means solving China’s (and other emerging economies) environmental problems needs to be a team effort. So the next time we feel compelled to treat ourselves, and before we point fingers, maybe we should first ask:

“Whose pollution is it anyway?”


Image credit: Leo Fung, 2010