Choking on China

The Superpower That Is Poisoning the World

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China is the world’s worst polluter -- home to 16 of the 20 dirtiest cities and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Recent headlines have been shocking: 16,000 decaying pig carcasses in Shanghai’s Whampoa River, dire air quality reports in Beijing, and hundreds of thousands of people dying prematurely because of environmental degradation. Most recently, the country has been shaken by a mysterious virus, H7N9, which has already killed six people and has spurred health authorities to order the slaughter of thousands of pigeons, chickens, and ducks thought to carry it. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has begun work on an H7N9 vaccine.

The dangers of China’s environmental degradation go well beyond the country’s borders, as pollution threatens global health more than ever. Chinese leaders have argued that their country has the right to pollute, claiming that, as a developing nation, it cannot sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the environment. In reality, however, China is holding the rest of the world hostage -- and undermining its own prosperity.

According to the World Bank, only one percent of China’s 560 million urban residents breathe air considered safe by EU standards. Beijing’s levels of PM2.5s -- particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and can penetrate the gas exchange regions of the lungs -- are the worst in the world. Beijing’s 2012 March average reading was 469 micrograms of such particles per cubic meter, which compares abysmally with Los Angeles’ highest 2012 reading of 43 micrograms per cubic meter.

Such air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study. The unrelenting pace of construction of coal-fired power plants is only making matters worse. In his recent monograph, Climate Change: The China Problem, environmental scholar Michael Vandenbergh writes, “On average, a new coal-powered electric plant large enough to serve a city the size of Dallas opens in China every seven to ten days.” The lack of widespread coal-washing infrastructure and scrubbers at Chinese industrial facilities exacerbates the problem.

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