“Crazy bad” was the phrase used by the US Embassy to describe air pollution on January 11 2013 in Beijing. They noted an Air Quality Index (AQI) reading of 755. The top of the AQI scale? 500.
While people took to Twitter noting the “apocalyptic” scenes that were occurring in Beijing as a thick smog descended upon the city, the Chinese government refused to comment. Such occurrences are hardly rare in China and its many major urban centres. For the past several decades, the West has been pushing a green agenda, while China has always seemed to remain disinterested.
Reform is long overdue and China is currently in the midst of an environmental crisis. In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that over one million Chinese residents a year are killed by air pollution. Meanwhile the country leads the world in CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions, as well as just about every other pollution measure available.
Equally concerning has been China’s history of rejecting treaties, NGO advice and proposals from other governments on tackling environmental issues. This most noticeably culminated in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord (COP15). While the conference aimed to be a potential solution to the global issue of climate change, Copenhagen proved to be far from it. Even a fresh-faced Barack Obama, on the back of 2008 electoral success, combined with the UN’s “Hopenhagen” campaign, was no match for the stubborn objections of Chinese politicians. Xie Zhenhua, head of China’s delegation, exclaimed “for the Chinese, this was our sovereignty and our national interest” at stake.
However, 2014 marked the beginning of a new era in China’s approach to the environment. The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, famously declared: “We will resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty.” Such declarations were, at the time, largely seen as an irrelevant gesture, to quiet the environmental community, yet they have proven to be far from it.
What President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang have done, quite unlike any nation in the world, is make the tackling of climate change a national and patriotic cause. It’s for the betterment of the state, and an issue Chinese people are aware of and concerned about. Over twice as many Chinese people think climate change is a threat to the world compared to their American counterparts.
Yet one must be aware that China’s system of government better facilitates implementing these changes. While Xi can drive through environmental reform, the United States’ democratic nature has caused environmentalism to be politicised, and progress on the issue to be gridlocked.
Trump’s election has also had a considerable effect on the attitude of the US towards tackling environmental issues. While the US is cutting its Environmental Protection Agency budget, China is increasing theirs. President Xi recently said that environmental reform is a central part of his vision as leader. In his speech at last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, he declared: “It is important to protect the environment while pursuing economic and social progress – to achieve harmony between man and nature.”
While most remain sceptical on the Chinese commitment to the environment, the results are positive. A study last month by the University of Chicago concluded, ‘We don’t have a historical example of a country achieving such rapid reductions in air pollution. It’s remarkable’. The University of Chicago study showed a reduction of a common air pollution particle by an average of 32% over the last 4 years
To aid this progress, the mayor of Beijing, Cai Qi, announced the creation of an environmental police force in order to better punish those responsible for environmental misconduct. Alongside this, China’s pollution reporting sources have doubled since 2010; it has also restructured its environmental ministry, and has set increasingly ambitious environmental targets, which it’s determined to meet.4
For too long, America has used China as a scapegoat for its environmental failures. Its excuse to withdraw from international environmental treaties, such as Kyoto in 1998, and Paris in 2017? China. The United States’ excuse for poor domestic environmental standards? China.
Yet China is winning its “war” on pollution. No doubt it will be a long, costly war, but they’ve shown America the solution: political will.
It’s time for the United States to follow suit.