The most striking contemporary images – stills or film, of many urban Chinese cityscapes are often viewed through a curtain of haze. Obvious to the naked eye, and a testament to one of China’s most troubling problems, air pollution is beginning to take centre stage in this complex society.
The sleeping giant that was once China has, over the last decade or so, rapidly embraced industrialisation and economic growth so much so that the country now rivals the USA as the industrial powerhouse of the world.
However, economic growth has brought with it dangerous levels of air pollution in many large cities. Pollution that has led a number of Chinese commentators to declare that air pollution represents the largest and one of the most intractable health problems in the country. Factories, car use and tobacco smoke are the three most serious causes of air contamination. Their rise has seen a concomitant increase in the incidence lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. Beijing’s lung cancer rates have increased by around 60 per cent in the last ten years or so.
Although China is beginning to wake up to these problems, air pollution control measures seem to be some way behind many other countries. A fully democratic government might, by this stage of industrialisation have paid more heed to this problem, but a lack of democratic control has played into the hands of the bureaucrats who, certainly up until now, have taken a rather cavalier approach to air pollution control.
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But now, on the back of stirrings of public discontent, The Government is beginning to tackle the problem. The catalyst has been the recent foul air that has blanketed Beijing. Caused by cars, the burning of coal and the prevailing atmospheric conditions, patience has reached breaking point so much so that China is now planning to step-up the enforcement of anti-pollution measures.
So what does this mean? The Government has promised to close the most highly polluting factories, and to fine drivers of cars found to be the worst polluters. Well, so what you might say! Before pollution can be brought under control, perhaps a whole new mind-set has to be inculcated into the Chinese. Something more than the enforcement of regulations is required.
Some people have suggested that China’s march towards to full industrialisation and continuous economic growth has been pursued at the expense of the environment – both at land, at sea and in the air. There must be some truth in these views. Since economic growth still takes pride of place in Government thinking, it is hard to see how air pollution control and other measures to protect the environment will ever take centre stage in China in the foreseeable future.
The control of air pollution in the UK has a somewhat longer history than in China. The first pollution control act was passed in the UK in 1853. This was followed in 1956 and 1968 by two Clean Air Acts which required local authorities to take action to designate smoke control areas in cities.
Since then local authorities and central government have passed numerous acts and byelaws to control all kinds of pollution with some success. One important technical innovation is the inclusion of catalytic converters in most cars. They are able to remove many of the pollutants formed with the burning of petrol and diesel.
Air pollution still remains a problem in many parts of the world- not least in China. The growth in car use – despite the catalytic converter – will ensure that governments must stay alert to air pollution, and must always be on the lookout for further air pollution control measures.