China’s Airpocalypse: A Catch-22 (literally)

Despite the global economic slowdown, all the indexes show China’s economy is doing well in 2013. Data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics shows the country’s GDP growth for the third quarter of 2013 is 7.8 percent and other major indexes, including investment, consumption and exports, are going up as well. The latest Purchasing Managers’ Index – an indicator of market confidence – rose to 51.4 percent in October 2013, an 18-month high.

The world’s second largest economy, however, is paying a heavy price for its two decades of runaway economic growth: almost the entire mainland China is now choked by deadly smog.

How bad is China’s air pollution?

The off-the-charts pollution across China is literally suffocating the Chinese population. The World Bank has reported that 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are Chinese, and No. 1 on the World Bank list is Linfen City in Shanxi Province, China. “From lead in the soil to toxins in the water and radioactive fallout in the air,” reports the Times, “this soot-blackened city in China’s inland province makes Dickensian London look as pristine as a nature park.”

On Oct. 21, PM2.5 – a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets, including acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles – in the northeastern Chinese City Harbin exceeded 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The air in the city was so bad that visibility shrank to less than 30 feet and all roads, schools, and major airport in and around the city were forced to shut down. The astonishing concentration of pollution is 50 times worse than the safe level: the World Health Organization recommends 20 as a healthy level.

Harbin is certainly not alone in the world’s worst ecological disaster country. In January, Beijing suffered from its worst air pollution and the situation was so bad that it has been dubbed the “Airpocalypse.” “During the ‘airpocalypse’ in Beijing earlier this year,” writes Keith Wagstaff of the Week, “the density of small, lung-penetrating particles reached 993 micrograms per cubic meter. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers anything above 300 dangerous, and maxes out its scale at 500. The smog was so thick in Beijing – which English-speaking residents call ‘Greyjing’ – that a factory building burned for three hours before anyone even noticed that it was in flames.”

China’s “Airpocalypse” has severe health effects for Chinese citizens and damaging consequences for Chinese economy.

In 2010, air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China. Lung cancer deaths in China have climbed by 465 percent over the past 30 years and a 56 percent rise in lung cancer rates since 2005, according to China’s Ministry of Health. Most recently, an 8-year-old girl has become China’s youngest lung cancer patient and doctors have blamed pollution as the direct cause of her illness. Environmental scientists now say the pollution in northern China is so severe that an estimated 500 million people’s lives may be shortened by an average of 5.5 years.

Economically, China may be the world’s economic beacon of hope, but its pollution problems, says Meena Thiruvengadam of the Global Post, “are hurting the bottom line.” According to Thiruvengadam, “The World Bank estimated that illnesses and premature deaths linked to China’s pollution cost it about $100 billion – the equivalent of 3 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product – in 2009 alone. A separate study by Greenpeace and Peking University estimates particulate pollution cost four major cities more than $1 billion and caused more than 8,000 premature deaths last year.”

China’s massive pollution problem has reached a crisis level and those tiny PM2.5 particles are now threatening to become a life-and-death issue in China. Tackling the environmental problem, however, will provoke a new conundrum in China. As Adam Lashinsky, editor-at-large for Fortune, points out, “The only certain way to fix the pollution quickly is to slow down the industrial economy, which would cause massive unemployment, which would cause civil unrest.” It is a Catch-22, literally.

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.