The hazardous levels of smog in Beijing have again been making the headlines. The problem is getting so severe that the local government is now taking emergency measures to tackle the problem, by shutting down factories and ordering cars off the roads.
A friend confided to me recently that the day he was offered an attractive contract to relocate to China he looked out of his Beijing hotel window across to the office block where he would have been working. Because of the pollution haze that shrouded the building he decided to decline the job there and then.
China residents – locals and expatriates alike – increasingly worry about the long-term health impacts on them and their families of living in a country where the pollution levels for PM2.5 particles only very rarely fall to the 25 μg/m³ recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and have recently peaked at more than 25 times that level. Consequently an increasing number of residents, both Chinese and expatriate, are choosing either to leave large cities, or (since the problem is by no means confined to those cities) to leave the country altogether. The most likely to emigrate are young, well-educated people – not the sort that China needs to be losing.
A cause for concern in tackling the problem is that growth of the main sources of China’s pollution – coal, cars and construction – show no signs of abating:
- The nation still obtains around 70% of its energy from coal and this will not change anytime soon, given the huge demands for energy combined with the abundance of coal in China.
- Car ownership amongst Chinese urbanites is as popular and fashionable as ever. In Shanghai, for example, license plates can fetch thousands at auction. Last week alone the lowest bid hit a record high of RMB 75,000 (US$12,000); the same value as a small new car.
- To halt – or at least significantly slow – construction is not a viable option either. The country must continue to improve its infrastructure, housing and office space; and moreover the investment in construction is an important tool for maintaining economic momentum.
Nonetheless, there are a few glimmers of hope amid this fog of concern.
We in the risk industry know that measuring the frequency and severity of a problem is the first step to being able to resolve it. So, the fact that China now measures and publishes the level of PM2.5 particles, rather than just the less-harmful PM10 particles, is an encouraging sign.
Secondly, The increased transparency of the press on the dangerous levels of pollution suggest that China’s new leadership is becoming increasingly willing to allow the media to be more candid about the issue than in the past, which hopefully means that is becoming more serious about addressing it.
What’s more, a wide range of tools that the government can use to improve the situation already exist. These include subsidies for electric/hybrid cars, installing pollution control equipment at power plants and moving polluting factories away from urban centers.
So if the means to take action are there, could things improve? We should be optimistic. Tackling pollution is high on political and economic agendas and China will no doubt use its strong management capabilities to bring the problem under control.
Meanwhile, one beneficial side effect will be further support for private health insurance coverage, which is growing rapidly and is frequently now offered as part of a company’s package of benefits to its employees. This will help boost overall levels of health care in the working community and potentially offset some of the negative consequences of the current levels of environmental pollution. The only other thing for residents to do is to keep checking the PM2.5 levels – over 250 μg/m³ again here last week – and hope for some windy weather.