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Photo: NASA

China has become synonymous with air pollution. Since the 1970s, the country’s motto of “grow at all costs” has put businesses and manufacturing ahead on the economic scale but thrown some heavy curveballs at its ailing environment. Nearly one-quarter of the world’s air pollution stems from Chinese factories, and smog sheets are replacing clouds across the decorated landscapes.

“Human activity is the root of the problem,” blasts a recent edition of Beijing News. “The root of smog is pollution. There are essential differences to natural disasters.”

Heavy smog over Harbin, China, 2012. (Photo Credit: Fredrik Rubensson / Flickr)

In the final weeks of December, Chinese citizens were not dealt a traditional Christmas scene but a frightful warning: That smog would be returning to the air in much higher quantities. Red alerts were sounded in approximately 23 regions, while the demand for face masks and other potential guards was at an all-time high.

New York Times correspondent Edward Wong describes China as a “toxic country,” and claims the air has been unsafe for many years. “I want my daughter to grow up appreciating the outdoors,” he said. “Sunsets and birdcalls and the smell of grass or the shape of clouds. That will be impossible if we live for many more years in Beijing. Even with my adult-size lungs, I limit my time outdoors.”

As of late, the smog is so thick that industries have been forced to shut down and traffic has become temporarily disrupted. Expressways, public transportation and schools have also closed, while hospitals are ready on standby for anyone likely to experience respiratory illness.

And yet not everyone is accepting the dire circumstances of China’s hovering smog. Areas like Tianjin along the northern mainland list it as a “meteorological disaster,” and uncontrollable by State Council standards, but Fudan University professor Zhang Zitai knows better. Like Beijing News, she says humans are completely in charge, and have only themselves to blame.

“Meteorological disasters are caused by natural conditions, and cannot be controlled by human activity,” she states. “Smog, on the other hand, is mainly caused by human activity. Thus the plan to list it as a meteorological disaster not only goes against science – it will also create an excuse for polluters to escape their culpability.”

China has exhibited mixed reactions regarding pollution control. The recent occurrence has stirred new life into the country’s clean air policies, particularly in provinces like Hebei, which surrounds Beijing. Residents say the smog has taught them a valuable lesson, and are declaring 2017 as the “year of clean air” by vowing to up their anti-pollution efforts in the coming months.

“If we fully implement the existing mitigation policies in 2017, we will bring a significant improvement,” says Tsinghua University Professor He Kebin. “Among the existing measures to reduce the regional air pollution are energy restructuring, power plants and coal-fired boiler desulfurization and denigration, upgrading the dust capture system of dust, steel and cement.”

Natural color satellite image of a smog event in China. The milky white and gray covering the centre of the image is smog and fog, while the brighter whites at the left and right edges are clouds. (Photo Credit: Jesse Allen / NASA Earth Observatory)

It sounds great, but Kebin has been working to implement these new practices since 2014. As the project reaches its three-year mark with few results, it’s difficult not to feel a little skeptical.

Another issue surrounding China’s pollution is its government officials, who up to this point have refused to fully acknowledge smog as a growing threat. Air and water quality in the country often leads to mass cases of “infighting” amongst national bureaucracies. Some strive to instill or update current environmental legislation, while others turn their backs in the name of profit and economic stability (it seems China and the U.S. are suddenly in the same boat). Improvements in products like diesel fuels have been delayed for years, and oil companies have simply ignored the cleaner standards that have been enforced.

“Companies or industry councils have a lot of influence,” states Zhou Rong of Greenpeace East Asia. “My personal opinion is even if we have the most stringent standards for every sector, the companies will still violate them.”

At a time when all hope seems lost, a glimmer of light has appeared in the form of last year’s Paris Agreement. International law since November 2016, China was among the first superpowers to ratify the agreement, expressing a clear willingness to improve the quality of life for its residents.

A Chinese woman wearing a surgical mask outside. (Image Credit: Nicolò Lazzati)

“I have said many times that green mountains and clear water are as good as mountains of gold and silver,” proclaimed Chinese President Xi Jinping, who quickly agreed to the strict layouts of the new climate laws. “To protect the environment is to protect productivity, and to improve the environment is to boost productivity. We will unwaveringly pursue sustainable development and stay committed to green, low-carbon and circular development, and to China’s fundamental policy of conserving resources and protecting the environment.”

Lowering pollution levels can also improve the health of China’s citizens, who certainly deserve clean air along with the rest of the world. The agreement sets China on a path to cut emissions by approximately 60 to 65 percent by the year 2030, and increase its usage of renewable energy sources. Granted the country can keep its end of the bargain, Jinping’s vision of China as a “beautiful country with a blue sky” could become a sudden and inspiring reality.

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