Smog engulfs the city of Shanghai. Photo by Samuel Corwin.
Some mornings, I wake up to a view of downtown Shanghai. Other mornings, a thick, grey haze makes the city center invisible. The smog is so bad that I often have to go indoors for a reprieve while walking around town, and I’ve actually started to wear a mask to control my, now, unbearable cough.
Of 360 Chinese cities sampled in a recent study, over 90 percent failed to meet national air quality standards—the average air quality contains nearly double the maximum level of pollution set by national standards. China now leads the world in total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but ranks seventh in per capita GHG emissions.
China’s urban GHG emissions are a side effect of its rapidly growing economy, which has the second highest gross domestic product (GDP) in the world. A considerable portion of these emissions result, in part, from the demands of foreign nations, like the United States; products manufactured in China and exported overseas comprise 30% of the country’s annual GDP.
While China’s factories are producing exports for consumers abroad at an ever-quickening pace, the country’s growing middle class is consuming more as well. Its large population (1.3 billion) emits dangerous emissions as increasing economic development enables its citizens to consume more products, drive more cars, and take more flights.
GHG emissions not only cause global climate change, their effects also threaten the livelihoods of Chinese citizens. Particulate matter contributes to respiratory disease, which is now the second leading cause of death in China. Eighty percent of China’s citizens are regularly exposed to levels of pollution that exceed those deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pollution also reduces China’s GDP by an estimated four to five percent each year as a result of premature deaths, health care costs, and lost productivity.
China has been taking more steps to reduce GHG emissions in the last decade, such as increasing renewable energy sources. The country has the most installed wind power capacity of any country, representing 31 percent of the world total. It also has over 18 gigawatts of installed solar capacity, second only to Germany. In addition to renewables, China enacted stricter standards for allowable automobile emissions and installed particulate controls at many factories.
China has also signed on to international agreements to reduce emissions. Last year, the country signed a deal with the U.S., pledging to cap emissions by 2030. In September 2014, China agreed to plan a cap-and-trade carbon emissions trading system going into effect by 2017, its most significant environmental pledge to date.
China has considerable work to do to reduce emissions, but recent steps provide hope. A difficult hurdle to overcome is corruption, which leads to prioritization of economic development over environmental protection. Hopefully the country will stay diligent in reducing emissions; its citizens’ health and the future of our global climate depend on it.
Samuel Corwin is a student at Duke University. He is currently studying abroad in Shanghai, China.