Picture: HAP/Quirky China News/Rex Features
By John Richardson
THE toxic smog that enveloped Beijing over the weekend is another example of why China's new leaders simply have to change the economic growth model.
At its worst point on Saturday night, the level of harmful particulates in the air reached as much as 36 times that which is recommended as safe by the World Health Organisation.
"China has strict environmental and emission laws, but also has the worst environmental pollution on earth thanks to lack of enforcement and subordination of environmental concerns to the imperative for officials to register economic growth," wrote the Financial Times, in this article.
At one hospital on the edge of Beijing, a nurse told the FT that a respiratory ward was overflowing at the weekend, even though the unit was doubled in size last year.
Some 300,000 people die every year from outdoor pollution alone in China.
China's environmental protection ministry published a report in November 2010 which showed that about a third of 113 cities surveyed failed to meet national air standards last year.
According to the World Bank 16 of the world's 20 cities with the worst air are in China. According to Chinese government sources, about a fifth of urban Chinese breath heavily polluted air. Only a third of the 340 Chinese cities that are monitored meet China's own pollution standards.
Government policy towards environmental problems in general has been to suppress public dissent, while seeking to cover up the extent of the damage caused by China's economic growth model, claim many criticis.
For example, in July 2009, as the New York Times points out, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official told US diplomats to halt a Twitter feed from the US embassy in Beijing, which highlighted the atrocious air quality.
The official told US diplomats that the Twitter feed was "not only confusing but also insulting," according to a State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks.
But the good news is that the Chinese government now includes fine particles called PM2.5, considered to be especially harmful to human health, in its measurements of pollution. Further, the recording of air quality 36 times worse than the WHO limit was made by the government.
State newspapers have also run highly critical articles saying more needs to be done to tackle the problem at its source, said The Guardian newspaper.
"How can we get out of this suffocating siege of pollution?" the People's Daily, the official Communist party newspaper, asked in a front-page editorial.
"Let us clearly view managing environmental pollution with a sense of urgency."
China's new Politburo, as we discussed yesterday, have made it clear that the old growth model - where the focus was entirely on growth rather than the quality of growth - has to change.
In the case of the environment, if there is no change:
*The number and the intensity of public protests could escalate to the point where they become socially and politically destabilising.
*Healthcare costs, already rising because of the one-child policy, may become unsustainable.
*Expat workers, especially those with young children, will increasingly refuse to be relocated to China's big cities, slowing down the technology and expertise-transfer process as China attempts to escape the middle-income trap.
The great news is that China's new leaders recognise the problem by allowing state-run media to join the debate in favour of reform.
And for the chemicals industry, the opportunity is huge to help China clean up its environment.