the world’s most prodigious emitter of greenhouse gas, continues to suffer the downsides of unbridled economic growth despite a raft of new environmental initiatives.
The quality of air in Chinese cities is increasingly tainted by coal-burning power plants, grit from construction sites and exhaust from millions of new cars squeezing onto crowded roads, according to a government study issued this week. Other newly released figures show a jump in industrial accidents and an epidemic of pollution in waterways.
The report’s most unexpected findings pointed to an increase in inhalable particulates in cities like Beijing, where officials have struggled to improve air quality by shutting down noxious factories and tightening auto emission standards. Despite such efforts, including an ambitious program aimed at reducing the use of coal for home heating, the average concentration of particulates in the capital’s air violated the World Health Organization’s standards more than 80 percent of the time during the last quarter of 2008.
“China is still facing a grave situation in fighting pollution,” Tao Detian, a spokesman for the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told the official China Daily newspaper.
The ministry said the number of accidents fouling the air and water doubled during the first half of 2010, with an average of 10 each month. The report also found that more than a quarter of the country’s rivers, lakes and streams were too contaminated to be used for drinking water. Acid rain, it added, has become a problem in nearly 200 of the 440 cities it monitored.
In recent days, the state media have provided a grim sampling of China’s environmental woes, including a pipeline explosion that dumped thousands of gallons of oil into the Yellow Sea, reports of a copper mine whose toxic effluent killed tons of fish in Fujian Province, and revelations that dozens of children were poisoned by lead from illegal gold production in Yunnan Province.
Two weeks ago, the state media reported on thousands of residents in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region who clashed with the police as they protested unregulated emissions from an aluminum plant.
Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, said many of the government’s efforts to curtail pollution had been offset by the number of construction projects that spit dust into the air and the surge in private car ownership.
In Beijing, driving restrictions that removed a fifth of private cars from roads each weekday have been offset by 250,000 new cars that hit the city streets in the first four months of 2010.
Many of the most polluting industries were forced to relocate far from the capital before the 2008 Summer Olympics, but the wind often carries their emissions hundreds of miles back.
“We’re at a stage of unprecedented industrialization, but there have to be better ways to handle the problem,” said Mr. Ma, whose organization has a registry of environmental scofflaws. “Sometimes it’s painful to look at the data.”
A particularly hot summer has added to Beijing’s high pollution levels.
Even if they are fond of griping about bad air, Beijing residents have learned to take it all in stride. Looking wilted amid the heat and haze on Wednesday, Wang Dong, 34, a livery-cab driver, said he tried to counteract the smog by eating more vegetables and drinking more water. Annie Chen, 26, a sales clerk, revealed a tactic she had learned on television: apply an extra layer of makeup to protect skin from contaminated air.
Then there was Zhang Hedan, 46, a street vendor who was fanning his flushed face with a piece of paper. “Maybe it will blow away the dust,” he said hopefully. He added, “Well, maybe that’s not so effective, but at least I feel better psychologically.”