Chronic Air Pollution and Rising Temperatures in China
The lucky thing about living in the mid-west is the luxury of having four unique seasons. But I think it’s safe to say that the winter season has been almost completely absent this year, masking itself as a very prolonged fall season. While most of us are ecstatic not to truck through 11 inches of thick snow that’ll eventually turn into an ugly-gray slush, we’ve also wondered why is it winter has almost ceased to exist. Just recently, the area topped out at one of the warmest winters on the record books and it is all due to climate change. Climate change, or “a change in the state of the climate that…persists for an extended period of time” (Knox, Paul L., and Sallie A. Marston, 2011), is one of many repercussions to a larger global issue known as air pollution, or the condition in which air is contaminated by foreign substances, or the substances themselves (Fujikura, Ryo, and Masato Kawanishi, 2012). Specifically, air pollution includes toxic atmospheric emissions and greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to poorer air quality and warmer weather, increasing risks to individual health and standard atmospheric conditions. Within the last century alone, the question of Earth’s geological future has become an increasingly vital issue of concern due to the extensive issue of air pollution.
As years’ pass, the global footprint, or the amount of human-induced strain placed on the environment (Innes, J.L., and Hassan, H. Abu., 2000), continues to increase due to immense industrial pollution following a rise in globalization and the industrial revolution. In response to population growth combined with scientific and technological development, a rising demand for products and mass production capabilities developed. With rising technological advancements, factories have become full scale industries and manufacturing units. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the number of factories were limited, worked only a certain number of hours a day and were based mostly on human labor, hence the levels of global pollution did not grow significantly. Western societies have now entered an era of technological employment to transform and adapt nature to serve the goals of increased production, consumption, and accumulation of capital. We now face the impact of those technological adaptations, such as increasingly expanded sites of severe air pollution. The developing world exists as the world’s most polluted place as industry and technology remains the primary cause for the billions of individuals that are poisoned and killed each year, and the rise in global temperatures.
Since the 1850’s, countries undergoing massive industrial development remain highly concentrated in the Asian continent. According to the UN Agency World Health Organization, the world’s most polluted cities are as well in Asia, recording extremely poor levels of air quality via statistical methods (Harris, 2003). Specifically, China holds the second largest economy in the world while also maintaining a title for the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter, contributing largely to global warming (Citrinot, 2017). Nearly 90 percent of China’s big cities failed to meet air quality standards—so much so that specific cities in China such as Shijiazhuang fight for the title of Asia Pacific’s second most polluted city (ibid, 2). In their process to assume world power and economic dominance–hegemony, competing in a global hierarchy consisting of periphery and core nations of which I will touch upon later, nations such as China undoubtedly suffer in their atmospheric degradation. This paper examines whether building and maintaining core status is at the cost of China’s environmental and human health. I will compare the effects of the developmentalist ideology in comparison to sustainable approaches, whilst comparing the marginal costs and benefits of industrial air pollution regarding China’s economic opportunities and environmental health.
Before I present my research, I must address that the entirety of Asia is not to be blamed for all industrial pollution simply because they have become technologically advanced. We must keep in mind where these products are consumed and who they are produced for–primarily leading Western nations. These Asian city spaces are specifically producing this way due to globalization and the increased interconnectedness and interdependence of peoples and countries (Woodward, 2017). Countries and transnational companies now have the ability to mass produce, sourcing and manufacturing their products for the cheapest rate all around the globe, including within Asia’s premises. All high-income countries are responsible for two-thirds of the gas emissions released into the atmosphere since 1850 (Innes, J.L., and Hassan, H. Abu., 2000). So, while it is not as clear cut as industrialization in only Asian cities results in air pollution and hence, environmental degradation and global warming, still the Asian continent, specifically China, remains one of the greatest environmental threats today and the focus of my research.
China before the late 1970s was not very different from today’s developing countries, lacking capital and facing international isolation. In the early 1800’s China’s participation in global trade was absent and the state held an unwillingness to cultivate a class of technical experts, in industry or in government. Influenced by the ideology of the Soviet Union in the 1960’s, China placed the development of heavy industry as the top priority if it was to catch up with the developed nations as soon as possible. Industries in China covering core productions like energy and aviation were established (Asia for Educators, 2009). A developing Chinese nation attempted to shift its economy away from capital‐intensive sectors towards more labor‐intensive activities in order to sprout a more industrious market. Ultimately, government reforms to become more industrialized and technologically advanced has left China a current world leading power, seeming to have “lifted” its own people out of poverty. Around 700 million Chinese have worked their way above the poverty line since 1980 and their economy continues to prosper (ibid, 1). However, Chinese urbanization left subsequent industrial air pollution to expand onto the Asian continent as well.
The problems of poor urban air quality are not new; however, they are certainly advanced to an extent beyond nature’s control. For decades, industry has been based on the use of coal and industrial pollution is one of the primary sources of environmental contamination. Industries are often highly concentrated in towns and cities, and together with the burning of coal in homes for domestic heat, urban air pollution levels often reached extremely high levels, especially in densely populated areas, such as Chinese cities. Factories pollute the air through fossil fuel emissions. Combustion of emissions such as carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide creates these toxic pollutants. While these are naturally-occurring substances, it is the high levels of emissions deriving from mass production in an age of globalization which are of concern. Even more so, the rise in the number of vehicles since 1980 due to technological advancements contributes greatly to poorer atmospheric conditions.
Such toxic pollutants create an even larger problem than simply poor air quality–smog. Air pollution expands through the creation of ozone. Ozone is another air pollutant created from the chemical reaction between sunlight, nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds in the air. VOC’s include fossil fuel emissions, chemical solvents, and byproducts of other industrial processes such as coal burning. When ozone stays close to the Earth’s surface, it becomes ground-level ozone, resulting in one of China’s current major crises, smog. The employment of industry in regions creates an abundance of industrial pollution in the air of which are distributed various ways such as these, disrupting natures natural processes and leaving subsequent harm to humans and environments surrounding.
Furthermore, air pollution also derives from the deforestation and degradation of land to build these factories. Plants and trees store carbon dioxide via a process known as carbon sequestration. Carbon sequestration removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, balancing standards levels of CO2 (Rogers, 2015). However, the removal of these carbon sinks oxidizes carbon and introduces increased carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Let it be known carbon dioxide is a primary greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases act like a “blanket”, absorbing infrared radiation or heat and preventing it from escaping the atmosphere. The net effect is the greenhouse gas effect or the gradual heating of Earth’s atmosphere and surface, a process known as global warming (ibid, 2). The increase in Earth’s average surface temperature eventually marks a long-term change in the Earth’s climate known as climate change. Additionally, auto emissions increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which in turn contribute to global warming.
The detrimental effects of such pollution, referenced above, on the inhabitants of China are extensive. Within the last year, public outrage has grown in China over dirty skies and a rash of respiratory illnesses linked to smog and coal burning. Studies show smog is related to nearly one-third of deaths in China, putting it on a par with smoking as a threat to health (Yan, 2016). Baoding, Shijiazhuang and Handan, the cities with the worst air pollution, accumulated more than 30,000 deaths in 2013 related to smog. Burning coal alone caused 366,000 premature deaths in the same year (Wong, 2016). Coal is responsible for about 40% of the lethal particulate matter known as PM 2.5 in China’s atmosphere (ibid, 1). Additionally, the rise in vehicle ownership and transportation services in China are as well a major cause of mortality related to PM 2.5, with 137,000 deaths attributed to it in 2013. Regions in northern China, where steel, cement and power plants are common, have the highest concentrations of PM 2.5 in the country (ibid, 2). Breathing in hidden particles from smog and industrial coal burning has left China with an epidemic of bronchial disease consisting of lung damage and chronic asthma. Smog is as well linked to cardiovascular disease.
Fear of such deadly microscopic particles has introduced a new social phenomenon: smog couture. To prevent the spread of disease from industrial pollution, the Chinese wear surgical masks. These masks block any germs from being released and any detrimental air particles from being ingested. It is almost essential, recommended by local governments, that highly populated areas facing chronic air pollution must wear such masks. Air pollution and smog couture has become so apparent that masks are becoming an element of East Asian style. For instance, in China, surgical masks bearing chic designs or the images of cute licensed characters can be purchased in every corner drugstore. The bearing of surgical face masks is so pronounced that in Beijing’s China Fashion Week models wore masks. Considering the epidemic, it is almost deemed polite to wear your mask for fear of disease. Locals explain they “fear for the safety of their children’s health” and have been “pleading” with government officials for change, however China’s economic growth complicates anti-pollution efforts, an issue I will draw upon later.
Along with human health consequences, there are extensive environmental outcomes including severely substandard atmospheric conditions and climate change. In China’s rapid push to industrialize, they’re now experiencing dramatic levels of gas emissions, largely aerosol pollution. Chinese environmentalists use scientific technology known as remote sensing which uses sensors to “capture” the spatial relations of objects and materials observable at a distance above (Harris, 2003). Using satellite images, aerosol particles are visible from space, enabling scientists to take a global estimate of the presence of a variety of pollutants, including black carbon soot. The highest concentrations are in Asia’s large cities along major river valleys, typically highly developed industrial areas, a theme seen in human geography. With the addition of the country’s recent experience of increasingly severe dust storms due to over-farming, clouds of dust mixed with toxic aerosol pollution leave the atmosphere obscure. On a weekly basis, hundreds of flights are grounded, school classes are suspended, highways are closed and hospitals are jammed with patients suffering from a level of air pollution that exceeds the limit of air quality monitoring devices.
In addition to air pollutants, the nation specifically emits 25 million tons of greenhouse gases, contributing to an accelerated pace of climate change. According to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, temperatures are rising at a faster rate than they have in the past 1,000 years, about 2.5 times as rapidly (Harris, 2003). The rate at which China is producing greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures could rise by 5-6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Rising temperatures are already translating into increased summer floods in south China and a drought in north China, the largest change in precipitation trends in centuries. The theorized explanation is human-made absorbing aerosols that alter the regional atmospheric circulation and contribute to regional climate change (Hsu, 2016).
While its clear China has a severe issue of air pollution, the countries efforts to fight back with sustainable methods suffers setbacks against their promotion for economic growth. The necessity of industry in a post-Fordism age has been evidently revealed in recent China controversy. Currently, China faces three dilemmas in the 21st century. First, the issue of maintaining continued high growth amid global financial slow-down of the major economies abroad and rising income inequality. Second, the issue of bringing its economic growth path in line with environmental sustainability and third to manage the rising demand for energy with a growing population (Huang, 2017). However, the financial importance the Chinese government holds outweighs proposals for environmental sustainability. Locals in Beijing, China explain that the Chinese system is very “decentralized” where the provincial and local city authorities have great power (Ho, 2016). “It is not a simple matter of the government pressing a button enforcing sustainable practice,” they explain, begging for clean air (ibid, 2). Steel and coal production are industries that represent two of the largest polluting sectors in China, but account for rising production output and profits as well. Since the 1980’s, the main criteria for the government, other than maintaining security, is economic growth and the competition to bring jobs and growth. The prolonged global economic recession complicates efforts to convince government officials to put in costly pollution equipment and to consider energy-saving technologies. The issue becomes about spending a larger portion of the government’s budget on pollution control equipment.
Nevertheless, China still does try to implement some safety precautions. For instance, in the last few months more than 70 Chinese cities released warnings to citizens about pollution reaching dangerous levels. The poor air quality led the government to order factories and schools to close. Still, there were reports that some local officials were not obeying the orders. In a recent interview of locals, a furious Ministry of the Chinese Environmental Protection agency stated that “a number of businesses” do not take the government bans seriously and continue operations. Even more so, the measures of “red pollution alerts” are only ever temporary. In a country where millions of people still look to industrialization to lift them from poverty, China avoids cleaning the air for good (Ho, 2016). Chinese citizens are furious with the placement of the Chinese economy before individual health and motions for debate of more sustainability are currently in place. The Chinese government struggles to assess the worth of the issue wherein a sustainable economy that suffers harmful environmental effects remains.
Hence, the economist perspective reveals the predominance of industrialization in our lives exists solely for the desire of every nation to advance itself and gain ranking. This draws into question my main argument of whether countries like China can be world powers without turning environmental resources into capital. I must first address the concept of world powers that I briefly explained before. To assume such “world power”, translated as core status, nations must compete in a global hierarchy against other countries. The developing world is a global system consisting of periphery and semi-periphery nations employed in economic activities, aspiring to evolve as core countries. Core regions of the world system dominate trade and hold high levels of productivity versus periphery and semi-periphery nations of whom are characterized by more disadvantageous trading (Knox, Paul L., and Sallie A. Marston, 2011). Core regions access to advanced technology and capital establishes an economic dominance—hegemony. In a sense, a nation’s intrinsic goal remains to become a core power dominating the world economy, such a goal China has set for itself as explained above.
A theory for the by-passage of such a periphery-to-core process is known as the developmentalist ideology which explains such an inclination to assume core status can only be done through the industrialization and the advancement of science and knowledge, whilst inevitably polluting. The developmentalist ideology is one of two theories which play a role in my debate. The other remains the green sustainable approach of which will be a latter discussion. The theory of developmentalism remains a strategy towards economic prosperity which assumes that there are similar stages to development for all countries, but also that there is a linear movement from one stage to another that goes from traditional to industrialized to modern. Ultimately, societies grow from agricultural units naturally to industrialized areas and to then further assume high-tech white collar productions (Woodward, 2017). Theorists believe a state must inevitably pass through each these stages to become more successful and relevant, ultimately to assume core powers. Hand in hand with each greater industrial stage are increasing amounts of pollution and environmental and human health effects. Adhering geographers to the theory of developmentalism hold that the development of economic success in developing nations relies heavily on the utilization of external resources by those countries in a capitalist system (Woodward, 2017). The core ideas converge to place economic development at the center of political endeavors and institutions, over all other risks such as human health considerations. Hence, the employment of environmental external resources remains a primary structure in the frame for a nation’s economy, regardless of any immense subsequent pollution consequences.
However, I cannot accept the theory of developmentalism as the only premise to be successful. There are green approaches that ensure prosperity while protecting the planet. The core ideas encompassing sustainability are conservation and preservation. Sustainability is conducting economic development without the depletion of natural resources. Conservation holds that natural resources should be used thought-fully and that humans should serve as saviors and not exploiters of nature (Knox, Paul L., and Sallie A. Marston, 2011). This idea contests contemporary world views of nature whereby Westerns tradition understands humans to be superior to nature. In this view, nature is something to be tamed (ibid, 111). For this understanding, companies hold an obligation to their shareholders to achieve maximum profit, with no guarantee of proper treatment in production to the environment or individuals. Pollution is not a concern. Preservation advocates that certain resources should remain off-limits to human use (ibid, 115). In short, sustainability is a subject considering renewable fuel sources, reducing carbon emissions, protecting environments and a way of keeping the delicate ecosystems of our planet in balance. Environmental ethics play a large role in guiding sustainable development through prescribing principles and moral behavior of humans surrounding treatment of nature. Overall, sustainability looks to protect the natural environment, human and ecological health, while driving innovation and not compromising a way of life (Mason, 2017).
All the same, while going green may seem to be the latest trend, it comes with a variety of benefits and costs. Small businesses that go green save money and improve their corporate images. Currently, federal and state governments have implemented their own forms of assistances through local municipalities, water districts and electric companies that offer tax incentives and rebates with going green. Some government agencies even mandate that businesses meet specific green standards, increasing job opportunities in federal agencies to enforce voluntary standards and within companies for consulting positions on a company’s sustainable outlook (Ashe-Edmunds, 2012). Even more so, companies can significantly reduce their costs by using technologies that are energy efficient and less wasteful. Lastly, sustainable companies decrease habitat degradation and aid the environment through movements to reduce, reuse, and recycle environmental resources. On the other hand, an investment in green technology might strain company budget, leaving less money for other investments (ibid, 2). More so, cost reductions in energy savings gained by going green are not always enough to offset the initial conversion costs and a sustainable switch can lead to more expensive products for consumers, temporarily decreasing profits and reducing productivity (ibid, 2). Small businesses can counteract this in a short period compared to larger corporations. Still, most theorists see going green minimizes the disadvantages and maximizes the benefits of improving company carbon footprint in communities. However, as developmentalism explains, economic development remains at the center of all aspirations in the contemporary world, and any threat to capitalism or monetary gain turns away corporations from becoming environmentally friendly.
Thereby, yes, nations such as China can assume core dominance without polluting immense amounts of emissions, however, opposed individuals must consider the vast economic resources needed to take a green approach that may fall too heavily on a business’s ability to prosper and grow, and ultimately businesses cannot self-sustain and must constantly grow. Sustainability is simply more than just weighing the benefits and costs to individual human health and profit—it is an economic basis of planning. As well, going green requires an immense amount of support from governments, aside from capital backing. For this very reason, constant debate of the pros and cons of air pollution affecting businesses and people alike between local and state governments and their citizens remains a current battle.
All in all, the research presented above proposes that aspiring core-nations are not at the cost of the environment and human health. Sustainability is granted in choices by a company’s efforts to sacrifice and give to the larger community. The continued expansion of the global economy and the globalization of industry will undoubtedly shape an entirely new relationship between people and nature. In specific to China’s economic development, individuals must consider sustainable approaches in reference to the importance of capitalism in order to cooperate in accordance with the environment and guarantee a future for generations to come. As the periphery is industrialized and population increases further, demand for energy and production will expand even more rapidly and pressures from international environmentalists will grow as well. Global conservation and preservation efforts are a work in progress—they can be done, and for the safety our children and our children’s children they must be enacted.