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Impact Of Air Pollution In China

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Date added: 19-04-15


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Ever since Deng Xiaoping's Reform and Opening Up policy, which emphasized on rapid industrialization and decentralization, China experienced an economic miracle, ranking 2nd in GDP in the world and lifting millions out of poverty. However, this GDP-above-all rationale which radically improved China's economy has dealt a huge blow to the environment. For instance, the heavy exploitation of land and natural resources, as well as the reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation are one of the few sources contributing to China's environmental destruction. Since the scope of environmental pollution is too large for practical concerns, I shall only be evaluating the impact of air pollution on China's development in this essay, as air pollution is one of the most dangerous and controversial type of pollution occurring nowadays in China.

Owing to the combustion of coal and malpractices of the heavy industry, air pollution has been ever worsening in China ever since the Reform and Opening Up, however it seems to have worsened drastically for the past decade. For example, smog, a weather phenomenon involving a dense layer of dust suspended in air (mainly PM2.5 and SO2), is bringing disastrous effects to many eastern cities in China, and the problem was brought to light when even the capital, Beijing, succumbed to the heavy smog. According to lecture readings, a mere 22/522 cities in China have good air quality with 55 having seriously unacceptable air quality . Air pollution problem in China has caused various negative impacts to health, economic development and social development.

Firstly, in terms of health implications, severe air pollution has led to deterioration in general health and thus an increased burden on China's public health system. In fact, air pollution has caused 1.58 million deaths in China in 2016 alone , coming second in the world after India. Air pollution is now the 4th most common cause of death in the world, with 6.1 million deaths in 2016 attributed to air pollution, since it causes serious illnesses like cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Polluted air contains substances such as sulphur dioxide and PM 2.5 suspended particulates, accumulate in the respiratory tract or enter the bloodstream, either as an irritant inducing heart and lung diseases, or even as a carcinogen to induce cancer, resulting in death or affecting child development due to prolonged exposure. Air pollution has also cast doubts on China's public health system. According to the World Bank, the health expenditure resulted from air pollution accounted for 2% of China's GDP, mainly because of increased usage of emergency visits in acute cardiopulmonary conditions, which is on the rise partly due to air pollution (as well as lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, etc) . This expenditure is projected to rise as more and more people gradually become sick, forcing the government to allocate more resources into public healthcare. Should China fail to reduce pollution and prevent air pollution-associated illnesses, a huge sum would have to be paid to address public health problems in curing the population.

From the viewpoint of economics, the Reform and Opening Up brought benefits to both the urban and rural communities. Ironically, it has brought drawbacks to both by sacrificing the environment in favor of rapid economic growth.

Firstly, in urban cities, the worsening air pollution has led to a reduction in foreign interest in investing in China and incentive to set up branches in China, as well as unwillingness of overseas staff, especially experts and senior executive staff, to come to China for work. With persistent smog, the poor living standards (as aforementioned the possible adverse health effects of smog) and work environment has deterred businesses to set up branches in China. For example, in a survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce, which covered various businesses in eastern and northern part of China, Almost one-third of the companies said they had no plans to expand investments in China in the coming year (2016), up from 27 percent last year and 16 percent in 2013, and more than half of the respondents said pollution made it more difficult to recruit senior executives to work in China, raising concerns over air quality turning away expertise, professionals and executives away from working in China .

Secondly, tourism is also affected by air pollution. In the past decade, China has begun developing its tourism industry. As a result, tourism related profits, including retail, service and hotel industries, begins to contribute more and more to China's total GDP. However, with the severe smog, foreigners will be deterred from visiting China, partly because of health issues, and partly because of the diminished attractiveness of natural scenic spots, which used to be a main feature of China's tourism, thus undoubtedly reducing China's income from tourism. In fact, 6 out of 8 Chinese cities including Beijing which made it into the Top 100 City Destination Rankings by Euromonitor International, experienced a drop in tourist arrival from 2012 to 2013, which correlated with the notorious reports of heavy smog during the time. With more traditional and social media from both China and beyond such as documentaries and news, China is more often put under the international spotlight than before, and the actual air pollution problem can be easily depicted and shown to foreign tourists, hence lowering their desire to come to China fearing for their health, not only leading to a reduced number of tourists but also a significant decrease in national income from tourism and related industries.

Thirdly, agriculture in China is also affected by air pollution. Being one of the largest agricultural economies in the world, China has a history of ?»?????«‹??‹, or to establish the country by agriculture, and currently produces 1/5 of the world's grain and 1/2 of world's vegetables . However, air pollution affects farming in two ways. Firstly, air pollutants like sulphur dioxide or ozone directly contaminate water sources or soil, thus affecting the crops. Secondly, the presence of suspended particulates blocks out sunlight, resulting in lowered photosynthesis rates and hence yield less crops. For example, Hunan, being a major province of rice production, is suffering from decreased crop yield these years . The severe air pollution also affects the farmers' health and thus productivity, as they often work outdoors, inhaling a lot of pollutants over time, and thus prone to the aforementioned health risks.

As we can see, despite economic gains from the Reform and Opening Up, the economy in both urban and rural areas are suffering from air pollution, which suggests the scope and severity of air pollution on China's economic growth.
In the social aspects, air pollution has stirred civil unrest and general dissatisfaction towards the alleged industries and government responsible for air pollution. This originates from the inability of the civil society or media to observe or regulate malpractices, due to the lack of transparency and participation of civil society or media in China's government policies and industries, especially in the past. Over the years, a lot of mistrust is built up in the population, some of which resorting to unorthodox or illegal methods to voice their opinions towards malpractice. For example, a complaint of bad odor and leakage from a chemical factory in Fujian has escalated into riots and violent clashes with the factory staff and the police who were sent for a crackdown, of which many were arrested, and several staff were badly beaten . Had there been effective, legal measures for locals to complain, and officials to address this problem, violence could have been avoided.

In conclusion, air pollution has dealt severe blows to China's urban and rural economy, citizen health, and social stability. China's environmental protection minister, Zhou ShengXian, admitted that "Environmental quality is not satisfactory and environmental protection work is arduous," on the People's Daily. The government must act swiftly to enforce strict environmental regulations; the industries ought to establish better corporate social responsibility to reduce their malpractices; and the civil society ought to voice out concerns more in order to pressurize the local government or industry. It is only through combined efforts and decisiveness of the Chinese Government, which is still a massive influence in China's policy-making and development, can air pollution be alleviated.

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