China's astounding economic growth over the last decade has lifted many people out of poverty — but that growth is exacting an increasingly worrisome cost. An official government study recently concluded that Beijing was "barely suitable" for living because of constant air pollution and debilitating smog, Reuters reports.
Luckily, there are plenty of tools and strategies that can help reverse this trend. Here are some of our favorites.
Getting serious about electric vehicles
China has pledged to have 5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020. So far, adoption of electric cars in China has been painfully slow. But with the world's largest EV fast-charging network set to roll out over the coming years, and government subsidies being extended past their original 2015 phaseout date, there's a good chance that there will be growth in this important sector.
In emerging economies like China, there are still many, many people who have yet to own their first car. The rise of car clubs and collaborative consumption may allow many to leap frog the notion of car ownership all together. Not only do car clubs reduce the number of vehicles on the road, but they can also increase the adoption of alternative fuel vehicles too. Take this electric car vending machine, for example, which offers Chinese city dwellers all the perks of automobile access, without any of the hassles of ownership.
Publishing data on air pollution
It's hard to fight what you don't measure or won't talk about. While air pollution was China's dirty little secret for a very long time, a combination of online activism and the increasingly severe nature of the problem have led officials to openly engage in dialogue. Beijing, for example, has begun publishing hourly readings on air quality, and it's hoped that such data will help spur both political pressure and public engagement in the search for solutions.
Massive growth in clean energy
In 2013, China installed 12 gigawatts of solar power. That's more than any other country has done in a single year. There's every reason to believe that this growth will continue. And while China continues to build an astounding amount of coal power, its shift toward the greener side is already beginning to slow growth in demand for coal worldwide.
Embracing the e-bike
China has long had a bicycle culture. While increasingly wealthy commuters may seek an alternative to the trusty old bike, it doesn't mean they'll leap straight for the car. As the report above shows, e-bike sales have been going through the roof in China — improving air quality and reducing congestion in the process.
Supporting new urbanism
As China's population becomes increasingly urbanized, new cities will be built and old ones will expand. Yet the severity of China's air quality problems may serve as a wake up call for city planners. As Chris Turner reported previously on the work of new urbanist advocate Peter Calthorpe in China, there's every reason to be optimistic that saner models of urban development will emerge:
Regarding his work on instant Chinese megacities, Calthorpe began by noting that it was refreshingly frictionless to make big change because, “unlike us, they are fact-based.” Furthermore: “Urbanism is easier at these densities ... It would be hard to get a plaza wrong. ... They can’t imagine why they would dedicate good public space to dead cars.”
Much of China's air quality problem comes from inefficient, often coal-fired cook stoves. In fact, inefficient cook stoves are considered the second largest contributor to lung cancer, after smoking. Efforts are already underway to support cleaner, more efficient cooking options — but those efforts need to be matched by better research to both improve stove design and increase adoption rates among the families who need them.
Pushing energy efficiency
While solar panels may attract more headlines, energy efficiency and conservation are at least as important when it comes to cutting pollution. The Chinese government has pledged more than 3 trillion yuan ($494.85 billion) to fighting smog and air pollution, with much of this support creating a burgeoning energy efficiency and green building industry, as demonstrated in the BASF video above.
Shuttering inefficient factories
While China's authoritarian style of government has significant drawbacks, it also comes with its advantages — namely the ability of the government to act decisively, when the political will is present. As this report from Reuters shows, China has been talking about closing polluting factories since way back in 2009, and this strategy continues. In response to the most recent air quality concerns, Beijing has promised to shut 300 of the most polluting factories this year, and it will publish a list of industrial projects to be halted or suspended by the end of April.
Reversing China's air quality challenges is a monumental task, and there's no way it can be achieved overnight. Nevertheless, the problem is now so severe that government has little option but to act. Thankfully, it has many potential solutions to draw from. And those solutions may let us all breathe a little easier too.