Feb 18, 2013 06:09 PM

China's Ten Hiroshimas a Year


Could the Xi Jinping era see a dramatic improvement in China's environment? The answer must certainly be yes. Technically and administratively, China has the know-how and the government machinery that would let it make meaningful progress to clean up the environment over the next decade. The question is whether its leaders have the political will.

The "crazy bad" air pollution in Beijing paradoxically provides room for hope. The outpouring of anger – and the role played by social media such as Sina Weibo – means that this is an issue the government ignores at its peril.

The air pollution crisis is a health emergency. A 2007 World Health Organization study estimated that air pollution killed about 656,000 Chinese each year. That is equivalent to almost ten times the number of people who were killed by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Imagine. Almost ten Hiroshimas a year from China's air pollution.

Many countries have cleaned up pollution only after a dramatic event. Sixty years ago, in December 1952, a deadly smog in London prompted by coal burning killed as many as 12,000 people in days. The world's first clean air act was passed in its wake and relegated London's famed "pea-soupers" to history books. A June 1969 fire on Ohio's Cuyahoga River ("a river that oozes rather than flows," Time magazine said at the time) jump-started the environmental movement in the United States. The first Earth Day was held the following year and the Environmental Protection Administration was set up 18 months after the Cuyahoga blaze.

Like the United States, post-war Japan saw its headline-grabbing pollution disasters, notably mercury poisoning in Minamata and choking air pollution in Yokkaichi, both of which had the dubious distinction of having diseases named after them (Minamata disease and Yokkaichi asthma). Today, Japan has one of the highest degrees of environmental protection (both legally and in spirit) in the world, but also some of the world's most sweeping energy-conservation measures.

Pressure from a richer and more assertive population is quickening the pace of Asia's environmental clean-up. The most recent Greendex survey of 17,000 citizens in 17 countries conducted by the National Geographic Society and research house Globescan in spring 2012, found that Indians and Chinese scored highest in an international survey of environmental attitudes and behaviour.

Chinese worry about food safety was almost off the charts in the survey, with 91 percent reporting that it was a serious concern, underscoring serious popular discontent following a wave of food poisoning incidents, most notoriously melamine-laced baby milk powder. This fear about food outstripped any other concern expressed in any of the 17 countries.

According to Greendex, the Chinese were more concerned about air pollution than citizens of any other country. Significantly, Chinese and Indians were the most confident that their governments and companies were working hard to ensure a clean environment. In short, the environment is seen as an issue of personal safety and well-being in developing countries like China and India. Governments ignore this at their peril.

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