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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

China: Gasping for Air

Air Date: Week of

Lucie MacNeill reports from China where "oxygen bars" provide Beijing residents with some of the cleanest air available. Coal dust and steel plant emissions create health problems, and Chinese admit they're worried about the smog. The Chinese government is looking to use newer, cleaner technologies and move away from so much coal use, but it's slow going.


CURWOOD: China's conversion from a Communist economy to mostly free enterprise has touched off amazing economic growth. In less than 20 years China's cash economy has quadrupled, foreign investment is pouring in, and by the year 2010 China's economy is expected to be the largest in the world. But as the monetary standard of living keeps rising in China, the environmental quality of life is falling. Most obvious is the loss of clean air. China is rich with coal, which provides most of its energy, but its use of dirty coal has given it some of the most serious air pollution and acid rain problems on the planet. Even among the usually placid Chinese, 80% of people surveyed cited air pollution as their biggest worry. Lucie McNeill has the second of 2 reports this month on China's changing environment.

MCNEILL: Nowadays you can get anything you want in Beijing, even clean air, but you've got to pay for it.

(Air hissing)

MCNEILL: The Chinese capitol regularly makes the list of Asia's 10 most polluted cities. Sometimes the smog is so thick visibility drops to less than a mile. That's why the Dreamy Oxygen Bar has been a hit ever since it opened for business a year ago. Customers come here literally for a breath of fresh air.

(Jia Lei speaks in a Chinese dialect)

MCNEILL: Jia Lei is the manager of the Dreamy Oxygen Bar.

JIA: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: This is how it works. It's very simple. We have an oxygen machine connected to these valves you see along the wall. You just take a seat here, insert this tube in your nose, turn on the valve and breathe normally. Breathing oxygen for half an hour clears your head. It makes you more alert.

MCNEILL: Half an hour costs about $10: one tenth of the average worker's monthly salary. That's a lot of money. Yet every day dozens of people pay this much for a little clean air. There's no evidence this kind of therapy is beneficial, but oxygen bars like this one are sprouting up in most of China's industrial centers.

(Air hisses, followed by traffic sounds)

MCNEILL: Just a few miles down the road from the Dreamy Oxygen Bar is a nightmarish complex of smelters and foundries. This is West Beijing's Capitol Steel Works. Like most of China's industries it's powered by mountains of coal from the country's enormous reserves. One hundred thousand people work in the sprawling compound, and millions live in the immediate neighborhood. Every day they breathe the thick and acrid smog belching from hundreds of stubby smokestacks.

(Industrial vehicles and motors)

MCNEILL: Zhang Yuxiang and his wife Zhang Xiuyun have lived in the shadow of Capital Steel for 30 years. They have a little shop just outside the factory gates.

ZHANGs: [Both speak in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR (WOMAN): The worst place for air pollution is right here.

TRANSLATOR (MAN): It's bad 24 hours a day. We can't run away from it. Most of us get bronchitis and sinus infections. It's very common.

TRANSLATOR (WOMAN): Because we've been breathing the fumes and the coal dust all our lives, we know we won't live as long, that's for sure.

MCNEILL: For people who work inside Capital Steel, it's even worse. This man, who spoke to us only on the condition we not use his name, is in charge of one of the furnaces. It's tough, sweaty work, but he's worried about more than his own health.

CHINESE MAN: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: Look -- even in the halls, the air we breathe is filthy. We have to dust the soot every day, so I'm really worried about my daughter's health. We'd sure welcome a cleanup. It would be good for our health and the health of our children. But we know the government can't do it all at once.

(People speaking; clanging sounds followed by industrial motors)

MCNEILL: Most of China's smog originates in mines like this one. The Lingxing coal mine is the most modern in northwest China's Ningxia Province. But by western standards it's a very primitive operation. There's not even an elevator to take the miners underground. The air in the tunnels is humid and thick with gas and coal dust. For hours the workers stoop as they hack at the coal seam. Still, 24-year-old Zhang Jianrong likes the high wages here. He wouldn't go back to his father's farm.

ZHANG: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: I'm the one who sets the explosives there. It is dangerous work. I was really scared when I started, but I'm used to it now. It's so much better than working on a farm. It was just too filthy there.

MCNEILL: Young Zhang doesn't think much about what the coal dust is doing to his lungs, let alone the environment. Most of the coal produced here is trucked to the power plant 80 kilometers away. Wu Jinghe, the deputy manager of the mine, shrugs when he's asked about pollution.

WU: [Speaks in Chinese dialect]
TRANSLATOR: We know this mine contributes to air pollution because our coal is burned in a power plant. And of course we know we should be concerned about this. But that power station is far away, so we don't feel the effects of the pollution directly.

(Industrial motors running)

MCNEILL: China has the largest coal reserves in the world. Last year national consumption was 1.2 billion tons of coal; that's one ton per capita. About a third is burned to produce electricity. The balance is for industry, to power boilers, furnaces, and smelters. Briquettes are also used to heat homes and cook food. Coal supplies fully 75% of China's energy needs. It's the soot from all this coal that's causing health problems, but it's the high sulfur content in the coal that's at the root of China's acid rain problem. It's already affecting one third of the territory. Susan McDade is in charge of energy and environmental projects with the United Nations Development Programme in Beijing.

McDADE: The impact through the acid rain side has an obvious effect on agriculture, and to a certain extent on industry. There are known technologies to deal with, such as scrubbers and desulfurization. These technologies are mandated by the Chinese government on all new power installations. However, because the power sector is still a relatively small part of total coal use, the industrial sector really becomes the key challenge.

MCNEILL: Acid rain is also a bone of contention between China and its neighbors, especially Japan. And there's the even stickier issue of carbon emissions and their contribution to global warming. According to official statistics, in 1990 China was already releasing about 600 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere: 10% of the world total. And China's coal consumption is expected to jump by two thirds over the next 25 years. Yet despite the obvious drawbacks of coal, China can't quite kick the habit. Wang Zhixia is with NEPA, the National Environment Protection Agency.

WANG: We know in the next maybe 20 or 30 years, it is impossible for China to change our energy structure. That means coal will remain as the main energy. So now, first we advocate clean technology, to use coal cleanly. At the same time, of course, we develop some renewable energy resources.

MCNEILL: China is exploring energy alternatives. It has plans to erect more hydro dams, build a dozen nuclear power plants, install wind farms, and tap solar power. Even so, the World Bank and the UNDP predict these energy sources will only supply at most 30% of China's needs. For better or for worse, coal is the resource with which China has been endowed. And it's economics that will drive the adoption of clean and more efficient technologies. The price of coal used to be heavily subsidized by the government. More recently it's been allowed to rise. Higher energy costs could very well force factories to invest in energy saving equipment. Susan McDade is with the UNDP.

McDADE: Coal and energy has become one of their real production costs. But where there is unresolved problems is in the type of boiler technology that China produces. There are numerous boiler works all over China that produce very old technology, 1930s technology from western Europe coming straight off the assembly line today.

MCNEILL: If present pilot products work well, high efficiency, clean burning boilers could eventually replace China's antiquated stock. However, financing remains a formidable stumbling block. While China's economy continues to grow, money for capital investment is tight. So even if a factory can prove investing in a high tech boiler will pay off in greater efficiency and profitability in the long run, banks will only loan money for quick payback. It's a vicious circle with little hope for improvement. That's why some environmentalists counsel China to simply slow down on growth, since that would mean burning less fossil fuels and cutting down on emissions. But Susan McDade of the UNDP has some sympathy for the dimensions of the problem here.

McDADE: There is no other industrialized or industrializing country that has ever developed using a model of sustainable development. Without exception, every industrialized country, every OECD country, has used a model of industrialize first and clean up later. And I think it's very good to keep in perspective that there are no easy answers and there are no quick solutions for Chinese public policy makers.

MCNEILL: Whether or not it's possible for China to take a more sustainable course, there seems to be little enthusiasm for that here. The overriding priority remains economic growth. But western observers note there's been a slight shift in the Chinese leadership. They recognize China's resources will not allow growth to continue at this pace. Pollution must be cleaned up, and conservation measures adopted. The government has started to take some of these steps, but no major improvement is expected on either air pollution or acid rain any time soon. For Living on Earth, this is Lucie McNeill in Beijing.



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