After "Under the Dome": Can China solve its air pollution crisis?

Somewhere in there is the city of Lianyungang. Image: Gety.

When it comes to air pollution, the government of China is currently standing on an ever-eroding precipice. On one side is a growing citizens movement, that is demanding clearer skies and a healthier environment; on the other are deeply instilled industrial, economic, and political patterns that cannot be rapidly revamped.

Before it was removed from the Chinese internet one week after it went live, Chai Jing’s Under the Dome documentary showed more than one third of the country’s 600m internet users the effect that air pollution is having on their health and how their country’s industries and government are complicit in its apocalyptic proliferation.

China does in fact have a range of environmental protection policies. But a recurring theme of the film was that they are often subverted by industries, intentionally overlooked by government officials, and are ultimately unenforceable by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). “We don’t have any teeth,” was how one MEP agent put it.

Under the Dome didn’t necessarily call for new environmental policies, but simply pushed for the proper enforcement of those which are already established. In other words, it argued that Chinese companies and government officials should be below the law – a similar agenda to that being pursued by President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. To drive that point home, Chai showed estimates of how much less China’s air would be polluted, if only the country’s current emissions laws were obeyed.

Under the Dome got people talking across all sectors of the society, and a huge portion of the population realized that they were all saying the same thing. Before discussion of the film was purged online, the social network Sina Weibo alone contained over 280m posts on the subject.

“All of my friends are talking about the documentary,” said Ryan Lee, a musician from Shandong. “Everybody says they didn’t know the situation was serious to such a degree.”

A tourist wears a face mask in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Image: AFP.

After a series of colossal air pollution incidents, colloquially dubbed “airpocalypses”, in which cities more than a thousand miles apart were concurrently choked to a virtual standstill by the same blanket of smog, the Chinese government took its monumental first step towards improving air quality: it admitted that there was a problem.

Until then, they’d made a succession of denials and excuses for the haze, from it being fog to it being caused by farmers burning crops. The state run newspapers didn’t call the haze pollution, and even those living in extremely polluted regions often didn’t realise that the opaque atmosphere that surrounded them was anything to worry about. Few even found any reason to talk about it.

“When I was in high school, no one talked about air pollution,” said Diao Yanli, a teacher who grew up in an extremely polluted part of the Yantze River Delta. “People are more concerned about it now.”

Today, everybody knows exactly why they can’t see the blue sky above, and Under the Dome put a large swatch of the Chinese population on the same page about the issue. The film substituted the random scraps of knowledge that people tended to have about air pollution into a coherent body of information, outlining not only why and how their country has become so polluted, but offering directives on what ordinary citizens can do about it – namely, drive less and report the abuses of environmental laws they see.

This has caused many people in China to look in a single direction for a resolution to the haze: to the state. “I blame the government because the government controls most of the departments that are related to environment [and] who take charge of most of the factories and commercial organisations,” a young women from Ordos told me.

Having acknowledged the problem, the government automatically became responsible for fixing it. Premier Li Keqiang recently told the National People’s Congress that, “Environmental pollution is a blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts. We must fight it with all our might.” The mayor of Beijing described his own city as being “unliveable”. And the president himself, Xi Jinping, declared that he was going to punish “with an iron hand” anyone who dared damage the environment, “with no exceptions”.

There’s a very close relationship between government decision makers and polluting industries: often, they are one and the same. China also features widespread corruption, and political fissures within the party itself.

For all those reasons, direct fiat has so far proved to be an ineffective strategy in China’s pursuit of cleaner air. This isn’t just a matter of industrial avarice: China’s big polluting industries employ millions of workers, and are the economic foundations of entire provinces. The proverbial switch on these industries can’t just be flipped off.

Mostly, China seems to be trying to ween itself of its biggest sources of pollution gradually. It’s providing massive subsidies and creating a more conducive environment for renewable energy production, as well as less polluting forms of transportation and green urban design.

In 2013 China invested $68bn into the renewable energy industry; last year it was $89bn. In less than a decade China has become a global leader in solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, producing more GW of renewable energy than the total power output of every other country in the world except the USA.

Nearly 300 new eco-cities are also currently under construction or are in the planning stages across China. While building hundreds of new cities may seem to be the least ecological thing a country can do, China’s eco-cities can be seen as testing grounds for a new kind of urbanism. They’ll allow green engineering designs and clean energy gadgetry — like seasonal energy storage — to be put into practice on a large scale.

Cyclists wear face masks in Beijing. Image: Getty.

Nonetheless, China’s dependence on coal is not yet hovering in the rear view mirror. Although the country will continue developing its renewable energy industries it will likewise continue expanding its use of coal, and are in the works to double total energy capacity by 2030.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), China is to add 363 new coal fired power plants, and increase coal energy capacity by 75 per cent, over the coming decades. By 2050 China’s coal usage is expected to drop to 30-50 per cent of its total energy supply – but that’s still an incredible amount of coal being burned. Coal, and the pollution associated with it, are going to be a part of the Chinese condition for a long time yet.

Right now, there is an ever-growing push by the Chinese public for cleaner air – and now the government has acknowledged the scale of the problem, it’ll be looked upon to produce results to match its rhetoric. Unlike other issues, the government cannot hide air pollution; the public can not only see it, but can monitor it, too, with apps and websites that show an up-to-the minute air quality index.

The question facing the Communist Party is how it can balance public opinion, governmental fissures, industrial profit motives, and the stability of the domestic economy. An unrequited commitment to improving air quality at this point could backfire and make the Party look inept and weak – exactly how an authoritarian regime cannot afford to look, if it easy to retain the legitimacy to continue ruling. 

“If things get worse and our government still does nothing, I'm not sure what will happen,” a woman from Jiangsu province told me. “It's not like anything else. It's survival.”

Wade Shepard is the author of "Ghost Cities of China".

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.