BEIJING: In one Chinese city after the next, the background sound is of thousands, even millions, of car drivers hooting incessantly more-or-less around the clock as they weave and jockey for position across jam-packed, multiple-lane highways. Smog, often thick and oppressive, sometimes ghostlike and wispy, seeps around the many clumps of concrete high-rise buildings to conceal the horizon.
Manicured trees and shrubs line most roads and freeways, but you seldom see any sign of birdlife among the foliage. Look up from the centre of the biggest cities, like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, all with populations of 20m and more, and you’re unlikely to spot a cloud through the enduring grey haze, let alone the clear of the sky that hints of inner space and other galaxies.
Air pollution is so bad in China that, it struck me on a trip through the country, there must be tens of millions of a whole generation who have grown up not experiencing the world as having a blue sky. The water in the canals and rivers, like the Yangtze that cuts through China’s centre, is the colour and consistency of a milky tea where little can surely survive other than the hardiest of frogs and bottom-feeders.
You’re more likely to discover an old shoe or plastic rubbish floating past your boat than you are a duck. Long gone are the freshwater dolphins that once frolicked in these waters.
Africa: economic backwater, environmental paradise
The shocking state of China‘s environment is a reminder that, regardless of the problems of Africa, in a fast-industrialising developing world, it is a privilege to grow up and live on a continent where you can hear not only one bird, but many, even if you live in a city.
In Africa, children can revel in the many different types of insects, reptiles and mammals to be found in their gardens or nearby parks and fields; weather-permitting, they can contemplate big questions while they gaze into the stars at night from their neighbourhoods, even if they live in a high-density area. They can go to bed exhausted from playing hard in the fresh air.
The implications of the pollution in China are scary, not just for its people who have no choice but to inhale and drink in carcinogenic poisons daily – but for the world. China undoubtedly is a major contributor to the carbon emissions that are melting the ice-caps at alarming speed and changing climate patterns for the worse around the globe.
China talks the talk about wanting to do its bit to clean up its pollution act. Green initiatives have been emphasised in the latest five-year plan; it would like all provinces and cities to follow and it is pouring huge amounts of money into technologies aimed at limiting the impact of industry and consumers on the environment.
But, there are signs that wherever there are green building initiatives, switching to cleaner power, like nuclear and wind, and other environmentally-friendly practices and projects, there is more going on in this country that will counteract any gains made. The obvious starting point is cars, a major culprit in the generation of urban carbon emissions.
China’s voracious appetite for cars
Twenty years ago, the early foreigners allowed into the country were struck by the thousands of bicycles dominating Beijing streets. Today, Beijing is better known for its record traffic jams, one famously taking ten days to ease.
Public transport, like buses and trains, tends to be highly efficient around China, arriving regularly at stops several times an hour, and cheap. A fee of RMB 2, the equivalent of R2 or 20p (convert here to your currency), will get you a one-way ride on the underground railway in Beijing, and less than RMB 2 (R2) is what you can expect to pay for a bus journey in most of the big cities. Taxis are relatively inexpensive and prolific. Nevertheless, Chinese consumers still want to their own wheels.
As a result of this appetite for car ownership, China is expected to double the number of cars on its roads by the end of this decade. By 2020, the vehicle population is expected to hit 200m in China, says Wang Fuchang, deputy-director general with oversight of the equipment manufacturing industry at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
Unsurprisingly, there is lots of money to be made out of this unstoppable, if ultimately depressing, pollution story. Car and parts manufacturing are big industries for China; so too is anything to do with getting the oil into the tanks at petrol pumps, for example ship-building.
China imports more than half of the 440m tons it is using annually. It is keen to boost its oil reserves to 36 days-worth of consumption or more.
The government is doing whatever it can to enhance energy safety, which is identified as a political risk to the Communist Party that rules China and which could be unseated if it doesn’t keep improving lifestyles for this massive population of 1.3bn people.
This voracious and unquenchable Chinese appetite for cars is good news for countries in the Middle East and neighbouring Russia, which are the world’s biggest oil exporters. It’s not good news for other Asian countries, as China will probably remain steadfast in its efforts to maintain ownership of disputed islands in the South China Sea.
This is in part because of possible oil exploitation associated with those islands. China will presumably also seek to maintain control of the waters through which tankers must bring it the “black gold” it needs.
As China looks to diversify its oil supply risks, Africa’s oil-rich countries can expect to be feted even more by China in the years ahead. Angola, China’s largest source of oil in Africa, has long been a darling. Libya and Sudan can expect to receive much attention as can Nigeria, among others.
We can also expect to hear more of China’s efforts to combat piracy, not just in Asia but off the coast of Africa too, as one of the world’s largest oil consumers secures the ongoing transportation of its essential supply.
For, if there is one item the Chinese consumer is enamoured with more than most it is the car. The endless cacophony of hooters in any city of China will tell you that.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared at moneyweb.co.za.
Jackie Cameron is a freelance journalist who recently settled near Edinburgh and Glasgow with her family after working as a correspondent in Asia and Africa. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more of her recently published work here.
- Beijing choked by dangerous pollution levels (abc.net.au)
- Beijing choked by third day of hazardous smog (aworldchaos.wordpress.com)
- Beijing Orders Official Cars Off Roads to Curb Pollution (bloomberg.com)
- Beijing Pollution Reaches ‘Highly Hazardous’ Levels (newsy.com)
- Beijing chokes – day 3 of hazardous smog – News24 (news24.com)
- Beijing’s off-the-charts pollution brings health warnings (cbc.ca)
- China pollution anger spills into media (bigpondnews.com)
- Beijing Air Quality Worst on Record (lampandherald.wordpress.com)
- Life beneath a toxic cloud (smh.com.au)
- Top tip if you’re going out in Beijing: don’t breathe (guardian.co.uk)