Beijing underwent for the first time a code red for pollution: officially the worst air quality ever. But the air had been worse before, even a week earlier. Beijing-based journalist Ian Johnson sees a silver lining on the code red: the people and the politicians start to see things have to change, he writes in the New York Review of Books. And that is good new for the Paris talks.
This awareness began to result in concrete policy changes. By late 2012, the government had set up its own monitoring stations across China. Two young Chinese app designers came up with what I think is still the best app for measuring air quality,China Air Quality Index. It has measurements for 411 cities across China, allowing one to watch, in almost pathological detail, pollution clouds sweep across the country.
Around that time I talked to the developers. They said that most of the downloads were probably from foreigners, but they noted that more and more Chinese seemed to be downloading. This feeling was reinforced in 2013 when I spent a couple of weeks in what was then China’s most polluted city, the steel city of Handan. The dubious distinction has since moved slightly north to Baoding, but both cities are similar for lying in the middle of the highest concentrations of steel production in the world, all powered by coal. As I wrote in an article then, discontent was growing even among steel workers—the people whose jobs were on the line.
I was especially struck by an official I met from the local Communist Party school. She told me that the party realizes that discontent is growing and is instructing officials to make sure that factory pollution controls really were being used—and not just purchased and switched off to save money and increase production.
Does any of this have relevance for the Paris climate talks? I think so. The (overwhelmingly) men who run the Chinese government may be authoritarian, but climate-change deniers they are not. They are too technocratic for that; for them, it has always been a very hard-nosed political calculation: burning less coal and shutting down industry is costly and potentially destabilizing. If you—the West—want this done, you help us pay for it. It matters more to you than to us.
This is still China’s position, but the wave of pollution sweeping through the capital makes it harder for Chinese negotiators to play hardball. If the negotiations are seen to fail because of China’s intransigence, that will filter back to Beijing through the haze of censorship and, slowly, create resentment. It won’t lead to a political code red, but will be another cause for dissatisfaction in a country where the economy is already slowing. As perverse as it might be, the Chinese capital’s airpocalypse may be in its best long-term interests.
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