February 17th, 2014
09:10 AM ET

China's bold environmental move

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By Global Public Square staff

There has been some surprising good news out of China. As you probably know, China's super-speed growth has produced super-high levels of pollution. Indeed, Beijing's poor air quality has popularized the word "air-pocalypse". There are days when you can barely see more than a few feet in front of you. It got so bad that the U.S. embassy in Beijing posted a real-time measure of air quality on its website; Chinese officials, of course, have disputed the American data as propaganda.

So people, mostly Chinese people, have asked for an accurate reading of pollution levels in China. In recent years, environmental groups have pressured Beijing to release official data on air pollution. But the government, notorious for being tight-lipped, secretive and unresponsive, had declined. In fact, few people actually believed that Beijing would ever accede to their demands.

Well, guess what? Beijing has ordered 15,000 factories to report details about their emissions: in public, and in real-time. The decree also calls for details on the release of pollutants like wastewater and heavy metals. This is a real first in China – an unprecedented mandate for transparency.

Keep in mind that many of these factories are actually run by powerful state-owned companies, with links to politicians in the upper echelons of government. But for the first time, there is a requirement to publicly acknowledge the environmental impact of mass-scale production…and to take steps to go green.

If you look at the numbers, perhaps we should have seen this coming.

According to the World Bank, the impacts of China's environmental degradation costs the country 9 percent of its Gross National Income. Studies by a number of journals show that more than a million Chinese die prematurely every year because of the country's poor air quality.

More from CNN: Can social media clear air?

And then there's the public response. In the West, we tend to hear only about the big incidents. For example, this time last year, when thousands of dead pigs were found floating in a river near Shanghai. Or when 39 tons of a deadly chemical leaked into one of China's main rivers. Or yet another "air-pocalypse."

All of these incidents and others have led to mass outrage and protest. But often unreported, at a smaller level, every day across this vast country there are hundreds of local protests about the environment. China's Society of Environmental Sciences reports that protests about the environment have grown by an average of 29 percent every year between 1996 and 2011. There are some reports that a majority of the organized protests in China are about the poor quality of air and water.

The good news – for China, and the world – is that Beijing seems to be listening. China has promised to spend $280 billion dollars cleaning up its air. According to information from the International Energy Agency: China's carbon emissions per unit of GDP have dropped by half since the 1990s. Massive investments in wind and solar energy mean that China hopes to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The next step is to be open and transparent about how it is progressing on these fronts. But this is a big first move. And it should send a signal to other developing countries to stop denying their pollution problems and start dealing with them. Most of them are actually much worse than China in this regard. So we have the strange irony that dictatorial China, responding to public protests, is cleaning up its air faster than democratic India.​​

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Topics: China • Environment • What in the World?

soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. William Bellah

    We can live a little while without food or water but the very air we breath is as precious as it gets. It's high time to rethink modern civilization and the future of humanity. We should make it fashionable to conserve and recycle rather than wasteful consumption.

    February 17, 2014 at 10:38 am | Reply
    • Eaglet

      Your comment makes my day – it is great to know that not everyone only thinks money, bigger house, and ego.

      February 17, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        If we don't do anything about cleaning up the environment, clean air and water would soon be a luxury. Only those with deep pockets could afford them.

        February 18, 2014 at 4:36 pm |
      • goldminor

        j. von hettlingen

        If we don't do anything about cleaning up the environment, clean air and water would soon be a luxury. Only those with deep pockets could afford them.
        Not meaning to be nit picky, buy how exactly will having wealth allow one to breathe cleaner air if the atmosphere is polluted? Will there be a fresh air company that will deliver fresh air to those who can afford such a luxury?

        February 20, 2014 at 12:46 am |
      • Chris C

        About the wealthy being able to afford clean air: In China air filtration systems for home and other places are sold and a status item for their owner. The wealthy can afford bigger and more effective units.

        February 21, 2014 at 4:01 pm |
    • David Polewka

      We need to increase the death rate, by stopping the prevention of
      measles, mumps, chicken pox, influenza, malaria, & tuberculosis,

      February 17, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Reply
      • Eaglet

        Your list coud have lincluded nuclear wars, both global or regional.

        February 17, 2014 at 1:02 pm |
    • Tony Montana

      As leader of the world, we should make the first move.

      February 18, 2014 at 11:17 pm | Reply
      • goldminor

        and attack China?

        February 20, 2014 at 12:47 am |
      • Tony Montana

        use alternative energy, cut down on pollution

        February 20, 2014 at 2:32 pm |
  2. snowdogg

    How many people smoke cigarettes in China? Self-pollution.

    February 17, 2014 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • Jack R

      Yes but they are starting to do what the US did. Smoking is now banned in most all public buildings and public places. It is a good start and looks that it is being followed. Used to be restaurants all had smoking..not anymore, none in most all hotels either. The hotel smoking floors are going away one by one.

      February 17, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Reply
      • Knoweiout

        Apparently Jack, you don't live in China.
        I've lived in Shanghai for almost 9 years now and there is no enforcement of any smoking rules in restaurants here. I've yet to see a non-smoking sign in any Chinese restaurant. It's mainly the western restaurants that have provided non-smoking areas for their patrons, and that's mainly because the 'authorities' strong-arm you for compliance or money. They would rather have the money.
        Chinese still smoke in elevators, lobbies...anywhere they can light up. The just recently issued one of their famous decrees that people 'should not' smoke in schools, HOSPITALS!!!!!, and university buildings.
        Yeah Jack, they're moving along really fast!

        February 23, 2014 at 6:28 am |
      • anythingnewyork

        Knoweiout is right. Rules don't mean anything in China because people in China never complain when rules are broken。When no one else is complaining, you will be hated for complaining. So they just never complain. No one thinks that he/she is important. People expect you to try to adjust to the environment, not to change it to your own desire. They can not understand why someone is not able to accept what others are able to accept. I am Chinese myself. But I wonder why Chinese would want to live like that. You can do anything to them and they would put up with it. No wonder they are bullied often outside China.

        April 5, 2014 at 10:08 am |
  3. disbeliever

    Open and transparent ?. Chinese goverment don't understanding these terms. Law is in their hand and easly for them to turn and twist. Falsely report or mislead report is at their best for the last thousand of years and will be many more thousand years in...

    February 17, 2014 at 11:06 am | Reply
    • Tony Montana

      I've said it before and will say it again. Some of our very own media here in the west work with certain governments to instill fear into us by creating the next villain in order to justify their huge overspending and debts. It was USSR, now China and who's next in line? For the Chinese people, all I gotta say is: strictly business, nothing personal

      February 18, 2014 at 11:00 pm | Reply
  4. scourge9999

    People in China are allowed to protest? I thought that was deemed an "attack on the state" and got you arrested or beaten?

    February 17, 2014 at 11:32 am | Reply
    • Eaglet

      The Chinese people protest for sure and sometimes win. http://chinadigitaltimes.net/china/xiamen-px/

      February 17, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • Tony Montana

      Yes,they are allowed to protest and believe or not, the people get their way as long as they are not anti-government. The communist party recognizes that reform is a must as their own people are getting wealthier and more educated.

      February 18, 2014 at 10:55 pm | Reply
  5. George

    Two many people for a country moving from agrarian, mostly non motorized, to urban motorized. Way too many, same for India.

    February 17, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Reply
    • David Polewka

      Raise the death rate: Stop immunization!

      February 17, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Reply
    • Raj

      I thought Mumbai , India was polluted until i saw live video of Beijing for the past 3 weeks with regard to the dissappearence of Malaysian flight MH370 .....pollution in Beijing is unbelievable . In Mumbai at least you can see for quite a distance :) ...also lot of the manufacturing has shifted out of Mumbai some time back due to the high cost of real estate

      March 26, 2014 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  6. Sammy

    If china can do something about their pollution, it will have impact world wide, not just china. Hope they do something about it sooner than later. Their people and coming generations are going to pay huge price on healthcare crisis.
    Also in US too – fertilizers and crop sprays need to be reviewed and cut down. There is simpler cheaper way to do farming without use of chemicals. So let's also report on how bad California's central valley is. Infact – look at Forbes top 20 dirty city list released recently. its mainly California.
    Thanks Mr. Zakaria for the report.

    February 17, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Reply
    • Doleros

      Agree 100%. These days pollution in one country can and does impact whole world. so you think China has pollution, but it comes to USA in various forms – be it the meat that cina ships to USA, the goods and materials, air and water. So China please take care of the issue.
      USA – please look into the amount f chemicals that we put in the air. all these anti bacterial washes and the insect sprays and the fertilizers – its really bad.
      i cant believe – bakers field, fresno in california is so bad.

      February 17, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  7. chrissy

    Wow i soooo agree @ David Pokewka! Immunizations have caused many longterm illnesses as well! The DPD immunization CAN and HAS caused severe mental impairments in children in this country! The fact that i am most aware of since my son is a victim! Thank you for bringing that up!

    February 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Reply
    • Ben

      Vaccines cause a couple of development delays but save millions of lives. And yet a few fringe cases somehow override the massive public health benefit?

      February 17, 2014 at 9:36 pm | Reply
  8. chrissy

    Ok i retract that thank you. I reread your post and realised you think they should die! Idiot!

    February 17, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  9. Fish

    This is when the President should step in and offer assistance in reporting and mitigating the impacts, just by sending the EPA reps to advise!!!

    February 17, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      Take a look at China; this is what big biz desires for the US. They want to do away with the EPA. How'd that work out for WVA?

      February 18, 2014 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  10. Enviro Equipment, Inc.

    The Chinese government can order all the factories in the country to report their levels of pollution, but until that same government passes laws (that are enforced!) against this pollution, China's environment will simply not improve by any appreciable measure.

    Also, if it's going to spend $280 billion on cleaning up its air pollution, how much is the Chinese government going to spend on cleaning up its water pollution (which is almost equally as bad)?

    February 17, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Reply
    • Tony Montana

      One thing for sure is they can get it done because the fact that it's one party rule. How long would it take for us to get something done?

      February 18, 2014 at 11:12 pm | Reply
      • Knoweiout

        Tony, the one party rule IS the problem. Who do you think owns most of these polluting factories and industries? They are 'State Owned Enterprises' and business owned by Party members (or their families). Then there is the hundreds of thousands of party members down the food chain, who acting in some 'government' capacity, turn their backs with their hands extends, collecting their pieces of silver while the phosphorous slugs is pumped into the atmosphere or river.

        They're not done milking this murderous cow; she still has a couple years left before her teats drop off. Then they'll really make an effort instead of just publicizing their ambitious attempt to 'study the problem'. This is their 'MO'.

        February 23, 2014 at 7:08 am |
  11. David


    February 17, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • Tony Montana

      That's a lose lose situation, I do not wish that upon China, us or anybody

      February 18, 2014 at 11:10 pm | Reply
    • Knoweiout

      You're right David; the crap is floating in across the atmosphere...heading for the West coast. But just as important is the amount of food coming from China that has virtually no export control over the quality and safety of it.
      Where do you think the majority of seafood imported to US comes from?
      Did you know that the vast majority of apples and apple juice concentrate comes from China?

      Americans and Canadians need to READ THE LABELS!!

      February 23, 2014 at 6:40 am | Reply
  12. Wade

    We, in the developed nations are also responsible. Our companies ship all sorts of dirty manufacturing plants to China, taking full advantage of the cheaper cost of no environmental regulations, and lack of transparency there. We should impose finical penalties on companies, who manufacture in developing nations, but does not meet the environmental regulation of the countries which they sell their goods. Remember Smog knows no border.

    February 17, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Reply
    • Tony Montana

      Actually, most major corporations impose strict environmental and labor policies in developing countries. It used to be bad maybe ten years ago, but things have improved drastically.

      February 18, 2014 at 11:06 pm | Reply
      • anythingnewyork

        It is hard to say whether a company has contributed to environmental problems. Companies often get part of their jobs done by other companies who may not be so responsible in terms of environmental protection. The reason why companies outsource their jobs is that the companies that get the outsourced jobs can save on cost of production by skirting environment regulations.

        April 5, 2014 at 10:22 am |
  13. chrissy

    Agreed. But "we" still have one big hurddle to overcome. That would be that Corporate America does NOT care about the human factor! Their bottom line is "how much money they're making." After all thats WHY they sent their manufacturing over seas in the first place. They don't care about chile labor issues or forced labor either and those are 2 of the major human factors, so why would they care about pollution.

    February 17, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  14. chrissy

    Oops that should read *child* labor.

    February 17, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  15. Mike Smith

    Not bad. China is only 45 years behind the U.S. with the advent of the EPA thanks to Dick Nixon. America's land, air and water were so polluted that the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire due to chemicals and could not be put out for a period of time. Rampant industrialization and the accompanying pollution of the environment catches up to all civilizations. @Wade: you're right. Pollution is a global problem requiring global solutions; enforceable laws for compliance and punitive measures to take the profit motive out of environmental toxification.

    February 17, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Reply
    • Tony Montana

      well said

      February 18, 2014 at 11:04 pm | Reply
  16. chrissy

    Amen @ Mike Smith! And those compliance enforcements should apply to the child labor factor too! They should not be given a free pass just because the children arent US citizens! They are ALL Gods children!

    February 17, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  17. YZhang

    Great news that China is making it a high priority to tackle environmental issues!

    February 17, 2014 at 9:41 pm | Reply
    • Tony Montana

      IMO, It's time for ALL developing AND developed countries to tackle pollution

      February 18, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Reply
  18. Abby

    Yet China is desperate for Canadian and US coal to fire their power plants which put out huge amounts of pollution. China's pollution will only increase. What a dynk Xi is.

    February 17, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Reply
    • Tony Montana

      Well, we have the choice of NOT selling any of it to the Chinese. Better yet, keep it all for ourselves.

      February 18, 2014 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  19. chrissy

    Ok @ Ben, lets just say development delays are acceptable. Where do you draw the line? How about severely mentally challenged? Would you say THATS acceptable? And would it be unacceptable if you knew, but didnt let parents know that some children were susceptable to this severely mental defect all because it would require a single test? Is that acceptable in your world? Or your childs world? Cuz it sure isnt acceptable in mine! Not to mention that the single causing factor is NOT required but because ITS in a vacine with 2 other factors that ARE required, those susceptable group of children are required to have it in order to go to school. But then when they are afflicted with the severely mentally challenges, they are NO longer required to ATTEND school even! Does that sound ACCEPTABLE to you?

    February 17, 2014 at 10:13 pm | Reply
    • Mojave45

      Yes Chrissy. As sad as t is for some children to have some developmental delays, or worse, vaccines should be required for the greater good of society. When you don't vaccinate a child and they contract a communicable disease you are putting other children at risk. Mt cousin had polio. I saw it firsthand. When the vaccine wiped out polio in the IS it was good idea. How many thousands saved? Same with the other diseases.

      February 18, 2014 at 12:40 am | Reply
  20. Agastus

    I'm very anti pollution but don't drink the Al Gore climate change coo-laid and believe this is a good step that China is taking. However I wonder how they came up with the statistics about the 9% GDP cost I call that total B.S. Being environmental friendly costs huge and will do the opposite to the GDP look at Europe and North America all the production went to China due to cost of doing business including being over environmentally friendly. This may bring some jobs back to America since it will definitely increase their production costs. Hope they keep their word and we can compete on a more even playing field.

    February 17, 2014 at 11:10 pm | Reply
  21. chrissy

    Agreed @ Mojave45! Where i was initially headed with this topic before i reread the post i was responding too....was...the US should do their part on environmental moves, by revisiting regulations in this country! Not just the earth but the things that are forced on the people who inhabit it. First on my list would be the FDA and drugs that are a requirement. Also with the FDA would be all the pesticides and preservatives! Many members of our government want to eliminate most regulations and that just doesnt seem acceptable to me. There needs to be checks and balances. If China can see that then how cant our government?

    February 18, 2014 at 1:00 am | Reply
    • banasy©

      Our government, by and large, does see the need for regulations; it's funding the enforcement that is the issue...
      I'm sorry, but I an unwilling to eat rotten meat, drink unpotable water, and breath toxic air because my stupid Congressman is getting his pockets lined by big business for their bottom line. These freaking industries won't self-regulate. Give an inch and they'll pollute a mile, because, after all, THEY don't live there...

      February 18, 2014 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  22. chrissy

    Really? Said it before so youll say it again? To whom? I dont imagine China looks at us as "leader of the world!" And major corporations have proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that their big concern is purely revenue! They do not have much concern about "labor policies" any further than their bottom line! If they did they would pull manufacturing out of countries that use child and forced labor as a common practise thats for sure!

    February 18, 2014 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  23. Patrick

    Having just returned from 12 years on China's east coast, mostly in Shanghai, I clearly recall that in those early first years that City was relatively pollution free, being neat the coast and all. However, the middle class ramped up, cars and motor bikes became the things to have. These industries began to boom; cheaply manufactured and affordable cars and two-wheelers became the things to have. With cheap vehicles came polluting vehicles; jobs, economy, and business became the priority for governments and the people. My last couple of years were most difficult with days spent not venturing outside, and the face mask becoming a fashion and health item. End of 2013 it was time to leave and breathe the clean, fresh air of Canada. China has a crisis at hand! Can they manage it?

    February 21, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Reply
    • an eye for an eye until the whole world is blind

      Good comment. I also spent months in Beijing and Shanghai. I thought Beijing was worse. And yet, let's never forget that many places in the UK were grossly polluted during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800's and many places in the US became grossly polluted during America's rise in the 1900's. So now it is China's turn, to cough and sputter and wear face masks, while they wave the flag of GDP in our faces! But let's also know, that the Chinese were the first nation to limit population growth, way back in 1979, to just one kid per couple, even though that law has since been watered down. They are smart, and they will figure out their pollution issue, just like we did.

      February 26, 2014 at 11:58 pm | Reply
  24. Gregorius Lignatur

    I am glad to see that the Peoples Republic of China is working on the problem. Even the biggest Party bosses have to breathe. They are smart enough and in touch enough with reality to know that the people will take only so much.

    February 24, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  25. RobS

    Perhaps Zakaria and the writers of this blog are ignorant of China's energy mix. They already obtain more than 20% of their energy from renewable sources – virtually all hydropower.

    March 3, 2014 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  26. JellyBean

    Token change.

    April 7, 2014 at 8:47 am | Reply
  27. atavisms

    I spent a week each in Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai. The air was far and away the worst in Xian. It was as if there were a fire down the block, everywhere, outside. I had an asthmatic reaction to it, nothing terrible, but it was wild. As was the pollution on water ways and the desperation of some beggars. Otherwise, it blew me away..

    April 20, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  28. cacique

    A mix of super-economics, greed, and a screw-the-environment business policy has created just the right context for national progress. The health cost has been terrible for people, nature, and many communities at large. Waking up and smelling the poisonous gasses and having to drink contaminated water is mandatory for the Chinese government and the national industry.

    April 21, 2014 at 4:22 am | Reply
  29. TAJW

    Yep...China is seriously going to move toward environmental quality issues over transfer of wealth from the west to the east.

    They are so focused on making the environment a safer place.

    April 21, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Reply

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