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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.
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.