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China Airpocalypse

As air pollution hits toxic levels, China counts the human cost of its rapid economic growth.

Last updated: 13 Dec 2013 07:50
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In January 2013, a dense yellow fog shrouded northern China in one of the most alarming incidents of air pollution on record.

Readings of the smallest - and deadliest - airborne particles soared to nearly 40 times recommended safety levels. Residents were warned to stay indoors; expats dubbed it the "Airpocalypse"; and Chinese media were given unprecedented freedom to report on the toxic air conditions.

For many Chinese, it brought a stark realisation of how hazardous air pollution had become, but the worst may still be ahead. A Deutsche Bank report released in February said the current trends of coal use and automobile emissions suggest air pollution could worsen by an additional 70 percent by 2025. In China's five northwestern provinces alone, carbon dioxide emissions from coal production are predicted to rise by 1,400 million tonnes by 2015, an amount equal to Russia's entire national output in 2010.

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Doctors and officials are only beginning to assess the impact of smog on the nation's health. A study in British medical journal, The Lancet, found that outdoor air pollution contributed to about 1.2 million deaths in China in 2010, or about 40 percent of airborne pollution-related deaths worldwide. Toxic air was listed as the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths in China, behind poor diet, high blood pressure and smoking.

Among those most vulnerable to the worsening pollution are children. A study published by The New England Journal of Medicine showed that children exposed to high levels of air pollution can suffer permanent lung damage. More parents are confining their sons and daughters at home. Schools are cancelling outdoor activities and field trips, and some international schools have built futuristic-looking domes over sports fields to provide fresh air for recreation.

Three-year-old Xinghuo rarely enjoys a day in the sun. With his asthma attacks worsening and occurring more frequently, trips to the hospital have become routine for the small boy. Xinghuo's family has tried both Chinese and Western medicine in hope of a remedy, but like many Chinese youngsters in Beijing, Xinghuo faces the prospect of a childhood spent mostly indoors.

Experts say the economic cost is also growing. A Chinese government report claimed that pollution had cost the country about $230bn in 2010, or 3.5 percent of China's GDP. The report is said to only be a partial accounting.

The worsening air pollution is causing some expat executives to reconsider accepting jobs in China, forcing some firms to offer bonuses of up to 30 percent to attract foreign talent. A growing number of expats are citing air pollution as a primary cause for leaving the country.

The problem also raises the spectre of increased unrest. Unlike instances of corruption and other government abuses that are often filtered from public discussion, yellow skies cannot be as easily dismissed. China has witnessed an increase in protests against proposed chemical factories and power stations, with citizens taking bolder steps to stand up and protect their villages.

China has vowed it will clean up the environment. Beijing announced a $16bn, three-year plan to improve sewage treatment, garbage incineration and forestry development. And China invested $65bn in clean energy in 2012, more than any other country.

Yet critics say the government remains committed to economic growth over environmental protection, with targets that continue to rely on high industrial output. Chinese state-owned enterprises in the oil and power industries have consistently blocked efforts by pro-environment government officials to impose policies that would alleviate the pollution.

Some wonder, even once China makes significant steps to clean up its air, will the damage be too great to repair?

#Airpocalypse Now: Can China clear its yellow skies for people to breathe easier? @AJ101East #ChinaPollution

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Al Jazeera
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