Reading this week's assignment, I was stunned to learn that air pollution is the leading cause of death in China, killing one million people each year.
I am reminded of the New York Times' doomsday "China: Choking on Growth" series. In a recent installment, the Times elucidates the challenges Beijing is having cleaning up its air in time for the Olympics this summer. Beijing apparently secured the 2008 Olympic games by making promises of cleaning up its skies. Yet despite its best efforts -- moving or shutting down polluting factories, for instance -- pollution continues to skyrocket thanks to rising auto emissions and rampant construction, neither of which look to subside any time soon. I can think of no bigger spotlight (or PR tool) on the dangers of fossil fuel than watching athletes gasping for air. How embarrassing would it be for China if a country withheld its athletes from participating in the Olympics out of protest over air quality?
I'm aware that the US media tends to be hypercritical of China -- and perhaps the thought of athletes suffocating in mid-stride is sensational -- but the fact that the city periodically issues stay-inside warnings during heavy pollution days isn't exactly reassuring.
If I recall correctly from our readings, coal plants spring up in China at a rate of one per week. Even using low-sulfur coal, there is as yet no such thing as "clean coal," and China's solution so far has been to sweep things under the rug rather than do things right from the outset. This will come back to haunt them -- more so than it already has -- perhaps in time for the summer games.