Earth Day in China —by Jinny Batterson
During the several years when I was in China in late April, I never noticed any hoopla about Earth Day, celebrated in the U.S. around April 22. This holiday, founded by environmentalists in the United States in 1970, has yet to catch on in China. A couple of times, I’ve broached the subject of environmental activism to some of my Chinese students and colleagues. Over the past generation or so in China, there has been increasing interest in ecological education, as the Chinese economy begins to mature and its natural environment becomes more polluted.
I have mainly benefited from industrial progress in the U.S. for much of my lifetime, so I can find it awkward to discuss “earth friendly” development with Chinese friends. After I’d given a somewhat glib critique of China’s polluted air at an evening Q&A session several years ago, one younger Chinese colleague retorted:
“Your country spewed great plumes and spurts of toxic chemicals into its air and water for over a century before you began efforts to clean up your dirty industries. What right do you have to criticize us when we’re still just getting started on our development?”
Reaching a consensus on steps our respective governments and cultures can take to reduce our harm to global air and water resources can be tricky. The trade-offs between economic development and wise resource stewardship are not always obvious. Citizens in both countries register alarm at some of the damage we’re causing, but what we can do to reduce the harm is not always readily apparent.
Progress toward mutual efforts to reduce some pollutants in our two countries, greenhouse gas emissions, got a boost in November, 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama signed a historic agreement with ambitious emissions reduction targets for both countries. The U.S. pledged to reduce its emissions by at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025; China promised to cap its emissions by 2030, and earlier if possible. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, coming from industrial, residential, and vehicular sources, are leading contributors to air pollution, as well as likely facilitators of global climate change. If early progress is made toward achieving these goals, it will help further advance broader international agreements at a global climate summit to be held in Paris in December, 2015. (You can read more about the U.S.-China agreement at http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/china-us-agree-to-limit-greenhouse-gases/2014/11/11/9c768504-69e6-11e4-9fb4-a622dae742a2_story.html.)
A non-governmental boost toward paying attention to China’s environment came recently from a former CCTV (Chinese state television) reporter, Chai JIng, who in 2015 produced an independent hour-plus documentary about air pollution problems in China. Chai’s TED-style documentary, “Under the Dome,” also provides historical context from different parts of the world. It cites Britain’s “killer smog” of 1952 (4 days of heavy air pollution in December that year that killed an estimated 12,000 people). It also chronicles Los Angeles’s smog problems. In the period just after World War II, smog in Los Angeles was just as dense and harmful as Beijing’s smog is today. A photograph taken of one of L.A.’s freeways on Christmas Eve, 1948, shows extremely limited visibility. Strict emissions standards strictly enforced have lessened smog there, even as the number of vehicles on area roads has increased.
Chai has said she produced her documentary out of concern for her young daughter, who was born with a benign tumor that may have been caused by pollution. Chai’s presentation was posted to the Internet and had received over 100 million views in China before it was removed from Chinese websites.
It may be slightly ironic that two high-profile recent public events in Beijing—the 2008 Olympics and the 2014 APEC summit (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), at which Obama and Xi signed their historic agreement—contributed to increasing expectations among Beijingers that cleaner air is possible. For both events, polluting industries in surrounding areas were temporarily scaled back or shut down entirely. Motor traffic into the city was severely restricted. Officials wanted to have “blue sky days” while Beijing was in the international spotlight.
When Earth Day comes around this year, I’ll do my part by increasing my efforts to be more sparing in my use of a car. I’ll invest more in carbon offsets to reduce the impact of my airline travel. I’ll eat lower on the food chain more often. I’ll revel in the “blue sky days” that still predominate in the part of the United States of America where I live. In addition to personal lifestyle changes, I’ll work harder toward public policy modifications in my town, county, state, and country to help protect the environment. I’ll think of Chai Jing and her daughter, of my own children and grandchildren. Each of us can do something to move toward a more livable planet for future generations of humans.