Never in my life have I been so happy to see New Mexico’s blue skies.

That’s how I felt after a nearly two-week visit to China in May, my first. I had been invited to speak about carbon ranching at a conference on water at a university in Zhengzhou, which is a “small” city southwest of Beijing (“small” by Chinese standards means only a million people). Gen and I decided to fly out early and spend six days sightseeing in the capital, including a visit to the Great Wall, which had been on our tourist To Do list for years. We had never visited any country in Asia, in fact, so we were excited about the opportunity to see China up close, if even it was only a glancing view.

I’m not certain that I want to see much more.

Let me say quickly that we were charmed by the Chinese people. Everywhere we went we were greeted by smiles and a vivacity that I had not expected. Whether it was squeezing onto a crowded subway, gathering before the Beijing train station, climbing up the uneven steps of the Great Wall, or flowing en masse through the Forbidden City as fellow tourists, the Chinese were unfailingly upbeat, polite, and full of laughter. They were also neatly and brightly dressed, trim physically, and always on the move (the number of young women wearing high heels on the Great Wall was a big surprise!). The sheer quantity of humanity was also a novelty. Beijing is home to 23 million people and after six days of walking and riding the public transportation system, we felt like we had rubbed elbows with at least two million of them. Perhaps my expectations had been shaped by the cliché of the taciturn, inscrutable oriental of western pop culture, but I was genuinely impressed by the vivaciousness everyone we met and saw. I know I was just scratching surfaces as a tourist, but surfaces matter and our first impression of China’s people was certainly positive.

China’s charming citizens, however, live in a charmless land.

Perhaps China had been pretty once. It was difficult to tell because everywhere I went, even in Zhengzhou, I could only dimly perceive the country through a persistent veil of smog. We knew going in, of course, that Beijing had a very serious pollution problem. Last winter, the city made international headlines when the level of pollution air zoomed off the charts, choking any citizen who didn’t wear a face mask or employ an air filter. The pictures broadcast to the world of Beijing’s streets, barely discernable through the thick smog, looked liked something from a Dickensian nightmare. The smog is a principally a product of dirty coal plants and unregulated vehicle emissions (from a bewildering array of two, three, and four-wheeled contraptions). Toss in unchecked growth, bureaucratic inaction, dust from nearby deserts, and Beijing’s bowl-like topography and you have a recipe for disastrous air pollution.

The stories actually caused us to pause for a moment in our plans to visit China. In the U.S., an air pollution reading of 70 is considered pretty bad (on a scientific scale called PM 2.5 that counts particles in the air). If it hits 300, the EPA recommends that adults stay indoors. In Beijing this winter, the readings often hovered above 500 for days. 500! Did we really want to spend our precious time together (and scarce dollars) walking around Beijing in that stuff? We supposed we could wear face masks, but what sort of vacation was that? Fortunately, we learned that spring means lower levels of smog, so we crossed our fingers and stuck to the original plan.

Here’s one of the photos of Beijing that gave us pause:

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Air pollution has metaphorical as well as physical properties. It can be measured scientifically, in microns or the amount of particulate matter in a given quantity of space, but it is also a measure of a nation’s will to create a healthy environment for its citizens. That’s because smog can be cleaned up – if there’s the will to do so. Smog originates from specific sources, such as coal plants, factory smokestacks, vehicle tailpipes, household chimneys, and anything else that burns fossil fuel. These can be regulated and their emissions reduced – if there’s the will to do so. Some elements of smog are harder to control, of course, including dust and ozone, but the vast majority of the problem is eminently fixable – if there’s the will to do so.

There are plenty of examples that choking smog isn’t a permanent condition. Los Angeles, famously, has made huge strides toward improving its air quality. Mexico City, generally considerable the smoggiest urban center on the planet, made headlines this spring when it announced that it had recorded 248 “good” air quality days in 2012 compared to just 8 in 1992. Both cities support the truism “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” To be fair, China has pledged to improve Beijing’s air quality and while we were in town a number of air-clearing initiatives were announced in the pages of the English-language China Daily. The view from our 12th floor hotel window, however, suggested a different trajectory. The air had a grayness that prohibited us from seeing the details of an apartment building a short distance away – a grayness that I saw all the way to Zhengzhou and back. We saw the sun clearly only once during our stay, when a stiff breeze from the west one evening blew out the smog. Beijing had hills! We adjusted our plans on the spot and headed out to the Great Wall the next morning, to be rewarded with a wonderful hike under (reasonably) clear skies.

Unfortunately, the murk returned in force the following day.

It’s not just air pollution, of course. China has seriously contaminated its rivers and creeks as well – a fact that was brought home to me in a heartbreaking way at the water conference. Student after student rose to tell stories about their homes, where their wells, their drinking water, their rivers, and even their food had been ruined by industrial pollution. They asked the conference speakers for ideas, solutions, and advice. After my presentation on creek restoration in New Mexico using bioengineering principles, a student asked me “Will these methods remove heavy metals from the water?” I paused. I had never considered the question before. We have a lot of challenges confronting rivers and creeks in New Mexico, but heavy metal contamination isn’t one of them. “Yes,” I replied. “I think so. But I’m not really sure.”

The source of China’s pollution problems, of course, is its runaway economy, combined with its apparent disinterest in effective environmental regulation. It’s a cliché now to say that the 21st century will be “China’s century” (following hard on the “American century”). After decades of political turbulence, social upheaval, and economic stagnation, the Chinese Dragon has begun to roar. It is one thing to read about this in news articles, quite another to see it in action, as I did. The Dragon is mighty indeed. And the rising Chinese middle class is clearly benefitting from the nation’s rapid growth and economic success. But the Dragon has become ugly. Its appetite is ravenous, destructive and indiscriminate. It smells bad and its breath is foul. China picked up all the bad habits of its Industrial predecessors while adopting only a few of their virtues, as far as I could see.


On my last day in Beijing, I read an upbeat story in the China Daily about the government’s plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions and comply with various international agreements. Comply, the story said, eventually. “The issue requires more in-depth analysis,” said Zhou Dadi, vice-chairman of the National Energy Advisory Committee. China’s greenhouse gas emissions might peak before 2025, said Zhou. Or they might not. It depends, he said. One cannot rush to a conclusion on the time frame. The issue has so many uncertainties that experts cannot agree on a prediction, though he acknowledged that the urgency is real.

The article went on to list China’s “strong commitments” to act on greenhouse gas emissions, including lowering emissions per unit of GDP by 40 to 50 percent by 2020 compared with the 2005; meeting 15 percent of its primary energy consumption through non-fossil fuels by 2020; and increasing forest coverage by 40 million hectares.

“To achieve goal of limiting the temperature rise to two degrees, developed economies should undertake more ambitious emission reduction targets and provide developing countries with adequate financial and technology support so as to enable the latter to take climate response measures,” Zhou said.

Then came the caveat I had been half-expecting:

However, China’s industrialization is “not yet complete,” Zhou went on. Until it is, he implied, Business-as-Usual would rule. Only when China reached its full industrial potential would it be in a position to take action on greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and other environmental challenges. Until then, apparently, its citizens will have to make do with face masks, air filters, and contaminated water.

As I said, smog is metaphorical as much as physical. Although I only spent a short amount of time in China, it was enough to see that the grayness that has filled up the Dragon’s lair is thick and getting thicker. That a charming and vivacious citizenry is forced to breathe off-the-chart smog is an outrage. Clean air should be an inalienable right – even in a totalitarian state.

That’s why I’ll never look at blue skies the same way again.

Here’s a picture I took of a wall in the Forbidden City:

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