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Time for Beijing to clear the air

Publication Date : 23-01-2013

 

Even if they seem too little too late, the emergency measures Beijing is planning to control worsening air pollution indicate some recognition of an ineluctable fact - rapid and unrestrained growth will exact high and rising environmental and health costs. Air quality should not have risen recently to more than 40 times what the World Health Organisation says is safe. But the city decided to act against the worst polluters among factory and car owners only after the smog became visually too obvious to ignore.

Triggering fear and outrage, the 2.5 micrometres particulate matter reading spiked "beyond index" to 886. It is a threat that can only be taken as extremely dangerous, because such pollutants can easily lodge deep in the lungs to cause asthma, bronchitis and cancer.

More and more Chinese are clearly justified in asking if development at such a breakneck speed is worth the cost to health. They have become even more resentful towards those who have the means to filter the air in their homes and offices, and to consume only produce grown on protected farms.

This political question might well overshadow other pressing national issues if left to fester. Beijing is not the only Chinese city that pollution envelops frequently. It is only 75th among 149 urban areas worst affected. The authorities have had to scrap some industrial projects, for example, in Qidong and Shifang last year, when protests turned ugly.

The media, including the state media, have openly and even critically focused on the big "Beijing blackout" this time, when previously they under-reported the problem. Highlighting public concern is a good start, but the overall situation is so serious it calls for a reconsideration of the intensity of the country's catch-up game.

Though long overdue, China has to now bring development and the environment into a sustainable balance. China would have been wise to have taken care to safeguard its environment when it embarked on its modernisation decades ago, but it is not too late to switch to growing sensibly without despoiling the countryside and fouling the air in cities.

China is not alone. Other Asian nations too should not wait till things turn dire before acting. Environmental sustainability must be "at the heart of all long-term development plans", as Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono noted. Like China, his country has been plagued by pollution problems that afflict its own citizens and at times spill over to its neighbours too. It should work with its Asean friends to ensure that their much repeated collective pledges to protect the living environment are not just so much hot air.

 

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