The Global Impact of Pollution to the Planet

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Of all the problems facing our beautiful planet Earth, pollution is easily the worst. The relentless march of science and industrialization has given birth to an unstoppable force of mass production and development. The leaps and bounds by which science and industry is accelerating forward is nothing to write negative about and is actually beneficial for our day to day lives. But this breakneck pace of modernization has created a monster, in the form of pollution. Whether in the form of air pollution, water pollution, electronic waste or any other type, this conundrum has slowly and gradually weakened and destroyed us and might very well be responsible for the destruction of our species.

Bringing our focus to aerial pollution specifically, its effects reach far and wide. The death of 7 million people annually due to air pollution and the destruction of part of ozone layer (over Antarctica) is a pressing problem and requires our immediate heed and concern. Air pollution, for better or for worse, is not limited to the area where the pollution is produced. Once the pollutants are in the air, it actually becomes the problem of whole of the world. The air currents carry the pollutants far and wide, affecting everyone. Of all the countries affected by severe air pollution, China is easily on the top. Here, in this essay, we take a look at Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Beijing is the capital of China and its second largest city, in terms of population. About 21 million people reside in the city which is also the administrative, political, business and transport hub of China. It is a hustling bustling city which is a source of earning for millions so as a result, pollution is high in this city.

Causes of Pollution

The causes of air pollution in Beijing are several. Ranging from factory and power plant emissions to vehicular exhausts and rampant construction across the city, they constitute the root of the problem.

Industrial Emissions

Factories, both within the city limits and those on the outskirts of the city spew out thousands of tons of exhaust pollutant gases daily. These factories include cement, steel, oil refining and petrification and ferrous metal smelting plants which combine to burn over 350 million tons of coal per year. These are located in in the neighboring provinces of Hebei, Henan and Shandong.

Energy Emissions

Power plants, which are mostly coal fired, required to keep an expansive and populous city like Beijing running also discharge exhaust gases. These plants mostly use coal as fuel, the coal being of low quality and high in sulphur content. Actually, China produces 70 percent of its energy by coal and 80 percent of its fuel consist of coal. These exhaust gases, rich in sulphur and lead content and soot make its way to the city with the help of air currents.

Vehicular Emissions

Another major cause of pollution is vehicle emissions. There are more than five million vehicles in Beijing and this number keeps increasing day by day. The frequency of use of these vehicles is also much more than other cities of the world: the cars here are used more on average than the cars in, for example, New Delhi. Also, high polluting vehicles which include vehicles with old and inefficient engines or those with no catalytic converters are running rampant across the city with no effort by the government to curb the use of such vehicles. The public transport system is also not that well developed which would otherwise have helped significantly in reducing pollution as it would decrease and diminish the frequency of use of privately owned vehicles.

Construction

In recent years, China has seen a tremendous economic boom and as a result, modernization and urban development in and around Beijing is at its peak. Dust and other fine particles due to grinding, crushing, construction of roads and buildings are dislodged into the air which also contribute greatly to overall pollution. Unpaved roads and their overuse around the city also aggravates the problem.

Consequences of Pollution

As a result of pollution, smog covers the skyline of Beijing, for days at end. During the day, visibility becomes extremely poor and people have difficulty in seeing 50 m ahead. Beijing’s level of PM2.5 concentration has been hovering around 625 micrograms per cubic meter which is 25 times higher than the standard set by WHO. PM 2.5 are particles of diameter equal to and less than 2.5 micrometers which pose the greatest health risk. These are the particles that can lodge deeply into the lungs due to their small size and are the cause of most of breathing related problems (Kuo, 2014). The US embassy in Beijing frequently measures and collects air pollution data. Its readings frequently top more than 500 micrograms per cubic meter. In contrast, anything above 301 is considered extremely hazardous in the fact that it can directly threaten lives. Beijing faces as much as 189 polluted days a year, based on the air pollution index, according to conservative estimates (Chan & Yao, 2008). Smog clouds are so dense that they are sometimes actually visible from space.

Health issues

Face masks are a common sight in Beijing with everyone from school going children to everyday commuters donning a mask when they venture out of their homes. The citizens of Beijing face severe respiratory problems due to this pollution. Respiratory illnesses ranging from runny nose, cough, and sore throat and skin allergies to life threatening diseases like asthma, chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis and emphysema are commonplace. According to a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), air pollution in Beijing has had a significant negative affect on the residents of the city, reducing their life expectancies on average, anywhere between 15 and 16 years. Premature deaths due to aerial pollutants are common and are increasing exponentially. Doctors and hospitals across the region have reported accelerated aging of lungs, loss of lung capacity, decreased lung function and aggravated cardiovascular illnesses across the population (Moore,2014). The mortality rate due to lung cancer has increased by more than 465 percent in the last three decades and research by reputed individuals has found that up to 750,000 Chinese die prematurely per annum in large cities due to air pollution (Xu,Yu,Jing & Xu,2000).

Economic Impact

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This worsening air pollution also exacts a heavy economic toll, shutting down schools, grounding flights, closing highways and keeping tourists at home. The tourism of the city has particularly been affected, and all the major tourist destinations in the city have reported a decrease in the annual number of visitors. Sometimes the visitors drop as much as a quarter of their number in a normal day. The government frequently issues warnings ordering the elderly and the children to stay at home and those going to work to wear protective masks whenever the air pollution index reaches severe. All this hampers the day to day activities of the Chinese people, negatively affects economic activity and may, on however small a scale, adversely affect China’s economic boom.

Agricultural Impact

The agriculture and flora in and around Beijing has been adversely affected. Air pollutants are greenhouse gases which discourage photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert light into energy needed for their sustenance. This kills the trees, which are the most important factor in helping curb and decreasing air pollution. In addition, the vegetables and herbs are poisoned with many farms reporting the destruction of all of their crops due to emissions from the nearby brick kilns and coal fired power stations (Kaiman,2014). Several species of fauna native to Beijing are extinct and several more are on the brink of being wiped out. According to several researchers, if these smoggy conditions persist, the country’s agricultural production could be seriously affected in the near future.

Economy resulting from Pollution

Inspired from these masks, some fashion houses have released clothing lines which include and ‘trendify’ these masks. Clean air tours have been started by some individuals which take the people to the rural countryside away from the polluted air in cities. Aluminum cans filled with clean air are very popular and a man recently made a small fortune selling these cans in Beijing.

Steps to reduce Pollution

The government has introduced a series of measures to help curb the rise of air pollution.

Administrative Steps

This includes temporarily shutting down factories and ordering a third of government owned vehicles off the streets if the hazardous smog continues for more than three days in a row. These measures were aggravated in the 2008 summer Olympics when in addition to the above measures coal fired power plants, several gas stations and most of the factories across the region were shut down temporarily. Traffic flow was decreased by diving the drivers on the basis of the license plates of their vehicles and permitting them to bring their vehicles on the road on even or odd days of the week (Wang & Xie, 2009). Children are protected by directing them to stay inside and closing off educational institutions temporarily. Until recently, any and all reports regarding the detrimental effects of air pollution used to be censored but this is not the case now. The government officials openly admit this hazard and the government is taking active steps to educate the masses about the destructive effects and protective measures in this regard.

Investing in R&D

In addition, the government has invested tens of billions of dollars in recent years in combating pollution by funding fact finding studies and investing in research and development in finding new ways of combating pollution. Estimates put this investment at a sizable 277 billion dollars collectively (Duggan,2014).

Alternative Energy Sources

Alternative energy sources with a particular emphasis on solar and wind energy are being actively developed to decrease the reliance on coal. Nuclear power plants and plants which run on compressed natural gas (CNG) are also being built. This will eliminate the coal dust that frequently blankets the city. Old vehicles and polluting mills are being phased out and there is a plan to stop the approval for developing new thermal power plants. A pollution quota is soon to be implemented on individuals and enterprises alike and those found in violation of this quota will be hit with heavy fines (Hao & Wang,2005). Other proposed measures by the government include increasing the standard of vehicle emission, changing busses and other road based public transport to run on natural gas, and clamping down on construction site dust by various means. According to the state news agency Xinhua, several of these measures have already been implemented and are producing favorable results. Top Chinese officials including the President frequently take part in PR campaigns to raise public awareness and to boost public morale in combating pollution.

Promotion of Forestry

The state is also actively pursuing a policy of planting trees and greenery across the city. Administrative measure aside, this natural method of combating pollution is highly effective. It helps in uplifting the image and scenic beauty of the city frequently covered by smog and takes in carbon dioxide and gives out oxygen.

Response to the steps of the Government

Even with all these measures, there is hue and cry particularly among the NGOs that the government is not doing enough and that the effects of these policies are not being felt as they should be. There is also talk of how improvement is not being seen soon enough and whether tighter regulations are necessary. For decades, China has pursued economic development at the expense of environmental concern and various studies have pointed out the economic growth of China will continue at the same pace as it has until now, even with this inefficient and polluting industry at the helm. Furthermore, the communist leaders of China realize that public support for them is directly linked to the rate of economic development. In the light of these facts, one is prompted to think that there is not much hope in the case of improving the environment as a whole and the atmosphere in particular. But this is not the case. China has realized that a strong economy and increasing capital is not everything and that true happiness and prosperity for its people lies as much as in a clean, healthy and safe living environment as it does in a strong economy. Peoples and officials attitude towards pollution are changing for the better and they have started to consider it as serious problem that needs to be dealt with immediately. Passive concern on part of both the people and the government is now a thing of the past and people, thorough being increasingly vocal about the problem and the government, through its various steps are working together to combat air pollution. A man residing in working class district of Beijing, recently sued the local government for 1000 dollars citing damages to health and overall standard of living due to aerial pollution. This might be considered a huge step for a country like China but it is a step in the right direction.

With a problem like pollution, it is evident that the damage is done in an instant while its solution requires centuries. Pollution and its effects will no doubt take years to eradicate completely but the critics need to realize that the mindset towards a cleaner and better tomorrow has been developed and the initial steps, which are the most essential, in a long journey have been taken. As one Chinese official pointed out, pollution is not going to be solved in our lifetimes but the people of Beijing in particular, and China in general can sleep today in peace realizing that their children and grandchildren have been ensured a better, cleaner and healthier tomorrow.

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