Monday, December 05, 2011

China and climate change: an ironic succession of news stories

The environmental problems in China due to their fast industrialization of recent years has manifested in many different ways. The most recent one - that hit the PhysOrg newsfeed - is "Hundreds of flights cancelled due to Beijing smog." Yes, the city that hosted the Olympic games (and had to ban driving in the city, shut down factories, etc., in order to actually have decent air quality during the games) is once again in the news for having an industry-based atmosphere so thick that one might be able to cut it with a knife. From the story:
Local authorities cancelled hundreds of flights and shut highways as thick smog descended on the Chinese capital on Sunday and Monday, reducing visibility at one of the world's busiest airports. Pollution in Beijing in the last couple of days reached what the US Embassy monitoring station described as "Hazardous" levels.

Frequent smog in October and November has given fresh impetus to a growing public debate over air quality in Beijing, whose 20 million residents are increasingly worried.

Their concerns are being fuelled in part by data gathered by the US embassy, which produces its own pollution readings using a different gauge to Chinese authorities and broadcasts them online and on Twitter.

China currently rates air quality by measuring airborne particulates of 10 micrometres or less, adopting a standard known as PM10, while the embassy measures only levels of those that are 2.5 micrometres or smaller.

Scientists say Beijing's pollution is mostly caused by these smaller particles, which are deemed more dangerous to health as they can pass through smaller airways and penetrate deeper into the lungs, and even into the blood.

According to the state-run China Daily, if the US standard was adopted nationwide, only 20 percent of Chinese cities would be rated as having satisfactory air quality, against the current 80 percent.
(I love that last line: it's like the Cultural Revolution all over again, except instead of wheat harvests and steel production it's air pollution. This is another instance of physical reality being treated as the same as political reality: physical reality doesn't care what our societies say; physical reality happens.)

"But this isn't a story about climate," I hear you saying. However, air pollution from combustion has a large impact on local and global climate change... and the story that immediately followed this one was titled, "China lays out conditions for legally binding climate deal."
China's top climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua on Sunday laid out conditions under which Beijing would accept a legally-binding climate deal that would go into force after 2020, when current voluntary pledges run out.

While Xie said China has 122 million people living on less than a dollar a day, Beijing would continue to boost its climate-fighting efforts in step with its development.

Xie enumerated five conditions for China taking on pledges under a new accord that would go into effect after 2020, in response to a question from Alden Meyer, a policy analyst from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

One is that the European Union and "other countries" sign on to a new round of enforceable pledges under Kyoto.

A raft of nut-and-bolts agreements outlined at the 2009 Copenhagen summit and married into the UN process at last year's high-level climate gathering in Cancun, Mexico must also move forward.

These include initiatives for technology transfer, adaptation -- helping vulnerable nations cope with impacts -- and new rules for verifying that carbon-cutting promises are kept.

Finally, China insists that a review of climate science begin as planned in 2013, and that established principles in which historical responsibility for creating the problem of climate change, and the respective capacity of countries to fight it, are respected.
Now, I'm not saying that China is being duplicitous in its negotiations. I'm just saying that I was struck by the interesting juxtaposition between these two stories.

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