By Liam Zanyk McLean
While China’s explosive economic growth over the past several decades has lifted millions from poverty, as well as improved living standards across the country, air pollution in major cities has persisted as a nasty side effect as people earn and consume more.
And though China’s air quality, particularly that of Beijing, attracts global headlines, such problems are not unique to China in historical terms. Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States, has battled pollution for more than 50 years.
Los Angeles remains the most polluted city in the United States, due to factors that have much to do with geography. That makes it similar to Beijing. Both cities are surrounded by mountains on three sides, meaning that air becomes trapped when there is little or no wind. Those geographic factors, combined with large populations (metro Los Angeles is home to 13 million, short of metro Beijing’s 24 million) lead to many days a year with poor air quality.
Parallels Between Two Cities
Los Angeles air was at its worst in the late 1960s, when a population boom and rapid economic growth led to increased burning of fossil fuels in the city. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, speaking at Peking University in Beijing in 2014, pointed out the parallels that exist between Los Angeles in the 1960s and Beijing today.
“With such rapid economic growth followed demands for more power, more jobs, and the rising middle class that did things like buy cars and drive them,” Garcetti said. “We grew and are proud of that growth, as you here in Beijing should be too. But it came at a cost. Our economy thrived but our air did not. Like Beijing today, 60 years ago Los Angeles was fumed up from oil refineries, power plants, our steel and chemical plants.”
Garcetti added that one of the main barriers to tackling the air pollution problem was denial.
“We used polite words to describe smog, like ‘it’s just a hazy day’ or ‘it’s overcast’,” he said.
But once the problem was acknowledged by both the city government and private citizens, things began to change. Los Angeles, just like Beijing today, began to promote and even require the usage of green energy, leading to the development of a number of new technologies.
“Turning to new green energy not only improved LA’s pollution problem, it sparked an entirely new clean tech industry that attracted new businesses to our city and employed tens of thousands of people,” Garcetti said.
Strong government enforcement was key to the massive improvements in Los Angeles air. The United States passed its first Clean Air Act in 1963 and introduced emissions standards for cars in 1970. Encouragement of innovation in the new energy industry led to new areas of economic growth.
Over the past few decades, a focus on renewable energy has led to a fairly quick drop in pollutants in Los Angeles air. Tiny particles called particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) — which can penetrate deep into lungs and cause serious health problems — dropped 47 percent between 1992 and 2011 in the area, according to a study conducted by the University of Southern California. Government policies put in place in the year 2000 are likely to have played a significant role, according to Kiros Berhane, lead author of the study.
“While the reduction in ambient air pollution has been observed during the past 20 years, it was most marked after 2000 and is very likely due to policies that were put in place,” Berhane said.
Despite significant improvements, Los Angeles air is still the dirtiest in the United States. Lack of a widely-used public transportation system leaves most Los Angeles residents with no choice but to drive around the city, exacerbating pollution.
China’s green energy policy has led to the creation of a similarly innovative industry. China intends to spend more than $360 billion on renewable energy sources, including solar and wind energy, by 2020, according to an announcement made in early January by China’s National Energy Administration. This represents an increase in a trend that has already become an entrenched part of Chinese environmental policy in recent years. In 2015, one wind turbine was installed every hour in China, as was the equivalent of one football pitch of solar panels. Half of all wind power capacity installed globally in 2015 was in China.
New guidelines introduced by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in late 2016 look to add to China’s success in meeting its environmental protection goals as defined in the 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), which included a goal to reduce overall carbon emissions by 20 percent. New requirements emphasize minimizing damage to the living environment caused by industry. Additionally, the new plans call for more environmentally friendly ways of living, considerable reduction of major pollutants and a sounder ecological system by 2020.
“We are committed to a development path that delivers economic progress and environmental improvement,” Li said at a State Council executive meeting in Nov. 2016, announcing the plans.
During China’s ongoing Two Sessions, annual plenary meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, reducing air pollution has been a hot issue. In Premier Li’s Government Work Report, presented on March 5, he chronicled China’s successes in the year 2016 in combating air pollution.
“We took stronger measures against air pollution [in 2016] and, as a result, saw a 5.6 percent decline in sulfur dioxide emissions, a 4 percent cut in nitrogen oxide emissions and a 9.1 percent drop in the annual average density of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in 74 key cities,” Li explained. “We continued to improve the energy mix, increasing the share of clean energy consumption by 1.7 percentage points and cutting the share of coal consumption by 2 percentage points.”