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The Spleen of Beijing

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To understand what is happening in China we can start from a grotesque news that comes from North America. The Canadian company Vitality Air had recently launched, a bit as a joke, a new product: bottles filled with the crystal clear air of the Rocky Mountains. Within a few days the stocks went sold out and all orders came from China. The country is in fact experiencing in recent weeks a real environmental emergency, because of the very high levels of smog and particulates recorded in major cities.


After the “red alert” declared by the authorities last week, which paralyzed the capital Beijing with the closure of schools, construction sites and public offices, the health of Chinese citizens continue to be threatened. The problem is determined by the huge consumption of coal and other fossil fuels that pushes the economic growth of the Asian giant. The exhaust fumes of cars, despite popular belief, only partially contribute to the formation of smelling clouds that wrap Beijing and other big cities of the most industrialized regions. In fact, the country is experiencing its industrial revolution and the coal, like what happened in Europe in the nineteenth century, is feeding the motor of development. Making the due proportions, the consequences on environmental scale are dramatic and affect the entire planet.

After Beijing, Shanghai also has been enveloped by a thick smog, last Tuesday. In the economic capital of the country the air quality index value reached 300, which is considered “hazardous” to human health with possible long-term repercussions. Not much, compared to the values ​​recorded in the capital and in the northern cities last week, but still enough to encourage the local authorities to declare a “yellow alert” and intervene to limit construction activities and prohibit students to get out of school buildings during the morning, when the smog level are higher.

The difficulties on the environmental front that the country daily faces are even more striking, after the approval of the agreement on the climate conference Cop21 of Paris, which ended last week. Also the Chinese delegation joined the agreement, whose real effectiveness has been questioned by many in recent days, with judgments often far apart. For Chinese representatives, the final document is an acceptable compromise between the needs of the country’s development and the commitments to reduce greenhouse gases in the medium term. Certainly, the delegation headed by Xie Zhenhua pushed for a limitation of the legally binding commitments, but the non-subscription by the most polluting country in the world would have decreed the failure of the summit.

What does the Paris Agreement envisage? In short, the signatories undertake to reach the peak of emissions as soon as possible, then move on to a significant reduction of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century. The common objective, which is considered vital by the experts, is to limit the average increase in global temperatures “well below” the two degrees and focusing, if possible, to the maximum limit of 1.5 C. The progress of the plan will be monitored every five years and, by 2020, $ 100 billion a year will be allocated in favour of developing countries for the implementation of environmental projects. After 2020, the funding is expected to increase to an extent yet to be determined.

According to some observers, the limit of two degrees will be difficult to comply with, but for the first time China and other great polluting countries of the developing world have decided to formally join the common effort. The change of direction, according to Naomi Klein, is also determined by the fact that the living conditions of the Chinese are getting really worse, because of pollution, and that the children of the elites of the country are beginning to directly suffer its effects. It may not be necessary to slow the train of industrial development, but a gradual conversion from coal to other forms of more sustainable energy is already an unavoidable prospect.

And the same might be valid for India.


Luca Marchesini
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