|Delhi's Red Fort blanketed in smog.|
Beijing's air pollution is unquestionably one of the factors which most affects quality of life in the Chinese capital. The smog which is visible to the naked eye on a majority of days is both unpleasant and harmful. The city's yearly average level of PM 2.5 is estimated to be around 100, many times over what WHO deems to be an "acceptable" level of air pollution. By way of comparison London's average level of PM 2.5 is only 16, and many Londoners see this as a serious problem.
In a public admission of a frankness which is rarely seen in this country, Beijing's mayor Wang Anshun recently stated that air pollution has basically made Beijing unlivable. The air quality is one of the main reasons that in the last few years there has been something of an exodus of foreign expats from Beijing. Tourism has also been affected. The documentary "Under the Dome", which got 100 million views in a single weekend before the government banned it, has now made many ordinary Chinese a lot more worried about the effects of air pollution on their health as well.
Those who live here tend to think of the air pollution in Beijing and other Chinese cities as the worst in the world, and I must admit that I also assumed it to be almost unparalleled. It was thus with some surprise that I read today that a WHO survey has declared New Delhi to be the city with the world's worst air pollution.
Apparently Delhi's annual average PM 2.5 level reaches 153, although it is very much concentrated in the winter months. The main culprits of Delhi's air pollution appear to be identical to those in Beijing: the large-scale burning of coal, cars using sub-standard fuel and dust from construction sites. In the winter Delhi's slum dwellers often start fires on the roadside to stay warm, making the air even worse.
The fact is that severe air pollution in big cities affects many of Asia's "emerging" powers, and is not limited to China. Cities in India, Pakistan and Iran often record worse air pollution than Chinese cities. Beijing's air pollution attracts the most international attention, but this is probably due to the city's cosmopolitanism and prosperity.
China is clearly not alone in its woes, and this does lend some credence to the argument, often heard in the Chinese media, that pollution is just a "natural" result of being a developing country. All the same, this should not excuse the authorities from working towards solutions. Given today's clean production technologies, it should be possible to considerably reduce the air pollution without even affecting economic growth too much. Policies which simply remove the sources of Beijing's air pollution to Hebei province are also not an acceptable solution, since Hebei's 73 million inhabitants have an equal right to clean air as Beijing's jet-setters do.