Smog fixes ignore problem of hectic city expansion

By Ni Tao
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, February 1, 2013
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[By Zhou Tao/Shanghai Daily]

[By Zhou Tao/Shanghai Daily] 

A prayer many Chinese say these days when they rise every morning could well be "No, not again."

They are nursing a hope that the weather would be fine, with blue sky, clean air, and most importantly, free of smog. But their wish has turned out to be wishful thinking.

The smog that beset much of China for the past two weeks, with a letup of a few days, is coming back with a vengeance.

On Tuesday a total of 1.3 million square kilometers, or a seventh of China's territory, was shrouded in haze. National meteorologists issued a notice warning the public about the smog, the first time they did so.

Though it still enjoyed some respite due to ocean wind that occasionally blew away the smog, Shanghai wasn't much better off. The city's sky was an ashen gray for a couple of days. The tiny little devils known as PM2.5, airborne particles less than 2.5 micrometers across, claw at the back of people's throats and make them cough, hack heavily.

Use of masks is rapidly on the rise. There is a popular joke that the Mayans' doomsday prophecy that world would come to an end on December 21, 2012, was just a warm-up for the "survivors," for the worst is yet to come.

No escape

Scholar Zhong Nanshan noted that air pollution is more deadly than SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), because no escape is possible, not even by staying indoors.

Given the current trends, it no longer seems fanciful or remote that everyone venturing out in foul weather will have to wear a gas mask.

Talk of the unrelenting haze has elicited some concern from the top leadership. Vice Premier Li Keqiang said a fortnight ago that the lasting, pervasive haze signaled the necessity to jettison the crude economic model. Solutions will take a long time to take effect, "but there must be some action," he said.

The "action" Li urged varies by locality. Zhang Quan, chief of Shanghai's Environmental Protection Bureau, was bombarded by inquiries on Tuesday about the city's response to the prolonged haze at the annual meeting of the local legislature and political advisory body.

In an online exchange with citizens, Zhang said measures are being taken to cut factory emissions and halt infrastructure projects, and in case of severe air pollution, use of official cars will be limited. These measures merit some plaudits, but my opinion is that we risk exaggerating their effectiveness, because they fall short of addressing the root cause of the smog. If things keep getting worse at the current rate, they cannot help much.

The situation on the ground is not at all rosy. The number of cars is still rising on the city's roads, by several hundred a month at the very least, despite the record auction prices of license plates this month, at 75,000 yuan (US$12,058).

In view of the figures, we cannot help being less upbeat than our politicians about the prospect of cleaner air.

A package of "solutions" mulled by many officials calls for shutting down polluting factories and curbing the use of private cars, but as genuine as they sound, their authors would mostly balk at the economic ramifications. At a time of economic slowdown, they are wary of doing anything that exacerbates faltering growth.

If any, the very package is only expedient as economic facts harden and the smog pattern is reinforced over time.

Instead, it should aim at something more sweeping, rather than the piecemeal, transient, bleak approach of "one step forward, two steps back."

One cannot grasp this without an overall view of why Chinese cities are so polluted.

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