The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Finally, Blue Skies in Beijing

It’s a tale of two cities. These two remarkable pictures, sent in by a brave, hopefully still healthy VM reader, were taken just three days apart. The first was taken Tuesday morning, when Beijing’s Air Quality Index hit 517, exceeding the EPA’s upper limit of 500. Beijing’s air has been a toxic soup for the past 20 days, but the skies cleared on Friday after Beijing took action. The NYT has the details:

The Beijing government put in place emergency measures on Wednesday to try to combat thick smog that has encased the city, which the Communist Party has hailed as a showcase capital, in brown and gray soot. The measures include temporarily shutting down more than 100 factories and ordering one-third of government vehicles off the streets, according to official news reports. [. . .]

Beijing sits in the middle of an industrial belt of coal-burning factories, and there is little incentive for officials or executives to slow down work there…The United States Energy Information Administration released a report on Tuesday that said China now accounts for 47 percent of global coal consumption, almost equal to all other countries in the world combined.

Our intrepid reader described the smell as oily, sticky, and greasy; others have said that the fog smells like China’s GDP is in the air. Though part of the problem is China’s reliance on coal, part of it is the cost of unrelenting economic growth based on heavy industry. Shutting down factories like this can only be a temporary fix. As Minxin Pei argued the other day, China’s leadership must not only insist on tighter environmental protection standards, but it must also work on having the country diversify out of polluting industries such as steel and automobile manufacture.

Easier said than done, certainly, but wise advice nonetheless. Countries like China need not exactly retrace the steps of the West when technology is offering so many new paths to prosperity.

Published on February 2, 2013 10:00 am