Beijing’s 21-million residents live in a toxic fog of particulate matter, ozone, sulphur dioxide, mercury, cadmium, lead and other contaminants, says a new article by Canadian academic and environmental activist David Suzuki on pollution. Mainly, it is caused by factories and coal burning.
Schools and offices regularly shut down when pollution exceeds hazardous levels.
“People have exchanged paper and cotton masks for more elaborate, filtered respirators,” according to the article.
Cancer has become the leading cause of death in Beijing and throughout the country, states the article in The Georgia Straight.
According to Bloomberg News, Beijing’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says that, although life expectancy doubled from 1949 to 2011, “the average 18-year-old Beijinger today should prepare to spend as much as 40 percent of those remaining, long years in less than full health, suffering from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis, among other ailments.”
China’s government estimates that air pollution prematurely kills from 350,000 to 500,000 Beijing residents every year.
The documentary film Under the Dome, by Chinese journalist Chai Jing, shows the extent of the air problem. The film was viewed by more than 150 million Chinese in its first few days, apparently with government approval. Later it was censored, showing how conflicted authorities are over the problem and its possible solutions. The pollution problem also demonstrates the ongoing global conflict between economic priorities and human and environmental health.
Rather than seeing China’s situation as a warning, many people in Canada and the U.S. – including in government – refuse to believe we could end up in a similar situation here.
Some Canadians and Americans even say that China as a reason for Canada not to do anything, arguing that what we do or don’t do to confront climate change and pollution will make little difference because our contributions pale in comparison to countries like China and India.
David Suzuki states that half of Canadians live in areas where they are exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, “Short and long term exposure to air pollution are estimated to result in 21,000 premature deaths in Canada in 2008 as well as 620,000 doctor visits, 92,000 emergency department visits, 11,000 hospital admissions and an annual economic impact of over $8 billion.”
Of course, air doesn’t stay within national boundaries. The global atmosphere is being loaded with the sum of all nations’ activities.
Canada may contribute less than two percent of overall global emissions, according to the article, but it has the highest emissions per capita—more than the U.S. and Russia and close to three times the global average.
Even with a small population compared to many countries, Canada is in the top 10 for overall emissions.
We can and should do more to curb pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, states the article, especially as demands from industry and a growing population continue to increase.
That means making homes and workplaces more energy-efficient and driving less. “Transportation is a major contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. But, despite the fact that a large percentage of the emissions and pollution come from SUVs, trucks and vans, sales of those vehicles are rising while car sales are decreasing,” according to the article.
As individuals, we can take action to reduce pollution and emissions, but greater gains should be made at the policy level. Creating good transit and transportation infrastructure that gets people out of their cars is a huge step, as is offering incentives to improve energy efficiency in homes and buildings. Regulations to limit industrial pollution are also necessary.
We may never experience the kind of deadly pollution China is struggling with, but we can do a lot to make sure our air, water and soil are as clean as possible, now and into the future. We must do our part.