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Ellen Zeng

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Pollution:The price China is paying

2016-07-01 18:33:30
A large swath of China has been gripped for days by what is being called an "airpocalyse," a prolonged spell of the worst air pollution on record in Beijing.

It is a dilemma faced by many developing nations. How do economies keep developing without taking on a significant pollution footprint?

From Beijing to Guiyang, 1,100 miles to the southwest, a thick soup of pollution closed highways, forced the cancellations of flights and sporting activities, and sent countless people to hospitals complaining of respiratory ailments.

China's capital has been notorious for its smog over the past few years, as have most northern Chinese cities.

The government has repeatedly issued an alert urging people in the affected areas to "avoid outdoor activities and, if they do have to go out, to wear a protective mask."

The air pollution could also turn into a political crisis for China, which sees rapid economic growth as key to its enduring legitimacy.

"Return the blue skies and white clouds to me. If economic growth comes at a price of such pollution, I would rather go back to the 1980s," wrote one microblogger.

In preparation for the 2008

Summer Olympics

, Beijing authorities invested an estimated $10 billion in cleaning up the environment. As part of the plan, they moved out huge steelworks, switched residents from coal to natural gas heating and raised emission standards. Restrictions on new car registrations have been in place since 2010.

China's pollution problem existed long before the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, but it was the added international attention paid to that event that made China's officials self-conscious about the country's ongoing environmental issues. With criticisms appearing in international media -- and athletes opting out of the Olympics due to the health risks posed by the high pollution levels -- Beijing devised a plan that would improve the city's air quality.

Both Shanghai and Beijing may be victims of their surroundings: Winds bring pollution from nearby industrial cities with a sprinkling of cement factories, mines, power plants, steel mills, and other heavy polluters into the metropolitan areas.

But the respective paths they have chosen in the past are not really solutions. And it may not be long until China's increasingly sick population call for a real one. Instead of relying on factory relocations or short-term industrial shutdowns to resolve pollution problems in only the big cities, China's investment in green industries may be the only way the nation can maintain economic growth without sacrificing the health of its citizens.
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