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Globalization and Urban Pollution

Stephen Assink
By Kevin Dooley from Chander, AZ, USA (Beijing smog) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What happens when a citizen sues his own city over air pollution? We may soon find out in China.

Li Guixin, a citizen of Shijiazhuang, a city about three hours southwest of Beijing, recently submitted a formal complaint to a district court asking, according to Reuters,

… the city’s Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau to ‘perform its duty to control air pollution according to the law’, the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily said. He is also seeking compensation from the agency for residents for the choking pollution that has engulfed Shijiazhuang, and much of northern China, this winter.

Given China’s widespread environmental problems, Li’s actions do not seem that surprising. Air pollution in Chinese cities is so severe that the New York Times has dedicated a special section to it. A recent article from the Times cited a study published by a Chinese state-run think tank that actually deemed Beijing unfit for human habitation. Not surprisingly, that study was soon censored by the Chinese government. Another article revealed that only three out of 74 Chinese cities actually had “healthy air” in 2013. Pollution in China is a result of complex factors related to population growth, industrial expansion, public-private corruption, and high levels of fossil fuel consumption. Even as coal use in the US decreases, it grew on average 8 percent annually during the past decade in China. According to the most recent data, China now consumes nearly four times as much coal as the US.

Recently, the World Health Organization released a report that indicted toxic air pollution for 3.7 million deaths worldwide. Though China is currently taking steps to curb its smog epidemic, such as giving monetary rewards to cities and regions that reduce their pollution, the untold environmental, health, and social consequences will take some time to assess. China’s urban pollution woes, though extreme, are hardly unique. Even developed Western cities are struggling to reduce their smog.

Just last month, Paris briefly made public transportation free in an effort to reduce air pollutants from automobiles. Although the United Sates has been able to relocate some of its dirtiest industries oversees, what people on the West Coast (no strangers to smog) are quickly realizing is that the effects of air pollution cannot be restricted to one city or or one country–or even to one continent. In a study published in January, scientists discovered that emissions in China can be carried across the Pacific to US shores, thanks to powerful global winds. Researchers say that Los Angeles experiences on average one extra day of bad air per year because of Chinese factories. The next time a Chinese city is sued over its pollution, the plaintiff may be a resident of Los Angeles.

When it comes to curbing drastic levels of urban pollution, there are no technological silver bullets. With the world quickly urbanizing, cities and their denizens will have to work individually and collectively to press for new laws and accountability measures–and to see that they are enforced. The question then remains: Who will step up and take responsibility for the future ecological health of our growing cities? In China, we will soon find out.

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