A thick, grey fog settled over Beijing recently, obscuring the sun, driving people to hospital emergency rooms, halting children's sports, and hastening the sale of protective masks. The record smog also drew the world's attention to China's struggle with pollution.
By most accounts, China has a disproportionate number of the world's most polluted cities. A glance at some key metrics shows why. During the latest bout of smog, Beijing's air was literally off the charts in terms of particulate matter (PM), the kind of toxic grit that, when inaled, is most dangerous to human health.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a standard diameter of 2.5 microns or smaller for PM. According to the EPA, a measurement of 35 micrograms per cubic meter every 24 hours is the standard for good air. Any measurement of more than 500 is hazardous to human health. During the week of Jan. 16, 2013, Beijing's particulate matter count soared above 750.
China's cities aren't just suffering from poor air. Its water is also highly polluted. The country's water supplies are low anyway, so environmental hazards have exacerbated the problem.
The sources of China's pollution problems include years of uncontrolled industrial activity, in which waste products were often simply discarded in the atmosphere and rivers. China has also long relied on coal, a source of fuel that is a hazard to process, as well as to use. Add to all this the country's growing wealth and the resultant use of automotive travel.
China's cities bear the brunt of the the PRC's environmental struggle, and these are also the locations where popular support for reform is coalescing. Indeed, there's growing evidence that Chinese citizens are mad as hell about the price they're paying for productivity. An editorial in China's People's Daily newspaper cited recently by the Wall Street Journal stated: "The vast, unmoving haze has obscured our vision, but it has made the urgency of pollution control clearer to us." The piece followed with a call for "systematic, scientific, efficient and powerful management of the problem at its source."
The PRC isn't alone in facing the realities of sustainability. Cities all over the world can learn from China's environmental crisis. As it has with the Internet, China has a chance to lead by example in reversing its destructive habits.
In this report, we will take a look at the starting points for reform -- the cities in China most affected by pollution. Naturally, we welcome your feedback. Do you live in one of these cities?
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Next page: 12: Xi'an