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China’s foul air poses a dilemma for new leaders

Is it already too late for China to clean up its fast-blackening skies? For all the lip service about green growth, investments in renewable energy and sprawling windmill farms, China’s pollution woes are spiralling out of control.

The nation’s capital is a case in point. Beijing’s air, which has exceeded the World Health Organisation’s healthy limit every day this year, was similar to that in an airport smoking lounge, Bloomberg reported on Friday.

The city’s leaders closed factories, ordered some cars off the roads and recommended that its 20 million residents stay indoors as much as possible as pollution levels stayed in the range of hazardous for a fifth consecutive day.

Mind you, this isn’t a script from some apocalyptic movie churned out by Hollywood. It is the political centre of an economy that is poised to surpass the US’s within a couple of decades.

Yet China is literally choking on its economic success. It has reached its environmental limits, and the blind pursuit of gross domestic product just is not possible anymore.

If you think Beijing’s air is bad now, consider how China’s skies will look when 500 million people own one or more cars. That is on top of factories maximising profits amid rising labour costs by burning more and more coal. All this will lead to increasing health risks, slower growth, less foreign investment, increased government debt and higher bond yields.

It will lead to deaths, too. The issue is high concentrations of PM2.5, the airborne particulate matter that raises risks for lung and heart diseases.

According to estimates by Greenpeace and Peking University’s School of Public Health, PM2.5 exposure contributed to 8 572 premature deaths in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an in 2012.

The problem is political will. China’s next president, Xi Jinping, will have his hands plenty full consolidating power, maintaining social stability, improving relations with neighbouring governments and dealing with the US’s pivot towards Asia. Amid so many challenges, China’s dual needs to reduce emissions and boost domestic demand are in direct conflict as never before. Unless China acts immediately and boldly, it’s main growth industry will be gas masks. – Bloomberg

William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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