GW Expat: Gazing at a smoggy sky

Senior Sam Sherraden, an international affairs major and former Hatchet photo editor, spent the summer studying abroad in Beijing, China and is spending the fall semester further north in Harbin, China. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from East Asia as one of GW’s many expats.

With two feet on the street, head cocked back staring up at the off-white sky, it’s remarkable to think there is enough pollution hanging in the air between the ground and the upper atmosphere to block the sky’s beautiful blue coloring. When I arrived in Beijing my instincts told me it was just a little cloudy. But, after days and days of perpetual off-white, I reconciled that the sky over Beijing was no meteorological phenomenon. Cirrus, stratus, nimbo-nothing. This is a man-made blanket of air pollution.

During my three months in Beijing, there was a week’s worth of days during which the wind picked up enough to blow the blanket off and let the blue shine through. To illustrate the handful of sunny days with a familiar scene from Foggy Bottom, if GW was in Beijing, Old Man Schenley would have to find a new city in which to sunbathe.

Air pollution is largely due to the three million cars and the factories surrounding the city, many of which do not comply with emissions standards. For people living in Beijing, pollution is a serious health concern.

Before leaving for China, a GW economics adjunct professor told me that although consultants’ wages were higher in China and living abroad appealed to him, he was unwilling to subject his young child to the pollution of Shanghai or Beijing.

Standing on the street looking up at the off-white sky, mulling over the words of my professor, I started to wonder: after graduation, do I want to put my body in this environment? Ultimately, I do, but the fact that this was a factor in making that decision gave me pause.

China’s not to be singled out. Developing industrial economies present and past have all damaged the environment. But with a population of 1.3 billion people, and economic growth rates that are increasing the capacity of China to produce and Chinese consumers to consume, the question of China’s impact on the environment makes it a more pressing one than pollution in England in 1800.

As an American, I am not writing from any superior position on environmental ethics. The U.S. (with less than a quarter of the Chinese population) still uses more oil than China. On a per capita basis, usage in the U.S. far exceeds that of China. Furthermore, many pollutants in China are from U.S. companies that moved abroad to duck domestic emissions standards.

But none of these comparisons changes the fact that when you are on the street in Beijing, you can’t see blue.

A perhaps less apparent, but more critical problem is the use of China’s water. Ground water pollution, desertification and poor water usage lead environmentalists and economists to believe that the current pattern of water usage in China’s manufacturing-intensive industries is unsustainable.

The central government, which previously denied the existence of environmental problems, has begun to realize their severity and implement environmentally conscious policies.

But these policies have not yet taken their place along with economic growth. In the problem may lie seeds for the solution. If the environment does become prohibitive to economic growth, rethinking environmental policy will become a priority of the Central Government.

A more immediate and public motive is the Olympic Games in 2008. An enormous clock in Tiananmen Square counts down to the day when China will be a world host. For many Chinese I’ve spoken with, the Olympics symbolizes the resurgence of two millennia world power and wealth. With fine-tuned athletes, press and the TV sets around the world tuned into Beijing, any problems of air pollution are to become more apparent.

Many teams plan to arrive early in Beijing to train. Some Olympic committees have expressed concern that high levels of air pollution may affect the games. Policies are in place to reduce and better control emissions during a window around the events, but how long can Beijing effectively stop sectors of the economy and who can guarantee results?

In 2008, maybe I’ll be standing on the street in Beijing looking up and many of the same problems will still exist. Developing and developed economies will always struggle with the balance between economic development and pollution.

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