that the country faces mounting challenges from such problems, among which air pollution receives the widest attention due to its visibility and wide coverage in China. Health effects are the most worrying consequence of heavy smog.
According to the World Health Organisation, outdoor air pollution is responsible for diseases that lead to premature deaths, which include ischaemic heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infections in children.
The Health Effects Institute, which maintains research on the health effects of air pollution across the globe, estimates that fine particulates contributed to over one million deaths in 2015 in China, accounting for ¼ of the global total.
The widespread air pollution has economic consequences. A report of the World Bank pointed out that acid rain attributable to sulphur dioxide pollution cost over US$4 billion (RM17.7 billion) of losses in China’s agricultural sector. Air pollution-associated health problems impose heavy burdens on the country’s welfare system, the cost of which was equivalent to almost ten per cent of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013.
Other effects on economic development include shortened working life expectancy, emigration of talents and decline of inbound tourists. Moreover, negative impacts of air pollution on people’s wellbeing constitute a risk factor of social stability, with pollution accounting for over half of mass protests in China in recent years.
Problems that threaten the existence of a country and its people are considered security threats. As demonstrated above, heavy air pollution damages the environment that the Chinese people depend on, endangers public health security and affects economic development. It is a pressing threat to national security and poses a challenge to the legitimacy of the government.
To respond to and control air pollution, the central and local governments in China have put in place a set of expedient measures and institutionalised mechanisms. The central government launched the Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan in 2013, and amended the Environmental Protection Law in 2014, which provide guidance and a legal basis for responses to air pollution.
The Environmental Protection Ministry carried out restructuring last year to cope with the environmental concerns in China in a more focused way. The Beijing Municipal government set up a comprehensive emergency response system that deals with a variety of public emergencies and involves coordination among different government agencies.
To tackle air pollution, it is essential to limit emissions of pollutants, optimise energy use and upgrade technologies. Measures to achieve these goals include replacing vehicles and machinery that do not meet the emissions standards, transforming industrial production and promoting clean energy sources. These measures can cause inconvenience, discontent and tensions.
For provinces like Shanxi and Hebei whose economic pillars are polluting industries, economic transformation is likely to affect their GDP performance at least in the short term. Clean environment, however, hinges on stakeholders fulfilling their responsibilities, not just the governments, but also enterprises and individuals.
In view of China’s rising status in the international arena, its war on air pollution is of significance for global governance of NTS issues, from climate change and environmental security to public health and energy security, as the country is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter and energy consumer.
The United Nations Environment Programme supports China’s effort by adopting a decision in February 2013 to promote “ecological civilisation”, introduced by China in 2007, that strives for a harmonious relationship between human activities and the ecosystem.
While measures unveiled by the Chinese premier represent a state-centric and top-down approach, other societal actors like non-governmental organisations are making increasing contributions to this cause, like pushing for transparency in governance; engaging in policymaking by providing ground information and data; and increasing public awareness about self-protection against pollution and green lifestyles.
China’s efforts in addressing these NTS challenges are not only important, but also instructive for Asean countries rapidly undergoing industrialisation and urbanisation.
A woman wearing a mask in smog-choked Beijing on Monday. The Health Effects Institute estimates that fine particulates contributed to over one million deaths in China in 2015.