BLUE SKIES

New Straits Times - - Lima'17 - The writer is a re­search fel­low with the Cen­tre for Non-Tra­di­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies (NTS), S. Ra­jarat­nam School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies (RSIS), Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­sity, Sin­ga­pore

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.

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