China shuts down 40% of factories in sharp pollution crackdown

Yesterday we were reporting that pollution kills more than malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis combined. 16% of all the deaths in the world, as a matter of fact – and many of these are in China, where in 2015 it was estimated that the dense air pollution contributes to between 700,000 and 2.2 million deaths every year.

China shuts down 40% of factories in sharp pollution crackdown

In western democracies, we’re kind of used to governments paying lip service to environmental issues, and then broadly carrying on as if fossil fuels are going out of style (which they kind of are, but only through necessity.) But what happens when a regime on the more dynastic and authoritarian ends of the spectrum decides to take the environment seriously? We’re finding out in China, which has temporarily shut down 40% of its factories in the past year, and charged staff from over 80,000 of them with criminal offences for breaking emission limits.

China has two significant environmental targets it hopes to reach. The country is aiming to reduce the concentration of hazardous fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from 47 micrograms in 2016 to 35 in 2035 and to reduce emissions from polluting industries by 30% by the end of 2017. That goal was set in 2013, and like a student frantically cramming for next day’s exam, it looks like China is upping the ante just two months ahead of the deadline.china_shuts_down_40_of_factories_in_sharp_pollution_crackdown_-_2

“[B]asically, you’re seeing these inspectors go into factories for surprise inspections,” Gary Huang from 80/20 Sourcing told NPR. “They’re instituting daily fines, and sometimes – in the real severe cases – criminal enforcement. People are getting put in jail.”

“For those areas that have suffered ecological damage, their leaders and cadres will be held responsible for life,” said Yang Weimin, the deputy director of the Communist Party’s office of the central leading group on financial and economic affairs. “Our people will be able to see stars at night and hear birds chirp.”

Li Ganjie, the country’s minister for environmental protection told The New York Times that while such steps would have an impact on economic growth, in the greater scheme of things it wouldn’t amount to too much. “It is impossible that such efforts will not have any impact on enterprises. But in the long run, and from the macro perspective, the impact will be minimal.”

One of the interesting consequences of western democracy is that governments – through an understandable but shortsighted sense of self-preservation – tend to look at things through five-year cycles. That means that issues like the environment rarely get a look in. And why would they? Any laws representing significant improvement would involve a short-term economic hit which would tank the economy and let the other guys in while gifting them get all the credit when things begin to improve during their term in office. China’s limited democracy, on the other hand, means that such political concerns can be largely ignored. And the effects on the planet could be genuinely transformational in a way that the whole planet should be pleased about.

As a fan of democracy that’s quite unsettling.

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