One of the most striking social phenomena of industrializing societies is that, when the nation’s economy begins to improve, those on the land increasingly move to the cities for greater economic opportunities.
To give but one example – in 1960, the population of Istanbul had an estimated population of 1,738 ,000.
More than 12 million. Between 1960 and 2000, the population of Istanbul surged 443.8 percent.
With such population explosions comes an unprecedented demand for increased services, which municipal authorities scramble to provide, lest the newcomers from the countryside become a source of civil unrest.
Aside from the basics such as shelter, food and education, among the other “quality of life” issues is an improved environment, such as access to clean water and reliable power. Air quality is another concern, especially as new urbanites are usually poor, drive inexpensive elderly vehicles and frequently pursue such non-green activities as heating their domiciles with burnable fuel and cook their evening meals with something other than more expensive alternatives, such as natural gas.
With such urbanization cities can grow apart from the countryside in their concerns, and pursue issues increasingly at variance with their surrounding seas of impoverish peasantry.
In a striking example of this, on 4 March Chinese authorities in Beijing said that the city will replace all coal-fired equipment in its core areas by 2013, as the city attempts to curb pollution stemming from its dominant energy source. In 2010 Beijing burnt 26.35 million tons of coal for energy production, accounting for 30 percent of its total energy consumption, while the other 70 percent of its energy consumption was made up of natural gas, imported electricity as well as new and renewable energies. According to Beijing Development and Reform Commission energy division head Gao Xinyu, the city wants areas inside its 5th Ring Road to be coal-free by 2015.
So, you say, no big deal?
Imagine then Washington DC making such a unilateral statement. Clean air is a priority for those inside the Beltway, as for the rest of you schlubs breathing the debris from coal-fired plants, well – be glad you have a job.
It is one of the most extraordinary acknowledgments by China’s professedly Communist government that in fact the country is developing into two societies, increasingly bifurcated between the rural poor and the country’s increasingly prosperous urban areas. And Beijing, as the capital, has both the political moxie and power to redirect the municipality's energy policy in any direction it wants.
And China’s health cost from pollution is not inconsequential. According to Chinese scholar Junfeng Zhang, writing after reviewing 200 publications in both Chinese- and English-language journals that reported health effects, exposure characteristics of pollution, “Nearly all China’s rural residents and a shrinking fraction of urban residents use solid fuels (biomass and coal) for household cooking and/or heating. Consequently, global meta-analyses of epidemiologic studies indicate that indoor air pollution from solid fuel use in China is responsible for approximately 420,000 premature deaths annually, more than the approximately 300,000 attributed to urban outdoor air pollution in the country.” Among the deleterious health consequences Zhang noted from coal use were “respiratory illnesses, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, weakening of the immune system, and reduction in lung function. Arsenic poisoning and fluorosis resulting from the use of ‘poisonous’ coal have been observed in certain regions of China.”
A 2008 report from the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted that poverty and cost factored into Chinese coal use, as lower-quality anthracite was usually used instead of higher quality coal from distant parts of the country.
Roughly 80 percent of Chinese electricity is still generated through coal combustion, as compared to 50 percent in the United States, the world’s second largest coal user.
While China’s energy infrastructure is expanding rapidly, it is utilizing any and all technologies to hand, whether antiquated or inefficient. Many of these technologies are being deployed in small power plants, leaving the country with the quickest, cheapest, dirtiest possible power production system to generate electricity to fuel the country’s economic rise.
But among the more prosperous, gathered in the cities, the “quality of life” issue is gathering prominence, particularly in Beijing, where the country’s Communist Party political elite live.
And why should they suffer from the pernicious effects of inhaling coal byproducts?
Hence Beijing’s new "greener” mandate.
But what does this say to the rest of the country, especially those in the countryside, whom the country’s economic miracle has largely bypassed? Many sociologists have noted the increasing tensions in China resulting from the rising economic disparity between the cities and countryside, and Beijing’s energy initiative, however laudable, will resonate far less among those rural poor in the “heartland” who are forced to breathe what their local coal-fired power plant belches out.
Be thankful – you’ve got a job.
But Beijing’s mandarins ignore their isolation and national history at their peril. After all, it was no less than Mao Tse Tung who pointed out the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, and that the countryside surrounds the cities. Stretching further back into the mists of Chinese history, dynasties fell from power when they lost the “mandate of heaven.” China’s leadership should glance back over their egalitarian Communists shoulders and realize that if clean air is good enough for Beijing, it’s good enough for the comrades in the rest of the country too.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com