During Beijing's gridlocked rush hours, do the city's car-owning multitudes ponder who is responsible for the gray skies choking their city and lungs? With 5.4 million cars on the capital's roads today, and another 1 million expected by 2016, it would seem like a natural question to ask. Yet despite traffic that appears to worsen by the week, and pollution that certifiably worsens by the year, Chinese drivers don't seem to be taking much interest in what their role might be in causing — and abating — air pollution.
To an extent, that's understandable. Visuals aside, good public data on the extent of Beijing's air pollution only became available in early 2012, and even then nobody could say for sure — or at least publicly — what role private car ownership played in creating the city's smog. Anecdotally at least, most city residents seem to accept that it plays a major role, especially after strict traffic restrictions (including banning half of all registered private cars from the roads on any given day) during the 2008 Beijing Olympics produced epic blue skies and improved human health for several weeks.
Yet, despite the success of these measures, Chinese haven't lost their enthusiasm for car ownership. According to Xinhua, the state-owned newswire, between 2009 and 2013 the vehicle population of Beijing rose 35 percent, from 4 million to 5.49 million (and that doesn't count the number of vehicles registered elsewhere but plying the city's roads). All the while, residents have increased their demands — mostly via online forums — for the government to do something, anything, about improving air quality.
Of course, China's air pollution problems aren't just related to automobiles. In advance of 2008, authorities relocated, cleaned up and shut down polluting industrial facilities and dust-generating construction sites, too. No statistics on the extent of that clean-up have ever been released, and thus the question of how much industry was and is responsible for China's air pollution woes has remained a matter of public speculation, and low-profile scientific investigation.
The question broke into the open on Dec. 30, when the Chinese Academy of Sciences released a study claiming that automobile exhaust was responsible for only 4 percent of the most harmful type of air pollutants emitted in the city. Of the traceable point sources of air pollution, industrial pollution played the largest role, with a 26 percent contribution, followed by coal combustion, at 18 percent.
The reaction to the study was swift, outraged, and data-driven. A widely circulated story issued by Xinhua, the state-owned newswire, quoted experts debunking the study. The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, for example, provided undated data suggesting that car exhaust actually contributes 24.5 percent of Beijing's most dangerous air pollution. Meanwhile, Pan Tao, president of the Beijing Municipal Research Institute of Environmental Protection, told People's Daily online that not only was the 4 percent number too low, but that “there can be no doubt that motor vehicle emissions are a major source of air pollution in Beijing.”
Not all of these vehicles pollute equally: The Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center reports that heavy diesel vehicles — 5 percent of the vehicles in the city — contribute roughly 50 percent of the city's nitric oxide pollution (a problem that could be solved, in part, if China were willing to invest in refineries capable of producing cleaner-burning diesel).
In a modest response, Chinese officials at various levels are implementing restrictions on car purchases and limiting the days that cars can be driven on roads. These approaches — requiring sacrifice on the part of China's car owners — have not, generally, gone over well. On Dec. 22, for example, the city of Tianjin, a large and growing metropolis east of Beijing, announced traffic restrictions to deal with heavy smog. Almost immediately, city residents began to object online and — only hours after they were announced — the restrictions were retracted. Two days later, the state-owned Global Times newspaper, taking note of the Tianjin failure and similar incidents in other cities, complained: “Public opinion stresses that it is the government's responsibility to bring the blue sky back and such a responsibility has nothing to do with ordinary people.” Three days later, the paper once again took up the cause of personal responsibility, writing: “At this stage in China, people care more about chasing a comfortable lifestyle featured by high consumption and high energy intensity, rather than saving the environment.”
This attitude, especially coming from a state-owned newspaper, might be viewed as self-serving. After all, if pollution is the people's fault, then it's not the Party's fault. In reality, the government, industry and China's voracious middle class all share responsibility for China's murky skies. Until China develops a citizen-driven movement to practice conservation or — at least — some self-restraint, the best efforts of the other two parties will inevitably come to naught.
Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry.