China's War on Pollution

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10:13   |   Mar 01, 2019


China's War on Pollution
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  • In 2008, China hosted its first ever Olympic Games.
  • Over 10,000 athletes, from 200 countries, competed in 300 summer events.
  • But for China, it was about much more than athletics,
  • In many ways, this was Beijing’s grand entrance to the world.
  • As the most-watched televised event in history, at the time,
  • it was the perfect opportunity to show off a healthy, happy, prosperous China to an international
  • audience,
  • one that has long been confused about and often deeply suspicious, of the Middle Kingdom.
  • So, its government spared no expense.
  • The city was given an extreme makeover.
  • The kind you can afford when your economy relies on pouring concrete on any surface
  • you can find, and then pouring again because why not?, more labor means more economic growth.
  • 9 Billion dollars was spent improving public transit, doubling the size of the subway.
  • Ugly powerlines were buried underground, flowers planted, and twenty new buildings constructed,
  • like the iconic Bird’s Nest, Which held the Opening Ceremony on August 8th, 2008,
  • at exactly 8:08 PM, a lucky number in China.
  • The 4-hour event cost 100 million dollars.
  • 7,000 per.
  • second.
  • And flying overhead, you would’ve noticed that, although it was raining elsewhere that
  • night, the sky above the open-roofed stadium was perfectly clear.
  • Only minutes after the ceremony ended, the clouds magically reappeared.
  • The event was so important, and China so determined, that it changed the weather, literally shooting
  • chemicals at the sky with rocket launchers.
  • And yet, even when its image mattered the most, China still couldn’t control its pollution.
  • The city was covered in its signature, dangerously thick, grey smog.
  • Air quality was so bad that some athletes changed events.
  • Others decided not to compete at all.
  • But what looks like a hopeless environmental disaster, China sees as an amazing economic
  • opportunity.
  • Its now on a quest to clear its air, clean its energy, and grow its economy, not despite
  • these things, but because of them.
  • There are two ways to look at environmental impact, depending on whose payroll you’re
  • on.
  • Per capita, China’s CO2 emissions, for example, are nothing special, About the same as Poland
  • or Mongolia.
  • Nowhere near a rich country like the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, or especially, Qatar.
  • Wow.
  • But, in total, China makes up a quarter of the world’s emissions.
  • With a population of 1.3 billion, it’s problem is that it’s just so.
  • darn. big.
  • As the world’s largest car market, China has as many motor vehicles as the U.S. has
  • people, Three hundred twenty-two million.
  • So, not only does it have that fun LA traffic, but also the kind of pollution that stops
  • planes from landing,
  • the kind of pollution where you can’t see your fingers,
  • the kind you can vacuum up, condense, and make a brick out of.
  • But unlike America, where the automobile means freedom, and freedom, well that’s our thing,
  • The right to commute in a 16 seat SUV by yourself is probably written in the constitution, China
  • can and does just say “No.”
  • Cities like Beijing, Guangzhou, and Guiyang, only issue a tiny number of new license plates
  • a year, through a lottery.
  • Although, ”tiny” is kind of an understatement.
  • The chance of winning is approximately 1 in 783, or was, until Beijing lowered the quota
  • from 90,000 to 40, and now your chances are 1 in 2,031.
  • Locals joke they’re more likely to win the actual lottery.
  • One government official was arrested for accepting bribes of 30,000 US Dollars for a single plate.
  • Shanghai, on the other hand, auctions them off to the highest bidder, with an average
  • price of $14,022, nearly twice China’s per capita GDP, and considerably more than most
  • of the cars they’re attached to.
  • So, good luck buying a car unless you have very deep pockets, powerful friends, or amazing
  • luck.
  • Even so, there are limitations.
  • In Beijing, the last number of your license plate determines which days you can drive
  • on.
  • For example, right now, until April 7th, numbers 1 and 6 can’t drive on Monday, 2 and 7 can’t
  • on Tuesday, 3 and 8 on Wednesday, and so on.
  • All are allowed on the weekend.
  • The numbers switch four times a year, and rule breakers get three points on their license,
  • 12 of which suspends your ability to drive.
  • These restrictions have helped reduce pollution, but only so much.
  • The Air Quality Index, which measures pollution, is usually in the range of 50-100 in cities
  • like LA, San Diego, and most of southern China.
  • In the North, it’s often three, four, even five times that much.
  • Now, it’s easy to see these numbers, think that China focuses only on economic growth
  • and conclude that its government really doesn’t care that much about pollution.
  • But that’s not entirely true.
  • For one, healthcare is really expensive.
  • Pollution kills an estimated 1.6 million people in the country a year.
  • It also has a significant impact on tourism.
  • What makes this issue so unique is that it can’t be hidden - smog is there for everyone
  • to see, and not in some far, Western province, but in the capital, where politicians live
  • and work.
  • So, even Chinese-owned state media reports on the problem.
  • And while it isn’t exactly known as the protest capital of the world, it has seen
  • a few.
  • If that wasn’t incentive enough, enter electric cars.
  • Perhaps nowhere on earth is better suited to lead the EV revolution.
  • Millions of Chinese are entering the middle class, looking to buy their first car, and
  • have no stigma against electric vehicles.
  • It’s great for local companies, it helps grow the larger economy, and it’s good for
  • everyone’s lungs.
  • So it’s no surprise that China buys more EVs than the rest of the world combined.
  • In the U.S., there’s California and everywhere else.
  • The Golden State buys almost ten times more EVs than second place New York.
  • In Palo Alto, you turn your head when you see a car that’s not a Tesla.
  • China is to the world, what California is to the U.S.
  • It’s making EVs irresistible.
  • Like police cars and ambulances, they’re exempt from the last-number rule, and have
  • a separate line to apply for a license plate.
  • Many don’t even require a driver’s license at all, with a top speed of around 40 miles
  • an hour.
  • Smart Cars cost 20-30,000 dollars.
  • These cost about 1.
  • The government has given Tesla permission to build a factory outside Shanghai,
  • Converted all Shenzhen busses to electric,
  • and doubled its charging infrastructure in the last year.
  • Of course, cars are only part of the problem.
  • China also burns an insane amount of coal, one of the worst environmental offenders.
  • Even India pales in comparison.
  • But these numbers are somewhat misleading.
  • There are three common types of coal plants - subcritical, supercritical and ultra-supercritical.
  • The first being low-temperature and less efficient, the last being high-temperature and more efficient.
  • Over time, China has been building fewer and fewer subcritical plants, and more and more
  • efficient ones.
  • By 2020, it’s estimated that every Chinese coal plant will be more efficient than every
  • coal plant in America.
  • China doesn’t have nearly as much natural gas.
  • So, instead, it’s largely moving straight to renewable energy, which it now produces
  • more of than any other country.
  • Like electric cars, its government has an economic incentive.
  • Compared to fossil fuel, renewable energy usually creates far more jobs.
  • In fact, coal employs fewer Americans than fast food chain Arby’s.
  • Already, Beijing’s air pollution has fallen by 35%.
  • This, according to experts, could save 20 million residents over 3 years of their lives.
  • And even when its weaker economy in 2018 made car sales fall to a two-decade low, electric
  • and hybrid cars continued to grow.
  • At a time when the U.S. is removing EV tax credits and environmental protections, it’s
  • more important than ever that China take the lead.
  • Its electric car revolution is just getting started.
  • Its anyone’s guess how the economy will change in the next 20 years, but it’s always
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