Pollution in Guangdong

Realising the dream of a modern and fully developed China does not have to be at the expense of people's health and well-being. There is no need to retreat to the lifestyle of cavemen for clean air.

With tackling air pollution topping the agenda at China's parliamentary session earlier this year, the country seems to be torn between choosing economic development or a healthy environment.

Economic gain and health are not the proverbial "fish" and "bear's paw" - a classic conundrum from Chinese culture in which only one can be chosen. The problem is that the economic losses from the adverse health effects of air pollution remain "priceless" and hidden.

Air pollution will make Guangdong even less of a draw; it already suffers from labour shortages.

Greenpeace recently released a detailed study of the health impact of coal-fired power plants in Guangdong and Hong Kong, which estimated that around 3,600 people died prematurely and over 4,000 children suffered from asthma in 2011, caused by emissions of PM2.5 particles from the plants. We estimated a loss of economic output of 4.7 billion yuan (HK$5.9 billion) per year due to the lowered life expectancy and increased sick leave. On top of that comes the cost of medical treatment, which many citizens pay out of their own pockets.

Also of note is that air pollution from coal is a major risk factor in all four leading causes of death in the region: stroke, heart attack, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases.

The Chinese leadership has been seeking to curb coal consumption. To solve the pollution problem and also meet its ever growing demand for power, the country must push for the development of renewable energy to move away from coal.

A Greenpeace study released last year presented the full vision of how wind, solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, geothermal and biomass, combined with the efficient use of energy, can supply most of China's need for additional power generation.

As the biggest provincial economy in China, Guangdong is the most capable of accelerating changes in the country's energy structure, to lead in meeting new national air quality standards. Unfortunately, it also has one of the highest capacities of coal-fired power.

In contrast, Beijing is phasing out coal from its power generation. And while air quality in Guangdong is better than many of the more economically developed areas of the country, it is still below the new national standard, and the adverse health impact is serious.

It is not only health that is at stake. The dominant position of Guangdong's economy, still mainly driven by traditional industries, has been challenged by Jiangsu province and its fast-growing technology sector. Guangdong's "growing pains" will continue if it fails to make changes to its outdated economic and energy structures.

Air pollution will make the province even less of a draw; it already suffers from labour shortages, particularly the top talent required to drive a modern economy. Other provinces will capture the economic gains of the hi-tech clean-energy business if Guangdong lags behind in the development of renewable energy.

Speeding up both the deployment of renewable energy and smarter technology for more efficient energy use will see Guangdong better positioned in the restructured Chinese economy and society.

Guangdong has long been a pioneer in China of both economic and social reform. If it were to take the lead in setting a clear-cut coal reduction target, that would have major implications for the rest of China in its exploration of a more sustainable path.

The China dream does not have to be smoggy.

Image © Lu Guang / Greenpeace