Public hotline exposes China’s pollution problems

A phone booth on a busy Beijing street highlights the dirty air plight of victims from Huludao city

China Dialogue focuses on the environmental challenges facing the world’s second-largest economy. Below is an edited extract from this week’s China Dialogue digest. It is published under the Creative Commons BY NC ND license. You can read the original here.

Long underused in the era of smartphones, a public phone booth on a busy Beijing street became a “hotline” for pollution victims during a weekend in July.

Calling from the city of Huludao in Liaoning province, they were able to share their sufferings with total strangers.

It was set up by the artist and activist Nut Brother, well known for his creative tactics in exposing pollution problems. 

On his Weibo account, Nut Brother recruited members of the public to visit the phone booth, pick up the phone and listen to pollution victims deprived of other channels to air their grievances. 

Those conversations were recorded as part of a documentary project.

Previously known for its seaside resorts, Huludao has in recent years increasingly chosen a development path favoring polluting industries, especially in the sectors of pharmaceuticals, metals and waste treatment. 

The phone booth action was part of a greater effort by residents to raise national awareness of their plight. 

A Sanlian Weekly report on July 18 followed the experience of a few Huludao locals who have had to suffer terrible smells from the city’s industrial district since around 2019.

In May this year, following repeated complaints from residents, municipal environmental authorities ran factory inspections and found dozens of environmental law violations. 

Officials claimed they had identified a few hazardous waste-processing firms as the source of the odors torturing residents.

The inspections led to those facilities being temporarily shut down and Huludao’s air suddenly became “breathable,” residents told Sanlian Weekly

But they fear the polluting facilities will resume operations as before.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, another “hotline” session at the phone booth ran for about 30 minutes on July 16 before being disconnected by authorities.

Health care workers have struggled in Covid-testing PPE suits. Image: Screenshot
Acute heat stroke exposes a lack of coordination by Chinese health authorities

A condition called “thermoplegia” (???) has hit the headlines this week, as multiple health workers fell unconscious in their Covid-testing PPE suits under scorching outdoor temperatures across China.

There have been more than 100 cases reported this summer, according to one calculation. The safety of Covid-fighting personnel during extreme weather has become a heated topic

“Thermoplegia” is synonymous with “heat stroke” in English. But an official definition published by China’s National Health Commission on 15 July defines it as the most acute version of it, which could result in body temperature exceeding 40C and an “extremely high” death rate.

According to the National Climate Centre, from the beginning of June to July 12, the average number of high-temperature days – of 35C and above – experienced in China was higher than in the same period for any year since records began in 1961.

Although the issue has received national attention because of the ubiquity of PCR testing under the zero-Covid policy, health workers are not the only professionals suffering from it. There have also been reports of deaths of construction workers and couriers.

In an in-depth article, media outlet Health Insight argues that there is a much bigger issue being overlooked. 

Heat in China has long been treated as only a meteorological subject not a public health one. The lack of cooperation between weather-forecasting and public health authorities has resulted in confusion. No authority takes responsibility for the sickness and death resulting from it.

The article calls for the mainstreaming of “health meteorology” which can inform such actions but has so far been confined to papers and labs.

China has released a carbon peaking blueprint. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Carbon peaking plan will have a far-reaching impact

Beijing has released a carbon peaking and neutrality blueprint for China’s urbanization and rural development.

The latest in a growing catalog of blueprints is ambitious in scope. It proposes to peak carbon emissions from the urban and rural construction sector before 2030 and to “fundamentally reverse the trend of large-scale construction, big energy consumption, and high emissions.”  

Jointly released on July 13, by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the National Development and Reform Commission, the proposal promotes a wide range of energy-saving technologies and includes a number of time-bound targets, including:

  • Retrofit public buildings in key cities so they are 20% more energy efficient by 2030. 
  • Ensure that by 2025 half of newly built factories have rooftop solar installations. 
  • Increase electrification of buildings so that by 2030 over 65% of energy consumption from buildings is in the form of electricity.
  • Reach a 55% utilization rate of construction waste by 2030.

Urban and rural development intersects with a number of high-emission sectors such as energy, transport and industry. The plan calls for increasing the efficiency and service quality of public transport and encouraging the use of electric vehicles. This included installing more battery charging and changing stations. 

It calls for better utilization of surplus heat from industrial processes and from nuclear power generation, which China is expanding rapidly.

The plan also addresses land and water usage, both heavily affected by urban development. 

For example, by 2030 urbanized areas across the country should achieve an average of 45% permeable land, a measure to protect against flooding. Cities are also instructed to maintain green spaces, which should reach 38.9% of urban land by 2030.

Urbanization in China over the last three decades has been both a response to and a major driver of GDP growth and economic development. It has also been a major contributor to emissions. 

The carbon peaking and neutrality plan released this week is set to have far-reaching impacts on China’s development story.

This was an edited extract from the China Dialogue digest. It is published under the Creative Commons BY NC ND license. You can read the original here.