Under the Dome: Investigating China’s Smog
Chai Jing (2015)
Mandarin with English subtitles
This intriguing documentary concerns a Chinese journalist’s investigation into China’s longstanding problem with particulate air pollution. In addition to examining underlying causes and resulting health problems, Chai Jing reports on the total powerlessness of the Ministry of Environmental Protection (EMP) to force private or state-owned industries to comply with Chinese environmental laws.
Some two dozen major Chinese cities experience dangerous levels of particulate air pollution most days of the year. According to researchers, this air pollution causes 500,000 premature deaths a year. Pollution-related cancer deaths have increased more than 400% in 30 years.
China’s Over-reliance on Fossil Fuels
All agree that China’s air pollution crisis stems from over-reliance on fossil fuels. China’s rate of fossil fuel consumption is three to four times greater (per capita) than either the US or Europe. They burn more coal per year than all other countries combined.
According to Chai Jing, coal burning power plants and steel mills and over-reliance on improperly refined diesel and gasoline are the main source of China’s particulate air pollution.
Failure to Enforce Environmental Laws
China has strict laws requiring factories and coal merchants to wash brown coal (lignite), as well as regulations requiring coal burning plants to install chimney scrubbers. Neither are rigorously enforced. Chai Jing interviews Ministry of Environmental Protection officers who have no authority to shut down or penalize or recalcitrant factories. This authority rests with municipal officials who are too fearful of backlash from factory owners and their employees to take action. They claim manufacturers can’t afford pollution controls and that shutting factories down will hurt the economy and cause workers to be laid off.
Chai Jing challenges this attitude, owing to two years of overproduction of steel, houses, commercial buildings and highways. Heavy steel manufactures who are stockpiling steel they can’t sell still receive government subsidies. The head of the Chinese Central Bank refers to them as zombie companies. Worse still, they continue to expand and drive Chinese peasants out of their homes.
The Chinese construction boom is also a major factor in fossil fuel consumption and air pollution. Owing to corruption and lack of oversight, Chinese authorities have allowed 3.4 billion new homes to be built for a population of 1.3 billion.
Vehicular pollution is a major problem in China, owing to the government’s failure to develop adequate public transport and widespread use of high sulfur oil from Iran. Unlike Iran, Chinese refineries don’t have the technology necessary to reduce the sulfur content of the oil they use to manufacture diesel and gasoline. According to one government official, they can’t force Sinotec (China’s state-owned oil refinery) to upgrade because it “might interrupt the fuel supply and cause instability.” Likewise there is no effort to force vehicle manufacturers to comply with laws requiring them to install emission control devices.
China Needs to Cut Emissions by Half
Chai Jing estimates China needs to cut emissions by half to reduce air pollution to levels that don’t endanger human health. Yet for some odd reason the solutions she proposes make no mention of President Xi Jinping’s recent commitment to increase China’s reliance on solar and wind technology. Instead she calls for expanded natural gas exploration and the replacement of China’s single natural gas company with multiple private companies. This, she argues, will bring about reform through “free market competition.”
Background on Chai Jing’s documentary identifies it as “self-financed.” Given the recent assault of US fracking companies on New Zealand, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if one or more of them provided financial backing for this documentary.
Other recommendations she gives – for better monitoring and public disclosure of environmental crimes and increased public involvement in local environmental legislation and increased citizen monitoring – are clearly a step forward.