Commentary

China’s poison air becoming its lead export

Published: March 25, 11:02 PM
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Sitting on a Tokyo runway last week, the captain announced that our flight would be delayed for reasons few of us could believe: Sandstorms.

Chuckles filled the aircraft. The woman next to me quipped: “What, are we in Egypt?” As we all craned our necks to look out the windows, it really did feel as if we were taxiing in Cairo or Marrakesh, not the capital of a Group of Seven nation.

The sand is compliments of China’s boom. Thanks to deforestation and overgrazing, more and more of the Gobi Desert’s grit, along with industrial pollution, is being carried by prevailing winds to Japan.

In recent weeks, people in Japan have been Googling “PM2.5,” or fine airborne particulates that cause disease and premature death in high concentrations. They also are loading up on air purifiers as China’s environmental crisis becomes Japan’s.

The geopolitics of pollution has the potential to turn toxic. If you thought Asia’s territorial disputes were a barrier to peace and cooperation, just wait until blackened skies dominate summit meetings.

And they will, as nationalists in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan use pollution as a rallying point to gin up anti-China sentiment; business leaders in Hong Kong express anger about having trouble recruiting foreign talent; China lashes out at independent reports on health risks; and the world points fingers at the Communist Party as climate change accelerates.

“Asia can barely get along now, never mind when we throw air pollution into the mix,” said Alistair Thornton, a Beijing- based economist at research company IHS Inc.

DANGER TO LEGITIMACY

Environmental disputes already abound. I touched base with Elizabeth Economy, author of the 2004 book “The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future,” to see what tops her list: Disputes over water with Kazakhstan, India and the nations downstream on the Mekong River; conflicts over illegal logging with Indonesia; and the lack of corporate social responsibility by Chinese companies in Vietnam and Myanmar. Add to that China’s shipments of acrid air to Japan.

“How China grows its economy and protects, or doesn’t, its environment affects the entire Asia-Pacific,” she says.

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