With Beijing suffering its fourth bout of heavy smog this month, figures ranging from Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to real estate mogul Pan Shiyi have issued calls for the government and industry to get serious about pollution. But the government´s flagship English-language newspaper China Daily is putting the onus on another group to help tackle the smog problem: regular people.
In a front-page story on Wednesday, the paper said a ´joint effort´ was required to fight air pollution, arguing that citizens should do their part by taking more public transportation and driving less.
´Tackling air pollution requires input from individuals as well as officials,´ the newspaper said, citing experts.
´Everyone is responsible for creating air pollution. No one will act if we all just place our hopes in others,´ the paper quoted Du Shaozhong, director of the China Beijing Environment Exchange, as saying.
Civic-minded exhortation, or an effort to shift the blame?
Urging individuals to take responsibility for their impact on the environment lies at the core of environmental movements in the U.S. and Europe. And no one can argue that more people taking public transportation won´t help reduce some of the pollution afflicting China´s cities not to mention the sclerotic traffic that chokes roads in major urban centers like Beijing. The suggestion is nevertheless problematic in China for a couple of reasons.
First, the contribution of individuals to China´s air pollution problem is small compared to that of companies and power plants. The China Daily story quotes Xiao Yan, a 30-year-old lawyer who takes public transportation in Beijing to the dismay of her colleagues, as saying vehicle emissions are ´not much less than those from industry.´ That may be true as far as major cities are concerned, but it´s also misleading.
Although vehicle pollution is a large and growing source of urban air pollution, it isn´t clear how much passenger vehicles are contributing to the smog that has engulfed Beijing over the past few weeks. Almost 80% of fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, emitted from vehicles in China comes from diesel-powered trucks, which represent less than a fifth of the country´s vehicle fleet.
And while Beijing itself is home to relatively few smoke-spewing factories and steel mills, heavy industrial pollution from surrounding areas has a way of blowing over to blanket the city.
The call for individuals to take responsibility for improving China´s air also risks falling on deaf ears. China´s government, anxious to limit the role and power of civil society, has long positioned itself as the country´s ultimate problem solver, making individuals less inclined to see themselves as having the power or the responsibility to tackle social issues themselves.
In a 2011 survey of Chinese people´s attitudes toward environmental protection, the World Wide Fund for Nature found 56% of 1,600 respondents agreed at least somewhat with the idea that environmental protection was a government, rather than an individual, issue.
The China Daily did pay lip-service in the end to the notion that individual impacts on China´s pollution problem could be limited, quoting Zhou Rong, a climate and energy project manager at Greenpeace, as saying blame for China´s pollution problem lies elsewhere.
´I agree that people should not drive and then complain about the bad air, but the major problem is still in the structure of the economy and energy consumption, which cannot be changed by ordinary people,´ Ms. Zhou told the newspaper.
该报援引北京环境交易所(China Beijing Environment Exchange)董事长杜少中的话说，每个人都要对空气污染问题负责。如果我们只是把希望寄托在别人身上，那么没有人会采取行动。
世界自然基金会(World Wide Fund for Nature)2011年对中国人环保态度的调查发现，在1,600名受访者中，有56%的人至少在一定程度上认同这样一种观点，那就是环保是政府的事，跟个人没太大关系。