Why China Plans to Slow Down Its Industrial Revolution

china smogUp until the 18th century, historians argue that China was the most advanced nation in the world. Although at the time the concept didn’t really exist, they were by today’s standards a global superpower.

But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the tables turned. Caulfield steam engines in Europe and the USA mechanized the manufacturing process which significantly contributed to the emergence of countries like the US or the UK as global economic leaders. China meanwhile was left behind.

However, the benefits of the Industrial Revolution for America did come at a price and, as China continues to play catch-up, they too are understanding the costs of coal powered progress. “The smog problem has progressively gotten worse,” says James Whitlow Delano, an American photographer based in Tokyo who has been capturing the environmental effects of China’s industrial revolution. “I would have to say over the last five to seven years it has really gotten hard to even believe how polluted this country has become.”

He took black and white images across Hebei province, a region in northern China that surrounds the nation’s capital of Beijing. Hebei is the beating heart of China’s coal-fueled industry, home to some one hundred and fifty plants that produce steel and iron; but that’s not all these factories produce, they also emit a toxic chemical soup of sulfur dioxide nitrogen, oxides particles, and even mercury into the atmosphere.

coal smoke

Seven out of ten of the worst most polluted cities are located in China’s Hebei Province. Children cannot go out to play, and now we see people wearing masks, which has become quite common. I don’t think people on the other side of the planet can figure out the scale of the pollution that is being generated and that’s no exaggeration: air pollution causes a spectrum of health problems including asthma strokes lung cancer and heart attacks. In fact, it’s estimated that China air pollution problem is linked to 1.6 million deaths a year that’s almost 4,500 people a day.

While studies like this didn’t exist during America’s Industrial Revolution, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that the US suffered from its own pollution crisis. In the early 1900’s, lots of regulation followed and today the USA is among the loudest voices calling for China to reduce their air pollution. Even though the USA is still a massive pollution source itself, China isn’t blind to history’s lessons.

China’s industrialization is happening in an age of unprecedented advances in both manufacturing and perhaps more crucially – energy production. China has already started employee technology to modernize its workforce. In addition, it’s also started to invest heavily in renewable energy sources like hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, and solar power in an attempt to wean itself off of its coal dependency.

wind farm in china

All that being said, China is still understood to be the world’s biggest polluter and according to recent reports, one hundred and fifty new coal power plants in Hubei have already been approved. So, while the rest of the world may want China’s industrial revolution to run out of steam, it doesn’t look like it’s coming to any time soon. This is a huge public health issue that China’s government is taking seriously. The scale of the challenge is unprecedented in human history.

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