More Good News for Beijing (Mexico City Dept.)

By James Fallows

I mentioned yesterday that if Southern California could deal with its  horrendous smog problems of the 1950s and 1960s, then perhaps there was hope for Beijing and other big Chinese cities too. A reader originally from Mexico City -- which, when I visited in the 1980s, rivaled today's Beijing or even Linfen (Shanxi province) for grimness of air -- says that his home town also offers a positive example:

I'd point you to this article from the Washington Post about Mexico City (where I'm sure you've been), which has made dramatic improvements in cutting pollution.
 
As someone who grew up in Mexico City during the worst of it, I definitely remember being at school and not being allowed to play outside because the pollution was so bad. But even though car ownership in the city probably increased and traffic has probably remained the same or worse, my visits in recent years back home do bear out the dramatic improvements that the city has made. You're in a better position than me to judge how China's cities compare resource-wise to Mexico City but I think it's heartening that the change was able to happen in Mexico in relatively not that long -- maybe about 10 or 15 years. With the right tools -- and a likely more forceful government -- it seems possible to me that China's cities can experience the same.

Mexico City, in its heyday:

cars_pollution_sm.jpg

And a reader who now lives in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, adds:

When I arrived in Shanghai in 2004, my first thought as we drove along the highway leaving Shanghai Pudong Int'l was: this looks like the Southern California of my childhood. I was born in 1952, so I remember the smog alert days when schools kept kids indoors for recess.

It gives me hope, too, especially when I imagine a time ten years from now when all the electric mopeds are joined by electric cars, and solar, wind, and nuclear alternatives really start to cut in to the share of electricity generated by coal. The Chinese leadership has the cash to finance the necessary changes, and they know that continued growth--and thus, their hold on power--depends on it. So yes, I am hopeful.

The point here is not Polyannaism about China. The country's environmental problems are, in my view, the major threat to its continued development and the major challenge its growth poses for the world. But it's worth recognizing that other societies have faced this problem - albeit at different stages of development -- and done something about it. It's all in keeping with the Chinese government's environmental "white paper" I quoted before the Olympics: "The environmental situation is still grave in China though with some positive development."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/05/more-good-news-for-beijing-mexico-city-dept/39782/