China is a rising hospitality hotspot. In my recent article about China, I detailed the race that many hospitality corporations are involved in to erect hotels across the country, in order to accommodate the economic boom that the country is experiencing. The growth in the county, unfortunately, has become somewhat of a concern, if not a regional crisis!
The problem is that China depends on coal to provide 80% of its power (Wall Street Journal) and is also the world’s largest coal consumer using almost as much coal per annum as the rest of the world combined (The Guardian). The combination of coal power dependence and several years of rising automobile sales with lenient fuel economy regulations, has led to the situation which has been dubbed the “airpocalypse”. This fearsome amount of pollution is clearly visible from space and is forecasted to cost the citizens of northern China over 2.5 billion years of combined life expectancy according to the NY Times.
The smog we experience in the west, most infamously in Los Angeles, California, is actually very mild compared to what is faced by the Chinese, who have on several occasions recorded air pollution levels that exceed the current measurement scale, and at one time reaching a record level of 755 out of 500 – 30 times the level deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization. The Government frequently has encouraged the population to wear masks outdoors when the weather encourages more harmful air conditions. These masks are a common sight within the country’s major cities, enduring long after the SARS scare when they first became popular.
Aside from the human health concerns of this problem, there is also the environmental impact to look at. The burning of coal in particular has devastating effects on the environment in many different ways. First, at the mining site all vegetation will be completely obliterated and the topography of the area is, in most cases, irrevocably transformed. Secondly, it creates the by-product of fly ash, a hazardous material that must be stored in wet sites, known as ponds. These ponds are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as potential hazards. Finally, there is also concern that the air-pollution from coal could be affecting wildlife and waterways, mercury emissions from the coal plants are entering the food chain, and greenhouse gases are destroying the ozone layer.
What does all of this mean for travelers that are looking to eliminate their carbon footprint when traveling? Not only when traveling to Metropolitan areas of China will they be exposed to these extremely hazardous air quality issues, they will also be contributing to the problem every time they turn on the lights, make use of air-conditioning, or take a taxi cab.
There is still a light at the end of this tunnel, however. Although the problem is already quite extreme, it has finally been acknowledged with a detailed action plan put in place by the Chinese Government. Vice Commerce Minister Chen Jian reached out to Japan to arrange a “cooperative network to reduce air pollution in China, involves environmental technology and knowhow pooled from about 500 Japanese firms, including Toyota Motor Corp., Electric Power Development Co., Toshiba Corp. and Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd.” (japantimes). They have also put in motion plans to “reduce emissions from heavily polluting industries by 30%, enhance control of PM2.5 Pollution, and publicize the results of air quality testing” (The Guardian Uk).
To answer the question – is eco-travel in China possible? The answer is certainly! The difference in China is you will have to be even more diligent in reducing your energy consumption keeping in mind that it is generated almost completely by coal. Make sure to let the hotelier know that the issue of air pollution is very important, not only to China, but everybody! Opt-in to any sustainability projects they have running. Public transportation or riding a bike while there would be ideal but if you absolutely need a car, be sure to check the fuel efficiency of the vehicle. Refusing disposable items makes a huge difference in helping keep landfills reasonable as well as keeping garbage out of the ocean.