The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

No ‘Shortcuts’ with Environmental Action

April 22, 2013

The other day I bought a magazine in Beijing called "Zhichang" (Workplace), which came with a "PM2.5 mask." I think this goes to show how concerned Beijing residents are about air pollution.

During my visit there in March, there were days when 200 to 300 micrograms of PM2.5 particulate matter per cubic meter were recorded. That is several times Japan's daily average safety limit of 35 micrograms. The entire city of Beijing was covered by haze.

Particulate matter in the atmosphere is believed to cause severe respiratory problems. PM2.5 is especially worrisome because these particulates are small enough to enter the capillaries and thereby tax the heart.

Air pollution is also severe in Shanghai, Chongqing and other major Chinese cities, not just Beijing. The levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) emitted by coal-fired power plants and steelworks, as well as of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from automobiles, rival the serious pollution levels Japan experienced during the early 1970s. China is suffering from a "department store" array of pollutants that have tainted not only the air, but also the water, soil and more as a consequence of rapid economic growth.

Over a period of 30 to 35 years, Japan set up legal frameworks and strengthened environmental standards to reduce levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and NOx. In spite of these efforts, PM2.5 standards were not established under Japan's basic environmental law until 2009. China is still at the initial stages of tackling sulfur dioxide (SO2) and NOx, but it was pushed into action when the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began publicizing PM2.5 readings, sparking widespread concern among residents.

China must spend more than it does now on environmental countermeasures. Japan is said to have spent at least 8 percent of gross domestic product on environmental measures in the early 1970s. Many Chinese officials realize that the country must spend an equivalent amount, but it currently only uses just over 2 percent.

Japan still offers China official development assistance (ODA) today in the form of technical cooperation. I think this framework should be used to bring as many Chinese experts to Japan as possible so they can see that there are no shortcuts when it comes to environmental action.

In discussions of what Japan can do to help China address environmental problems, many people jump to the conclusion that Japan should offer the latest environmental technology, but this in itself will not lead to a fundamental improvement. Japan's factories, automobiles and the like have improved their environmental friendliness one step at a time. Ultimately, the Chinese people themselves must awaken to the fact that their country cannot focus exclusively on economic growth, and steps must be taken by all segments of society.

There is now increasing concern in Japan, mainly in the western part of the country, over air pollution, but nothing compared to China. Japan should view the PM2.5 issue as a way of strengthening Sino-Japanese relations. Unlike historical or territorial issues, environmental problems can be examined objectively using scientific data, making them much easier to discuss. Bilateral cooperation on environmental issues is an opportunity Japan should not miss to become "better neighbors" with China. (This article was compiled from an interview by Shingo Takano.)

Reprinted, with permission, from the Asahi Shimbun's "Asia & Japan Watch" website.

    • Kenji Someno
    • Kenji Someno

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