Air pollution in Beijing has been the subject of wide discussion recently because of the unprecedented low quality of the air. The authorities have asked the population to keep their outdoor activities to a minimum, but more consistent policies need to be implemented. This is not the first time Chinese cities have been blamed for their poor air quality, but this issue has become recurrent and poses a threat to the global ambitions of Chinese cities.
The causes of pollution are many: the continuing use of coal as a major source of energy, the increasing car traffic, the presence of factories near cities and insufficient pollution regulations and enforcement.
The authorities should take this problem seriously. Pollution not only affects the health of urban inhabitants – which is already a major reason to find a solution – but it also limits the capacity for China’s large cities to become global. Chinese cities are now facing the challenge of becoming post-modern, and evolving from industrial centres to service-oriented hubs, following the modal of global cities.
Global cities are not, of course, immune to the problem of pollution. In 2006, rampant forest fires in Indonesia created high pollution levels in Singapore. Since then, the city-state has regularly suffered from smoky haze, especially during the monsoon season. This causes economic losses for Singapore in the form of medical treatments, lost workdays and a weakened tourism and airline sector However, unlike Singapore, which has no control over Indonesian forests, China can take the necessary decisions to reduce pollution.
Pollution could reduce the potential of the contribution of infrastructures in Chinese cities towards their transformation into global hubs. As a result of air pollution and poor visibility, several flights were cancelled last month at Beijing Capital airport. If such incidents occur regularly, large Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai will lose their infrastructural lead in China and Asia. Their transportation infrastructures will not be considered reliable, and international companies will prefer to move their activities to cleaner and less risky cities. Businesses need stability for their development and pollution impedes this development.
Global cities are also characterized by their attractiveness to visitors and workers. New York, London and Hong Kong are pulsing cities that tourists enjoy visiting. However, pollution can damage a city’s image. China is well aware of the fact that pollution puts off tourists; that is why restrictive policies were implemented during the Olympic Games, so that international visitors could enjoy the blue sky in Beijing. If China does not solve her pollution problem, Chinese cities will have little chance of becoming international tourism hotspots.
Another important issue related to air pollution is the matter of the workplace for the middles classes. Knowledge workers are not static. Cities have entered a new, postmodern era where the mobility of knowledge workers is very high. As a consequence, cities need to attract the brightest workers in order to become truly global. Safety, education, entertainment and environment are key elements for attracting and retaining company headquarters and high-income employees. How can Beijing expect to attract Chinese and international talent if the “welcome package” includes grey skies and the prospect of lung cancer?
Although stricter environmental regulations may reduce economic growth in the short term and increase discontent among the new consumer classes, green policies would help China’s leading cities to develop their services sector and thus increase their competitiveness as global cities.