The Paradox Of China — Rising Standards Of Living, More Pollution

By Alex Pankiewicz, Energy Ambassador

It was my childhood dream to visit the East, and I was finally given the opportunity this past summer. I worked in Wuhan, China, as an English teacher. I took frequent trips across the country, and truly enjoyed all of the delicious food, learning about the rich history, and meeting so many incredible people. I also tried to note the differences in the way of life, economics, political system, etc. What shook me the most was the tremendous amount of consumption and economic development in China. As a student studying chemistry and chemical engineering, my conscience on pollution, energy consumption and natural resources tends to be a more critical. Seeing all of this development started to connect the dots on the meaning of the energy industry and the environment, suggesting many of the energy and sustainability issues that my generation will have to face.

I observed that Chinese public transportation is much more developed and extensive than in the United States. If I wanted to travel to another city, I could do so, since the eastern side of China has a system of high-speed trains that reach speeds of up to 186 miles per hour. Imagine getting from Houston to Atlanta in five hours on a train. This is no fantasy in China, and it allows tourists, businessmen and families to travel seamlessly.

On one of my trips between Wuhan and Beijing, I traveled through Shaanxi, a province nicknamed the “Coal Belt” of China, which houses much of the country’s coal production and consumption. As I looked out the window, I expected the morning fog to clear but soon realized the thick gray mass wasn’t crisp morning dew, but carbon emissions from the nearby coal plants.

I felt compelled to look into the effects of this pollution. Numerous reports and research document the people in Shaanxi have a statistically higher occurrence of lung and stomach cancer due to the intensely polluted water and air. If current climate change deniers believe the crisis is not a result of human behavior, I urge them to consider a trip to northern China to experience the harm coal consumption causes. With China’s current political and economic agenda, this byproduct of economic development (water and air pollution) is largely overlooked and ignored.

After returning to Wuhan, I mentioned this to my coworkers, but they refused to talk about it. Under the current Chinese political system, questioning the government can be risky. Since energy policy and energy companies are controlled by the government, speaking out about pollution puts you at risk of trouble with the authorities. I managed to meet somebody working in the energy industry who was courageous enough to discuss this with me. From what I understood, China may seem to be trying to shift its largely coal-based economy to alternatives such as nuclear and hydroelectric, but coal is likely to remain a mainstay for the country’s energy consumption.

This results from a growing middle class and rising living standards. Many Chinese are putting in a lot of hard work to improve their socioeconomic status and moving into larger residences, buying vehicles and showing off designer brands. The malls looked more exclusive and the designer stores were endless. The advertisements were everywhere, and the shopping markets were filled with them. Rolex stores sit amidst the gambling in casinos. It’s as if all of the speculative gambling and movement of wealth was centered on materialism. And it was.

Alex Pankiewicz is a student at the University of Houston, majoring in chemical engineering and chemistry, with a minor in Energy & Sustainability. His research involves working with catalyst composition to improve environmental outcomes.

UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.

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