Fri, May 29, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Welcome to Baoding, China’s most polluted city

In February, Baoding was given the unwanted title of possessing the worst air quality in the nation. The city is desperate to reinvent itself as a pioneer of renewable energy

By Jennifer Duggan  /  The Guardian, BAODING, China

PREMATURE DEATHS

Pollution has become a controversial topic in China in recent months. In March, a hard-hitting documentary, Under the Dome, outlining the gravity of the nation’s air pollution problem — which is estimated to cause the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people each year — went viral online. The hour-long film, directed by journalist Chai Jing (柴靜), has been compared to former US vice president Al Gore’s 2006 film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, and was viewed online more than 200 million times before being censored and removed.

Duan Chao, a doctor at a traditional Chinese medicine hospital in Baoding, said that he sees more patients during bouts of smog.

“More people come when the air is not good,” he said. “There are more patients with breathing difficulties, people with coughs.”

A traditional medicine called ban lan gen (板藍根) is used to treat respiratory illnesses when the smog is bad.

Duan said that awareness is rising in Baoding about air pollution. He takes a mask out of his pocket that he carries with him at all times.

While a number of people are spotted wearing face masks, they are generally flimsy and loose fitting, or are surgical masks, which offer little or no protection against most pollutants. In main cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, specialist face masks are widely on sale and many homes have air purifiers, but in Baoding, none of the people I interviewed had one at home.

The great irony here is that, in 2010, Baoding was named as a pilot of China’s new project to introduce low-carbon zones: an ambitious plan to use renewable energies to illuminate streets and heat residential buildings. As a result, the city has become a hub for renewable energy companies, including Yingli Solar, one of the world’s largest photovoltaic manufacturers.

Yingli is based in a massive industrial park less than 20 minutes drive from downtown Baoding. The complex seems to go on for miles, with solar panels lining the streets. A new building is under construction with walls made from solar panels; its slogan repeats Yingli’s mission to provide pollution-improving, affordable solar energy for all.

At Yingli, Ma Hongha, dressed in blue overalls, heads to start her shift with two of her colleagues.

“Many people in Baoding work in this industry,” Ma said, adding that it is important for the city’s economy.

She is reluctant to discuss the pollution, but acknowledges it has got worse since she was a child.

However, she adds: “Baoding is improving. More solar panels will mean the world will be cleaner.”

RENEWABLE ENERGY

The industrial area is also home to a number of manufacturers of blades for wind turbines, including Zhong Hang Huiteng Wind Power, one of the largest blade makers in the world. On the edge of the industrial park, turbine blades almost the length of a soccer pitch are loaded on to flatbed trucks for transportation. In total, about 170 companies related to renewable energy are located in Baoding.

Yet, still the mystery of the city’s pollution was unclear to me. The city does not have a high concentration of industrial plants around it; there are a lot of cars on the roads and car dealerships are plentiful, but that could not account for the high levels of pollution. Local residents did not seem to know, either, or were reluctant to discuss it, though some blamed the weather and pollution from neighboring cities.

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